Democratising Education for All

  • Students with graduation

It goes without saying that education is close to Sunway’s founder and chairman Tan Sri Sir Jeffrey Cheah’s heart.

Having witnessed how poverty deprived his friends of educational opportunities during his childhood, Cheah made it his goal to make quality education accessible to everyone irrespective of their background.

When Sunway’s first educational institution, Sunway College, began making profit, investment bankers tried to convince Cheah to list Sunway Education Group (SEG) – the education arm of Sunway – on Bursa Malaysia, as they had estimated a public listing worth several billion ringgit then.

Instead of pursuing profits, Cheah took the high road, staying true to his conviction that education should be a not-for-profit initiative.

He started the Sunway Education Trust Fund in 1997. Cheah transferred his equity and personal shares to Sunway Education Group, estimated to be worth several billion Ringgit by bankers, to establish the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) in 2010. Over the past decade, JCF has bridged the gap for thousands of students, disbursing more than RM570 million worth of scholarships and grants to students nationwide.

Cheah’s aspiration to democratise education for all resonates with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN-SDG) No. 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Bridging education inequality

Education inequity took on a new form in Malaysia during the pandemic, as online learning became the norm.

Unable to afford digital devices and internet subscription packages, more than a third of the 900,000 students surveyed by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education lacked digital devices to access online classes in 2020.

In response, Sunway sponsored seven laptops and one year’s free WIFI for 230 children in orphanages in Perak during the CNY Cheer programme in 2021.

Wide shot of children at The Salvation Army Boys Home

Beneficiaries at The Salvation Army Boys Home during Chinese New Year 2021 programme

The sponsorship was part of the Sunway L.I.N.E (Learn. Innovate. Nurture. Evolve.) initiative, which aims to create learning opportunities for children in the B40 communities by equipping them with computer access and computer literacy training.

Another of Sunway’s key CSR initiatives is the annual Sunway GOLD Job Training Programme, organised in partnership with social enterprise GOLD (Generating Opportunities for Learning Disables) and SMK Bandar Sunway.

The job placement and social inclusion programme provides hands-on prevocational and life skills training to students from the B40 community, as well as students with learning disabilities from SMK Bandar Sunway.

Since 2016, 80% out of the 151 trained graduates have been employed. Sunway also promotes literacy through Sunway READ (Reading Enhances Aspiration and Drive), where the company pledges to build and refurbish 50 libraries by 2024.

In 2020, Sunway collaborated with local NGO Friends to Mankind and community group MyPJ to launch a community library at the Desa Mentari apartments in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. Catering to the B40 community, the initiative also involved Sunway donating RM10,000 and more than 2,000 books from Sunwayians nationwide.

Meanwhile, Sunway’s Back-to-School Programme ensures B40 students are equipped with schooling necessities so that they are well-prepared to learn in the new academic year.

Raising the bar of education

Established in 2014, Sunway-Oxbridge essay competition is one of JCF’s annual community CSR initiatives and part of the Sunway English Language Development Programme that was introduced to address the challenges of learning English in the national school curriculum and improve English-speaking proficiency.

Group shot of Sunway-Oxbridge essay competition winners

Jointly organised by Sunway, the Oxford & Cambridge Society Malaysia, JCF and Sunway University, the competition grants winners cash prizes and Sunway bursaries, to encourage the development of critical thinking skills and give students a leg up in pursuing a tertiary education.

Recognising that quality education goes beyond academics, the Sunway SILK (Seeding Inspiration and Leadership via Knowledge) urban farming initiative was introduced in SMK Bandar Sunway in 2019.

Sunway SILK equips academically low-performing students with leadership, entrepreneurial and technical skills to explore agriculture as a sustainable career option; it also provides Sunway volunteers the opportunity to engage with the local community in a meaningful manner.

Harnessing partnerships for world-class education

Having established JCF, which was modelled after Harvard University’s founder John Harvard’s endowment more than 400 years ago, Cheah’s long-term ambition is to make Sunway University ‘the Harvard or Cambridge of the East’.

In the spirit of cross-collaboration and lifelong learning, Sunway has forged partnerships with top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, and Harvard as well as University California, Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

Scholarships and grants such as the Jeffrey Cheah Travel Grant, the Jeffrey Cheah Visiting Professorship, the Jeffrey Cheah Professorship Funds for Southeast Asia Studies, and the Jeffrey Cheah Professorial Fellowships offer Malaysians the opportunity to learn from the brightest minds in the world’s leading universities.

The appointments of the Jeffrey Cheah distinguished professors, for instance, allow eminent scholars and experts to share their knowledge and expertise with Malaysian academics, students, and the public.

The Jeffrey Cheah Travel Grant enables two-way flow of scholars and researchers between Harvard University and SEG, strengthening Malaysia as a centre for educational and research excellence in the study of Southeast Asia.

In 2016, the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development was established at Sunway University, borne out of a US$10 million gift from JCF to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN-SDSN). The centre serves as the regional centre of excellence to advance the UN-SDGs through education, training, research, and policy advisory. In 2021, JCF pledged another US$10 mil to establish the Asia headquarters of the UN-SDSN at Sunway University. This is one of three global centres, based at Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, along with New York City and Paris to coordinate continent-wide sustainability initiatives.

Ultimately, sustainable development is the end goal of Sunway’s CSR efforts.

In conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the JCF in 2020, Cheah announced JCF’s plans to launch an endowment fund with a target of more than RM1 billion, to enable the foundation to expand its contributions towards nation-building through initiatives in quality education, world-class research, and sustainable development in perpetuity.

“Personally, what I want is to build a sustainable future for the next generation to continue to excel and contribute to a progressive and prosperous society. Entrepreneurship, quality education, philanthropy and sustainability are the avenues towards reaching my goal,” said Cheah.


This article first appeared in Berita Sunway Issue 74

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