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This Malaysian social entrepreneur wants to change lives by building homes

As Malaysia enters its recovery phase today (June 10), we shine the spotlight on EPIC Homes co-founder John-Son Oei, who has committed himself to building homes and empowering the country’s indigenous Orang Asli community.

This Malaysian social entrepreneur wants to change lives by building homes

From a young age, John-Son Oei realised the value of having a roof over one's head. (Photo: John-Son Oei)

As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the fault lines in society’s strata into sharp focus, the good work of non-profit initiatives like EPIC Homes becomes all the more urgent.

EPIC (Extraordinary People Impacting Communities) Homes has been building houses for the indigenous Orang Asli community in Malaysia for almost a decade.

Since their first home went up in 2011, the organisation now has a headcount of over 5,000 volunteers who have built 163 homes (and counting) for Orang Asli settlements across Peninsular Malaysia.

Arguably, the Orang Asli are Malaysia’s most marginalised community, facing issues like land ownership disputes which have left them tenants on their traditional lands. They have also been largely neglected in terms of access to infrastructure, education, healthcare, electricity and piped water. According to a study, more than 12,000 Orang Asli live in unsafe housing conditions, 82 per cent of whom are in need of housing aid.

Volunteers helping to build a house. (Photo: EPIC Homes)

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This lack of a home of one’s own resonated deeply with John-Son Oei, co-founder of EPIC Homes, who learned from a young age that having a roof over one’s head is one of life’s most important fundamentals.

“My dad passed away at a young age which left my mom, brothers and me without any means to support ourselves. However, we were fortunate to always have a friend or family member to offer support materially, emotionally or mentally,” he told CNA Luxury.

“One valuable gift we received was the use of a house which not just gave us physical shelter, it was where we could build our family and host friends proudly – giving us a stable foundation to dream beyond our present circumstances. Basically a place we could call home.”

A double-storey build in an Orang Asli village in Kelantan. (Photo: EPIC Homes)

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Oei went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in communications and media at the University of South Australia, before returning to Malaysia to work as a part-time teacher, and later a part-time university research assistant and fitness trainer. But he felt unfulfilled; something was lacking.

“I learnt very early on in life that if I didn’t find meaning in something, I would utterly suck at it. However, if I believed in something, I would excel,” he enthused.

“My dad passed away at a young age which left my mom, brothers and me without any means to support ourselves. However, we were fortunate to always have a friend or family member to offer support materially, emotionally or mentally.” – John-Son Oei

In 2010, Oei and three friends – Jayne Kennedy, Jasmine Ng and Loh Jon Ming – hit upon an idea after seeing a man’s home on the verge of collapse in an Orang Asli village. What if they could develop a modular building system to construct sustainable homes? What if the system were simple enough so that ordinary folk – people with no building expertise – could build their own homes, or have volunteers pitch in to help?

With the help of friends and over 40 architects, engineers and designers, the foursome came up with a system that allowed a house to be put up in as quickly as three days.

From their first project in Kampung Jawa Kerling, an hour-and-a-half outside Kuala Lumpur (KL), to remote areas in Kuala Kubu Baru and Batang Kali in Selangor and Gerik in Perak – where the Orang Asli lack basic necessities like shelters and/or latrines – Oei’s journey with EPIC Homes has been, well, nothing short of epic.

Mission accomplished. (Photo: EPIC Homes)

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Apart from raising funds and building houses, Oei stressed that building relationships is just as important in the process of creating a home.

“We learned early on in our EPIC journey that we need to establish trust with the family we are building for. Once that is forged, the exchange of information and ideas is eased. This in turn results in solutions that address the family’s needs and requirements while also ensuring the active participation and dignity of the beneficiary,” he explained.

To this end, before embarking on a project, members of EPIC Homes always meet with village heads and villagers in town hall meetings to get acquainted with their struggles and also to assure them that their involvement is not dismissed as a one-off initiative.

In 2016, Oei’s achievements were internationally recognised: He made the cut as a Forbes 30 Under 30 candidate. In December 2019, when Barack and Michelle Obama were in KL for the inaugural Asia Pacific leaders gathering, EPIC Homes was chosen to run a workshop under the aegis of the Obama Foundation.

“One valuable gift we received was the use of a house which not just gave us physical shelter, it… [gave] us a stable foundation to dream beyond our present circumstances.” – John-Son Oei

Oei also married his co-founder and COO, Kennedy, in 2014. Kennedy herself has garnered awards like The Edge’s Inspiring Young Leaders Award and Women Icons Malaysia, for her tireless efforts in steering the organisation. 

Apart from EPIC Homes, the founders have expanded their social enterprise with new projects and initiatives under its holding organisation EPIC Collective. It includes EPIC Communities, a community-driven development arm that engages people to take ownership of their spaces, as well as EPIC DNA, an experiential learning programme that equips people with practical skills to improve their lives.

When asked what he’s most proud of achieving, Oei cites the ripple effect that EPIC Homes has created.

“A local villager proudly told me how they mobilised themselves to fix their village water system within two days, because they were inspired that it only took us three days to build a home, and what could be possible when people came together,” stated Oei.

When Malaysia implemented the MCO (Movement Control Order) in March, EPIC Homes’ work was drastically impacted as their activities involve mass gatherings of people. These challenges did not stop Oei and his team, who quickly pivoted their efforts to support the nationwide #nooneleftbehind initiative. This campaign involved using the EPIC platform and its contacts to assist NGOs in need of quick funding and volunteers, on top of using technology to reduce administrative work for them.

Delivery of essentials to Orang Asli villages. (Photo: EPIC Homes)

On top of that, EPIC launched a collaboration together with other NGOs and the Malaysian government called the Collective for Orang Asli. This allows EPIC to share data to help map needs, determine priorities and share resources to ensure that no Orang Asli gets left behind.

“Among the amazing things that we have… is a fleet of over a hundred 4x4 trucks with willing drivers going into the hardest-to-reach areas. We even had a helicopter offered to us! And there are multiple funds that, when combined, make up for any [shortfall]. It’s incredible how fast, and how much you can do when you share,” Oei said.

“My ultimate hope is that we can utilise the same momentum and organise ourselves better, to not only help these people survive the pandemic, but enable them to thrive and give them the resilience to withstand the shock of such adversities in the future.”

“My ultimate hope is that we can… not only help [the Orang Asli] survive the pandemic, but enable them to thrive and give them the resilience to withstand the shock of such adversities in the future.” – John-Son Oei

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Source: CNA/ds
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