“God’s redeeming love can turn desolation into paradise”: Singaporean developer builds five-star resort on Timor-Leste sewage site

As LoveTimor marks its 20th anniversary this year, Salt&Light shines a spotlight on the Singaporeans who have answered the call to serve in the nation of Timor-Leste.

by Gracia Lee // April 11, 2024, 5:42 pm

Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (in blue) with Datuk Edward Ong (second from right) at the Pelican Paradise office in Timor-Leste during the former's visit in July 2023. All photos courtesy of Datuk Edward Ong.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (in blue) with Datuk Edward Ong (second from right) at the Pelican Paradise office in Timor-Leste during the former's visit in July 2023. All photos courtesy of Datuk Edward Ong.

Datuk Edward Ong, best known as the founder of the Sutera Harbour Resort, was beginning to think about retirement when God nudged him out of his comfort zone through a video shown at his church.

The video highlighted LoveTimor, a movement started by the late Pastor Rick Seaward, then the Chairman of LoveSingapore, to help catalyse a national transformation in Asia’s youngest nation of Timor-Leste, which at the time had half of its population living under the poverty line.

Timor-Leste had been a Portuguese colony from 1702 to 1975 before suffering through a bloody Indonesian occupation until 1999. It gained independence in May 2002. 

The video, and the burden it left on Datuk Ong’s heart, stuck firmly with him for three years – until he decided to respond, setting him on a path that saw his faith tested, and refined, as he walked in obedience to God.

Today Datuk Ong, at 76, is developing Pelican Paradise Resort, Timor-Leste’s first five-star hotel that, when it’s completed, will boast 300 rooms and 10 beachfront villas, as well as specialty dining outlets, a 1,000-seat ballroom and a 50m infinity lap pool.

When Pelican Paradise Resort is ready, it will be Timor-Leste’s first five-star hotel.

He hopes to use the resort as a platform to engage, employ and train the next generation in Timor-Leste, which has a significant youth unemployment rate, and show them by example that blessings follow whenever we obey God.

For LoveTimor’s 20th anniversary this year, Datuk Ong recounts his story of how God called him to Timor-Leste, refined his faith through an agonising 14-year wait and gave him a vision of turning desolation into paradise.

Called out of the comfort zone

I first heard about Timor-Leste in 2005 when Pastor Eugene Seow (the Leadership Mentor of LoveTimor) preached at Skyline SIB in Kota Kinabalu, where I was running Sutera Harbour Resort at the time.

He played the first LoveTimor video which highlighted the struggles and history of the first new nation of the 21st century.

A divine stirring took root in my heart as I encountered the plight of Timor-Leste through the lens of that compelling video.

For the next three years, I carried a heavy burden for Timor-Leste. Each time I watched that video and prayed, I would break down and cry. 

In 2008, the Holy Spirit finally convinced me that I had to visit the country for myself. 

Each time I watched that video on Timor-Leste and prayed, I would break down and cry. 

However, it was not an easy decision for me to go. At the time, I was very comfortable in Kota Kinabalu.

I was then the sole owner and operator of Sutera Harbour Resort. (I later sold a majority stake of the resort to GSH Corp in 2014.) My life was already busy, interesting, challenging and fulfilling enough.

At almost 60 years old then, I was also starting to think about retirement. But God always stirs you up when you are in your comfort zone.

In January 2008, I met up with Pastor Eugene and told him that we had to visit Timor-Leste that May. I felt in my spirit that it was the kairos time.

The words of Jeremiah 33:3 echoed in my heart as I made the firm decision to go: “Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

However, one month later on February 11, 2008, chaos erupted in the country after an assassination attempt was made on then-President of Timor-Leste, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta. He was severely injured but recovered.

Pastor Eugene asked me if we should still push forward with our visit. Despite the prevailing challenges and safety concerns, we clung to the assurance of God’s providence and protection.

God doesn’t play by earthly rules

So in May 2008, I made my first trip to Timor-Leste with a team of core pastors from Singapore under the LoveTimor vision.

The country was in shambles when I arrived. There was a large camp of displaced people right outside the airport, and many other such camps dotted the capital, Dili. Electricity was unstable. Internet connectivity was poor. The city had no clean piped water. Restaurants were few and far between.

