Datuk Ong 2

An amazing race, with details revealed at every station. That’s what life is like for Datuk Edward Ong, the developer behind the Sutera Harbour Resort in Sabah, East Malaysia.

The maverick businessman’s acumen has been widely lauded but he prefers to believe he just happens to be on a supernatural track. “You do not know the complete journey at the start,” he says. “You just have to do the best and leave God to do the rest.”

Fete Datuk Ong for being fearless in faith or fault him for being foolishly stubborn. He is not fazed by either assessment.

“You do not know the complete journey at the start. You just have to do the best and leave God to do the rest.”

“People don’t step out because they want assurance,” he will have you know. “Many expect everything to be there before starting out, but that’s not faith. As you step forth, God will provide. If you don’t step out, but worry about the problems and focus on the giants in your life, there’s nothing for you to start on.”

His own starting point is Matthew 6:33: “Seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” It’s precisely how he calculates his returns on investment (ROI), with an eye decidedly on the first part of the verse.

Even when it may not make conventional business sense, God’s will is the bottom line for all his projects. That’s easy to do, because his business strategies are a direct download from the throne room of God, he says.

“I don’t choose the projects, God does. When it’s God’s calling, you just know deep down.

“But yet at the same time, you aren’t entirely sure – because faith is the substance of the things hoped for but not seen (Hebrews 11:1). In the faith journey, it is the peace of God that helps me differentiate His wisdom from my stupidity and craziness.”

“I don’t choose the projects, God does.”

Uncharted waters

Call him a contrarian or just plain crazy, he goes to places where no businessman would tread. His life took a different turn when he came to Christ at 40, and he has never looked back. 

Having divested his investments, he was preparing for an early retirement at 45 when he felt God leading him to Sabah in 1993. A year later, he started work on the now-famed Sutera. 

In that era of the early 1990s, however, the state of Sabah was hardly on any businessman’s radar. “It was very backward then. At that time, Malaysia was chalking up an overall GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth of 13.5%, but Sabah only managed a 2.8%.

“People thought I was crazy to venture there, but I felt God leading me on the faith journey.”

It was a foray that both made and broke him.

Today, the 384 acre five-star resort is touted as Malaysia’s premier integrated tourism resort. It bears no scars from the tumultuous Asian Financial Crisis that rocked the region in 1997. But the iconic development plunged Datuk Ong into a multi-million-dollar debt.

He is stoical: “I took 15 years to solve the Sutera Harbour financial difficulty. But 15 years is 3.5 minutes in God’s timing. When I look at it from that dimension, people say that I am naïve, but God brought me through. That’s the important thing.”

The Sutera Harbour Resort was sold to Singapore Exchange-listed property developer GSH Corp in 2014.

By then, the Datuk’s path had already meandered into other uncharted territories. To him, “success without purpose is life without meaning”, and he can currently be found in Timor-Leste, otherwise known as East Timor.

Beauty for ashes

The country was established as a sovereign state in 2002. Previously occupied by Indonesia, it was torn by years of civil war. On the world map, it is part of Southeast Asia.

At age 60, despite entertaining thoughts of retirement, Datuk Ong felt challenged to invest in Timor-Leste. He had heard about the country from pastors and missionaries, and spent three years praying on and off about it. Finally, in 2008, he felt compelled to at least visit the country.

The signing ceremony for the development of Pelican Paradise with Xanana Gusmão, President of Timor Leste, October 2008.

That year, Timor-Leste was still reeling from the many years of civil unrest. “I told the Prime Minister, my work in East Timor is a divine calling. If it’s for business, I won’t be here, and he agrees with me. I know God wants us to give beauty for ashes.”

“I told the Prime Minister, my work in Timor-Leste is a divine calling. I know God wants us to give beauty for ashes.”

Within the year, after receiving more signs from God to go ahead, Datuk Ong signed an agreement with the Timor-Leste government to allow for the development of a tourist resort.

Several political upheavals in the interim meant that his building plans were left stuck on the drawing board for a decade. Datuk Ong only received the final go-ahead to build Pelican Paradise in January 2018.

“Many people discouraged me from going to Timor Leste and building Sutera Harbour Resort with good worldly intention, but I know that it’s God’s calling.

“People are in disbelief at how my development plans in Timor-Leste were delayed for 10 years. Any businessman would have given up in less than two years. Even my colleagues did not expect me to wait it out. Yet I did and that’s only by the grace of God.”

God’s timeline

Datuk Ong’s wait has not been in vain. Over the decade, his investment in East Timor has become a more attractive proposition. The improved infrastructure in the nation had sent land values up but lowered business costs as well. The government is also now more keen on business investments as national income from oil, the main export, has declined. 

Pelican Paradise Timor-Leste Investor Certificate Ceremony, 18 January 2018

He attributes this favourable situation to Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in His time.”

Faith unleashes potential

Datuk Ong says the unction from heaven is not exclusive to him, but for all to appropriate and own. “God will always give man vision, but the vision and potential can only be realised when we step out in faith.

“Obedience is a very difficult journey, but God brings you through. That’s how you can increase your faith levels. If you are not obedient, how will you increase your faith levels?  

“When you share your vision, people may say that you are mad. On the other hand, when people are able to understand, you may not feel the need for God. But when you are walking on the supernatural track, you beg for God’s presence.”

And that is the exactly where Datuk wants to be: in the centre of God’s will and presence.

About the author

Karen Tan

Karen was a producer at Asia Business News (Singapore), Bloomberg News and CNBC Asia. She subsequently joined the Far East Organisation to oversee corporate social responsibility. Karen is now Associate Editor at Salt&Light.