Malaysia is proud to have been selected to hold the world-renowned international conference discussing global health and community development where scientists, policymakers, the private sector, educators, and concerned planetary citizens will convene. Sunway Education Group secured the privilege of hosting the Planetary Health Summit 2024 after its success in Boston for PHAM 2022.
The event taking place in April 2024 will see Sunway University playing an essential role not only as the official venue but also for international delegates to convene and share insights on planetary health from various aspects of governance. Sunway Education Group Chief Executive Officer, Professor Dato’ Elizabeth Lee and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Engagement and Impact) Professor Mahendhiran were utterly ecstatic at the university hosting such a prestige event that resonates with the education group’s philosophy and belief.
Not many are aware, but Sunway University plays host to the regions United Nations Sustainable Development Goals office. According to Professor Dato’ Elizabeth Lee it was the vision of the chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah who enabled the setting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network to be headquartered in Malaysia. This forward-thinking notion of sustainability has helped Sunway University become the foremost varsity when it comes to planetary health, in fact, it’s the vision that led to the formation of the Planetary Heath Centre led by Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood.
The university’s core philosophy was shaped mostly by its chairman and his deep belief in sustainability, Professor Dato’ Elizabeth Lee referred to him as Mr. Sustainability and there is a clear reason why. The transformation of Sunway township is a massive sustainability story by itself, turning a wasteland into a wonderland is no small feat, it takes guts, belief, and an undeterred vision. Professor Dato’ Elizabeth Lee recalls, “When we first moved here, I remember quite clearly the land was very barren, a dead land. But today, because of the great work done to not only keep the township liveable but also care taken to green the surrounding area where once desolate a new ecosystem thrives. You can literally walk around and, in his words (referring to Tan Sri) if you scoop up the Earth now you can find earthworms. It’s the belief that nature must play a big role in everything we do, that inspired the Chairman, and he instills this across his business including for the education.
Professor Dato’ Elizabeth Lee weighs in “Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah was very kind and very philanthropic, to have placed the education group entirely into the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, which enables us to do so much more. And to grow the education and to grow the whole ethos of what Sunway education is all about, whether it’s sustainability, planetary health”. The idea is to educate the young people, and they can go out and educate the rest of the people whom they come in touch with. The little ripples that Sunway University is creating here will become a wave out there, to champion sustainability, and planetary health, through the young people.
Embracing Sustainability Unconditionally
The discussion on environment and climate change has been ongoing for decades, the rhetoric needs to change to actionable plans. Although we are appreciative that progress is being made, the question is why it has taken this long.
BusinessToday discussed with Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Mahendhiran who is a trained econometrician, assesses the impact of various policies, and programs on economic development at the macro level and the micro level, a lot of his work has been related to sustainable development, and more recently work on planetary health, and how we human beings, our economic development, our societal impact on the planet, and particularly the environment.
According to him, over many years, Malaysia and many developing countries have grown significantly from an economic perspective, and this has an impact on the environment. “With climate change, there’s a big discussion on the role of humans on the environment. The forces that have an impact on the climate system, and one of the big forces, are human beings themselves! Everything that we do economically has an impact on the environment and that’s having an adverse impact on the environment. It’s time to reassess the way we conduct ourselves in every facet of our life.”
As startling as that may seem, the truth is human activities over the century have largely contributed to the degradation of our environment that has led to climate change. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, among the harmful causes are greenhouse gas emissions through industrial manufacturing, deforestation for agriculture, energy production, and transportation. While most of these activities cannot be completely stopped, mitigation efforts are underway with world leaders agreeing to come together and find ways to halt the impact and next to reverse it.
Here in Malaysia discussions are already under with the government setting the target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. While the policymakers set goals and outline policies, there must be strong communication in mindset change, as to achieve the goals we must act as a whole nation. Sunway University has been imparting valuable lessons on the environment early on, according to Professor Mahendhiran the visionary leader of Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, saw from early on adopting the 17 SDGs where he believed economic development needs to be incorporated the environment and that it is not a zero-sum game.“What is the best way to know, inform, to educate people on sustainable development than to teach the next generation? So, there is considered effort to ensure that sustainable development becomes core to our education, research, and also engagement with the community.”Getting an education is not only about the qualification but other key values as well, essentially on sustainable development, and planetary health, which are incorporated in every course at the university, Professor Mahendhiran adds. Sunway University is not only about education it is also preparing the students beyond the campus realm, arming them with entrepreneurial skills. Professor Mahendhiran quips, “At the end of the day, to have a vibrant ecosystem, you need to have a vibrant, entrepreneurial acumen and mindset, the whole Sunway ecosystem has emerged an entrepreneurial insight.”
Concerns For Planetary Health
With both the Sustainable Development Sustainable Solutions Network and The Jeffrey Sachs Centre of Excellence housed within the Sunway University and now the Planetary Health Centre, students and educators are constantly engaged and attuned with studies on the environment, sustainability, climate change, and planetary health. These pioneering institutions and increased student community engagements have led to Sunway being acclaimed as the nation’s #campuswithaconscience.
These centers are not only for research, but they’re also undertaking research-inspired teaching and learning. Professor Mahendhiran said there’s a lot of advocacy work with policymakers, helping the government develop policies, in fact, Sunway University is currently developing the planetary health action plan for the Malaysian Government. In the past, when we mentioned top centres of research and educational excellence, you probably would say, a university in an OECD country. But today nations around Southeast Asia including Malaysia are developing solutions for the developing world, for example, solutions that come out from the Sunway ecosystem are now getting published in top journals. In fact, in the recent Stanford University Ranking, Sunway School of Engineering and Technology achieved the highest number of top 2% Researchers than any other private universities.
Professor Mahendhiran adds, “Sunway University is committed to nurturing the next generation leaders that know what it takes to build sustainable development agenda. winnable means in solving problems of climate change, designing better agricultural products, and systems that will meet the needs of people.