“The country was in shambles when I arrived,” recalled Datuk Ong of his first visit to Dili.

Initially, the plan was for me to see how I could invest in the agriculture sector.

We soon learnt that God does not play by the rulebook of economic measures and data!

At the time, it was generally assumed that no one would invest heavily in the tourism sector as Timor-Leste was a young country still in the fetal stages of nation-building.

By global standards of economic measures and data, this was not the right time to propose a visionary hotel project for Timor-Leste.

However, we soon learnt that God does not play by the rulebook of economic measures and data!

As we explored Timor-Leste, we were inspired by the Holy Spirit to develop a luxury hotel in the country as it would allow us to engage and train many locals. At the same time, I thought that investing a large sum into an unknown place would encourage other investors to do the same.

Though we had no meetings with any government ministers lined up, God orchestrated divine encounters that defied human understanding.

Datuk Ong in the Pelican Paradise Office with leaders of Timor-Leste: (From left) Prime Minister His Excellency Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, President His Excellency Dr José Ramos-Horta and His Eminence Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, Archbishop of Dili.

A door opened for me to meet with the then-Prime Minister, His Excellency Xanana Gusmao, and seven other ministers. In these meetings, we were led by the Holy Spirit to commit to invest US$250 million to build the nation’s first five-star hotel with an 18-hole golf course.

I remember the Prime Minister joking that the country already had a lot of “golf courses”. One just needs to take a golf club and ball and play on the roads which were full of holes!

From desolation to paradise

The following day, the National Director for the Ministry of Tourism took me to visit numerous sites with beautiful white sand beaches. As beautiful as they were, I felt no inspiration from the Holy Spirit to select those sites.

The site that the Holy Spirit impressed on Datuk Ong’s heart to build his five-star resort on.

In search of more sites, we drove west of Dili International Airport until we reached the area known as Tasi Tolu (which literally means “three lakes”) and Tibar. 

God allowed me to see beyond the physical decay and envision a place of beauty and restoration.

At Tibar, I got out of the car at an empty plot of land. As I stood at the site, I began to cry. I didn’t understand why.

As I looked up and saw the hills to the south of the site, Psalm 121 came immediately to me: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

With that, I instinctively knew that this was the site that I was to choose.

On the way to Timor-Leste, I had stayed in Room 121 at a hotel in Bali, where we transited, and the Holy Spirit had told me then that Psalm 121 would be a source of inspiration to me on this venture.

After telling the team that this was my chosen site, Pastor Eugene asked if I was sure.

An artist’s impression of Pelican Paradise on the beach front.

The site was literally a cesspool. It had three sewage ponds, each the size of an Olympic pool, where the city’s waste was dumped.

However, God allowed me to see beyond the physical decay and envision a place of beauty and restoration.

It was a revelation that spoke to the transformative power of God’s redeeming love – a love that can turn desolation into paradise. 

Named by God

When I returned to Singapore from that trip, I had to set up a special purpose vehicle company to undertake the project.

God allowed me to see beyond the physical decay and envision a place of beauty and restoration.

I looked at a list of available company names and was drawn to Pelican Paradise because the logo of Sutera Harbour Resort was also that of a bird – the bird of paradise.

I didn’t think further about it and just registered Pelican Paradise Group as the company. 

By November 2008, I signed the Project Agreement between Pelican Paradise and the Government of Timor-Leste to develop a mixed-use township project in Tasi Tolu and Tibar.

Spanning 556 hectares (more than 1,000 football fields), the project included a hotel, golf course, marina and business park, among other components. 

I began visiting Timor-Leste monthly after that to oversee the development. In February 2009, when we were driving around the three lakes in Tasi Tolu, which form the central vantage point for the development, we noticed there were large birds swimming in the lakes.

The 33 pelicans that were spotted swimming on Tasi Tolu when Datuk Ong was being driven by his associate named Jeremiah.

On closer look, we were amazed to see that they were pelicans! My civil and structural engineer, Eng Seow, counted that there were 33 pelicans across the three lakes. More amazingly, I was being driven around by my associate by the name of Jeremiah.

