Sunway Group’s Sarena Cheah shares her exemplary vision to serve Malaysia’s communities

Taking cues from her father, Sunway Group’s visionary founder Jeffrey, Sarena Cheah is deploying a collaborative, sustainable philosophy to elevate one of Malaysia’s biggest developers

“We want to create resilient and thriving communities where everyone can live, learn, work and play in healthy and connected environments.”

Consumer preferences in real estate are undergoing a profound shift amidst the global pandemic, according to Sarena Cheah, the managing director of Sunway Group, one of Malaysia’s largest conglomerates.

With work-from-home arrangements increasingly common, an intensified focus on wellbeing and safety, and fast-changing demographics, especially in Malaysia, real estate developers must adjust their approach if they want to meet the rapidly evolving demands of the new marketplace, she says.

Sunway has a vast range of commercial interests in real estate, construction, tourism, retail, healthcare and education, among other sectors. The company’s innovative master community developments create integrated and sustainable cities and communities while embracing a unique “Build-Own-Operate” strategy. Cheah is heavily involved in the company’s property developments.

Her father, Jeffrey Cheah, founded Sunway in 1974 and remains active in its day-to-day operations as the Group’s chairman. The younger Cheah launched her career with Sunway in the late 1990s and witnessed first-hand the formidable challenges wrought by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98.

The company, she says, is fundamentally much stronger today in terms of its balance sheet, employee talent, infrastructure and overall stability. Its top leaders—including Cheah and her father—are also able to leverage their experience, having guided Sunway through previous stretches of economic turbulence to navigate the current cycle

We view our relationship with our customers not as something that ends at the building or selling of homes. Rather, our care for their health and wellbeing extends throughout their lives

“The imperative is for us to stick to our core values and organisational purpose, act fast to protect and preserve our people and ecosystems, and do all that’s necessary to ensure financial survival and sustainability,” she says.

The company has also taken steps to expand its footprint internationally, with major projects in China, Singapore and the UK—all locations where Sunway intends to seek more opportunities in the future, says Cheah.

“We view our relationship with our customers not as something that ends at the building or selling of homes. Rather, our care for their health and wellbeing extends throughout their lives,” she says.

“Most importantly, we want to create resilient and thriving communities where everyone can live, learn, work and play in healthy and connected environments.”

With a gross development value of more than MYR30 billion over 1,800 acres of land, Sunway Iskandar in Johor is Sunway’s largest township

How is the pandemic impacting your projects currently under development?

While the lockdowns have affected the progress of some of our ongoing projects, the delays have largely been manageable. We do not anticipate severe financial impact, especially with the passing in Malaysia of the Temporary Measures for Reducing the Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Bill.

Exercising prudence, we have delayed some of our launches, aligning them with the current macroeconomic landscape. We have realigned our launches from a gross development value (GDV) of MYR3.5 billion ($863m) to MYR2.2 billion ($542m)—which would still be a record year for us. Most of our launches this year are in Singapore. Our current unbilled sales stand at MYR3.1 billion ($764m) as of June 2020.

Sunway has a vast portfolio. What segments of the business are you personally most interested in?

Yes, Sunway is a conglomerate with many businesses, built organically over the past four decades, guided by our Chairman’s vision. All the businesses operate in synergy with each other and together form an ecosystem for communities to grow and thrive.

I like to describe us as a “living community” serving another “living community.”I currently spend a majority of my time in the property development division, and my vision for this division is not merely to operate as a developer of real estate but as a developer of communities. In this regard, we take a long-term view in all that we do and work to deliver value and a better future for the communities we create and serve.

What is the appeal of the “Build-Own-Operate” model?

The Build-Own-Operate model is the cornerstone of our Master Community Developer strategy. By continuing to own and operate substantial investment properties in our developments, we become co-investors with our property purchasers, ensuring them that our interests are aligned and that we have the long-term good of the communities at heart.

Owning substantial parts of a development also allows us the opportunity to continuously help communities in our developments thrive through activities organised by our various businesses. The next step for us is to transform each of our townships into “living labs,” where everyone can come together with us to innovate solutions for our future.

A recent example is our Sunway FutureX Farm in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. This is the first urban farm innovation hub in Malaysia that we have invested in, in partnership with Sunway Innovation Labs (Sunway iLabs). It has indoor and outdoor farming areas, a research and development centre, training and collaborative spaces as well as a café.

We envision Sunway FutureX Farm as a space where our researchers, government bodies, entrepreneurs and communities can come together to develop next-generation smart-farming solutions so that we can utilise underused urban spaces for agriculture in our townships and developments.

Located just 3.8 kilometres from KLCC, Sunway velocity two is one of Sunway property’s latest developments and is surrounded by an array of urban conveniences for the residents to enjoy

Your townships and integrated developments have helped to transform the landscape in Malaysia. Where do you see innovation coming from in the years ahead?

In the past decade, we invested in digital technology that will drive our efficiency and productivity, including robotic automation, e-procurement and migration to the cloud. We also started integrating technology to ensure better customer outcomes. We will continue to invest in these to remain agile and competitive.

Our business units are also expanding into virtual products and services. For example, our healthcare unit launched telehealth services, while our retail division launched a digital retail component.

The next leap forward is the adoption of 5G technology. At 100 times faster than 4G’s speed, we can effectively game-change how we operate, transact and perform our daily activities. We have recently teamed up with Celcom Axiata, one of the largest mobile operators in Malaysia, and Huawei, one of the largest telecommunications equipment and smartphone manufacturers in the world. Together, we will testbed and launch next-generation urban solutions in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur.

In the pipeline we have enhanced remote education that leverages facial recognition and artificial intelligence, blockchain technology that will be used for transparency and authenticity of academic certificates delivered to university students, driverless buses, and the expansion of telehealth capabilities utilising drone delivery for medicine.

Sustainability is increasingly an important factor in developments. In what ways is Sunway trying to be a leader in this sphere?

We have embraced the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and adopted its principles wherever we can. All three of our townships—Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, Sunway City Ipoh, and Sunway Iskandar—include up to about 40% green and blue spaces.

Sunway City Kuala Lumpur is our testbed for new ideas and innovations, where we will first adopt new township solutions before replicating them in our townships and developments. We have incorporated elements like solar panels across public walkways, rainwater harvesting systems, a water treatment plant and waste management systems to make our township more sustainable. We have even co-invested with the government to build public transportation connectivity using electric buses, aligned across our township to provide residents and visitors convenience and connectivity.

Years ago we built a water treatment plant using water from one of the lakes in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur. The water is treated using a hybrid of ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis processes to meet the quality standards of potable drinking water, and it is supplied to all Sunway’s commercial assets located in the area.

During a water disruption in September that affected 1.2 million consumer accounts, businesses in commercial assets in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur were undisrupted and could operate as usual. All our hotels, restaurants, universities and a mall that included hundreds of tenants were assured of a safe supply of water during that period.

We believe we can do well by doing good—the core tenet of sustainability.

This original version of this article appeared in Issue No. 164 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine