History and Legacy
A dense forested island, framed by powder white beaches seemingly motionless except for scuttling crabs and the dance of the ocean. The gentle lull of the waves harmonises with the whisper of swaying coconut palms, interrupted only by the occasional call of migratory birds.
When Dato Chua Jui Leng first set eyes on the Pulau Tengah in the early 1990s, it was love at first sight. The native Johorean took an interest in the island – then home to Pirate Bay, a rustic backpacker resort – and for the next 15 years, enjoyed the location’s pristine tropical beauty with his family and friends.
Countless memories were made in this private slice of paradise as the family discovered the island’s eight beaches, explored its tidal pools and rocky outcrops, snorkelled in the cerulean waters amongst thriving coral reefs teeming with diverse marine species, and simply absorbed the tropical idyll. All this on a picture perfect island all but hidden within Johor’s breathtaking Marine Park with a history as a UNHCR Refugee Transit Camp for displaced Vietnamese Boat people.
In 2009, Dato Chua’s youngest daughter Cher relinquished the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf in the UK and left a career in finance to return with her husband to execute her father’s vision of sharing Batu Batu with the world. For Cher, who grew up in the nearby town of Johor Bahru, this was a homecoming to a place that held happy memories of blissful family holidays.
“People would ask me where to stay in Malaysia and I was always talk about these beautiful islands in our backyard,” says Cher. “Our family had enjoyed Pulau Tengah privately for many years, and we wanted people from around the world to enjoy the same experience.”
Mindful of the fragile ecology on and around the modest island, Cher and her family took it upon themselves to become its custodians and have since embarked on a journey to safeguard the natural beauty and rich biodiversity as they sought a symbiosis between nature and development. Cher and her team wanted to create a place for people to stay and enjoy nature’s splendour while leaving as small a footprint as possible. Considerable efforts were made to blend the resort villas into the natural environment so that guests could play Robinson Crusoe, but with added comforts. More than that, they wanted every guest to reconnect with nature, learn something new, and leave with a greater sense of purpose in protecting the planet.
“The beauty of the island, the reefs, the marine life is our biggest asset,” says Cher. “Protecting the natural environment is absolutely key for the tourism industry and key to the continuation of both our business and the sustainability of the local economy.”
From the beginning, Cher also knew she wanted to create a unique community on Pulau Tengah, and to offer guests a resort built by passionate individuals rather than a corporation. Despite her lack of experience in the hospitality industry, as an avid traveller she knew what experiences visitors would value the most, and she strived to create an atmosphere that was warm, welcoming and easy going. The result of her vision is a shared island home, with each member of staff contributing his or her quirks and individualities to create the soul of Batu Batu.
Turning her vision into reality presented a full set of challenges. The island is off-grid, so the team had to learn about energy production, water sourcing and treatment, and supply logistics. Using local carpenters and workmen with wood from an experimental plantation the family had acquired in the 1970s – Batu Batu was built plank-by-plank with each piece of wood, nail, screw transported to the island by barge, or when possible, by boat. The resort took three years to build and first opened to outside guests in April 2012.
Dato Chua Jui Leng was born and raised in Johor, Malaysia. In his youth he enjoyed exploring the state, bicycling to find undiscovered beaches and trekking through tropical jungles. He first visited Pulau Tengah in 1993 and immediately fell for the island’s awe-inspiring beauty. He and his family holidayed on the island for many years until the idea was born to share this little undiscovered treasure with the world through the development of a simple, unobtrusive resort. Dato Chua also wanted to ensure that the resort gave back to the natural environment, and like his daughter, he became passionate about local conservation projects. He continues to live in Johor, but is actively involved in the ongoing environmental work that takes place on and around Batu Batu.
Cher & Laurant
When she was in her teens, Cher would walk around Pulau Tengah with her father and plan what a resort would look like if one day it was built. She went on to study social anthropology at Cambridge University and from that a bigger sense of building communities in the context of human interaction and action was instilled. It wasn’t until 2009 during Cher and her husband Laurant’s wedding that the decision was made to build a resort, later backed by market research. The following year, Cher & Laurant left London's financial district behind to move back to her native Malaysia where they took over the mission and vision of bringing what would eventually become Batu Batu to life. During this time, Cher drew significant inspiration from Sonu Shivdasani, chairman of Soneva Group, whose quote particularly resonated with her:
“I think successful businesses happen when you have a clear vision. If you start a business just for financial gain they tend to fail, generally. Or they may have a short-term success but not long term. Long-term success comes when there is a passion about doing something and changing things.”
For nearly two years, before the resort opened, Cher and Laurant lived on Pulau Tengah, arriving with a 20-month-old baby in tow, later joined by a second child. The Lassalvys now reside in Singapore where Cher is working full time on supporting Batu Batu’s operational team and pursues her passion for low-density sustainable tourism.