I knew that God was confirming His promise of Jeremiah 33:3, which He had given to me before I went on my first trip to Timor-Leste, to assure me that I was moving in the right direction.

When God’s way is not smooth

One would think that with such a miraculous start to the development, everything would be smooth-sailing.

But it was only 14 years later that we managed to begin construction, and we had to hold firm to our faith as we experienced obstacles and setbacks.

The sewage ponds took three-and-a-half years to be decommissioned. The masterplan had to be changed due to a new highway development, which removed certain parcels of land. The initial plan to build the entire project in one single phase had to be abandoned because of the difficulty in moving occupants from the development site.

Datuk Ong (in black suit) with Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (in blue) during the Minister’s visit to the Pelican Paradise office in July 2023.

Over that period, we dealt with five different governments. With each government change came the need to re-explain and resubmit the plans right from the beginning. Then there was also the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When you follow His way, He never abandons you. And He proved Himself faithful again.

In those 14 years of waiting, I was also informed many times by other businessmen in Timor-Leste that my style of doing business, which I call “the unashamedly ethical way”, was not going to get me anywhere.

However, I am very sure that if we want to be a blessing to the nation, we must conduct business ethically.

One of the things we do not do is pay bribes. If you do things God’s way, then the battle belongs to the Lord. When I was building Sutera Habour the same way, I experienced God’s faithfulness. When you follow His way, He never abandons you. And He proved Himself faithful again.

By His grace, we finally signed the papers to enable the project to start on January 3, 2022. In November that same year, we did the groundbreaking ceremony.

We are currently completing the construction of the show unit and gallery. Next to be built will be the 314-room Paradise Resort and the 228-unit service apartments named The Aery. We hope to open the resort in 2027.

Datuk Ong with his daughter, Elaine, CEO of Pelican Paradise Group, during the award ceremony.

I won’t make it seem like those 14 years were smooth-sailing.

Many times, I wanted to give up and questioned if I had heard correctly from the Lord. I thought: “Why would God ask me to do something and not make the process smooth?”

But God has His own plan. When we look back at the pandemic, we are so blessed that we didn’t start work six years ago, or else we’d be in financial trouble today.

His time is not our time. Fourteen years is like two-and-a-half minutes of God’s timing. His one day is our 1,000 years.

Datuk Ong, with his granddaughter, Alisa, on site at the Show Unit Gallery slated to be ready this June.

I learnt that God sent me to Timor-Leste not to change the country. He sent me there to change me from glory to glory.

I am the most impatient person, so God taught me to wait 14 years. And I think God succeeded.

I’m more patient now and I’ve also learnt that whatever I do, I have to follow God’s timing. He makes all things beautiful in His time.

A vision for the next generation

In Timor-Leste, about 30% of young adults are not involved in employment, education or training.

When Pelican Paradise is up and running, we hope to engage and train up this next generation of Timorese people in integrity, excellence and creativity. 

We have about 50 Timorese staff right now. We see that they are teachable. They are hungry. They want to learn. That’s where the soil is very fertile for us.

I want them to see that when we hold fast to God’s Word, He will defend you and never let you down.

Our first phase will employ about 1,200 people in hospitality, and we hope that 95% of them will be local.

I hope that with Pelican Paradise, people will be able to come into an environment that’s a paradise – heaven on earth – for people to witness God’s principles. I want them to see that when we hold fast to God’s Word, He will defend you and never let you down.

As we stand on the brink of realising the vision of Pelican Paradise, I am reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness.

Every obstacle and setback served the magnify His glory and power. May its eventual completion stand as a beacon of hope and testament to His faithfulness.

We seek your prayers, that our entire team will hold fast to the promise that God who began this good work will bring it to completion. Do pray for us to continue to trust in His perfect timing and unwavering providence, knowing that with God, all things are possible. 

Discover your role in missions today

To explore your part in world missions, speak to your local church leaders or drop the Antioch21 team an email at [email protected]. Antioch21 is a missions movement that seeks to raise a missionary force of all generations within the next decade.


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“God is the Master Builder”: Datuk Edward Ong, founder of the Sutera Harbour Resort

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Through the floodwaters of Timor-Leste: Reflections in the aftermath of Cyclone Seroja

About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer and Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.