Unfortunately, we live in a less merciful society where the words ‘you get what you deserve’ are thrown around like cigarette butts on the street. There is this notion that you have to strive to earn a helping hand, and if you’re at the right place at the right time, odds are things might turn out to your advantage; but what about those where such notion isn’t applicable? People who can only make do with what they’re given; should they be outcasted just because the events of life have put them there?
John-Son Oei received the outpouring of love and care from his family after the death of his father. His extended relatives invested and provided him with opportunities long before he ever saw the potential in himself. Inspired by such kindness from the heart, John-Son decided to extend what he has experienced beyond the borders of family. EPIC stands for Extraordinary People Impacting Community, with the hope and vision to see our world become more response driven rather than passively donating money from our pockets. A man with a plan and some knowledge in lego construction, John-Son sets out to do the thing Mahatma Gandhi once preached; to be the change you wish to see in the world.
Where did this inspiration come from?
It came from a personal realization that all of us have an intrinsic desire to serve. Service is very closely tied to one’s purpose. The reason why we were created is to go beyond ourselves. When I got involved in my first project back in 2010, I was quite cynical about the world and Malaysians in general. You hear people say Malaysians have this tidak apa attitude, but when we put up our first project (although we expected very little people to show up), we had 64 people sign up within a week! They were from different backgrounds and it made me realise how there are so many people that want to do more than just put money into a box. We had the most fantastic time together, united by something that goes beyond us that is to provide help to a community. There’s this fulfillment that comes from deep within and it changed my perception about people.
How did this idea become EPIC?
Our idea was to mimic what we already know, and that was to paint some houses and build toilets. But once we got there, the situation was a lot more serious than what we thought - they don’t even have a proper home! That sparked a yearning to help the people there, but we learned that if we really wanted to make an impact, we can’t just come up with touch and go initiatives and hope that things will change. With the housing issue, we didn’t just see the house itself, but we also became curious as to how these people ended up in broken homes and why they aren't helping one another. It can’t be explained by simply saying that they’re poor - that doesn’t make sense. We tried asking the community but we weren’t getting anywhere; and that’s when we learned that people aren’t going to pour out their heart to you if they don’t know you. We asked ourselves what would be a great way to build relationships while taking care of their needs, and the idea of building side by side with the community came to mind. After all, actions speak louder than words. We faced a lot of rejections and criticisms saying that this idea wasn’t going to work but after eight months, someone who believed in what we were trying to accomplish stepped in and gave us the experience we needed to start.
How did it feel accomplishing your first house?
There was a great sense of relief because up until that point, it was just an imagination and something that we’ve only talked about. We managed to complete the house in 3 days (with professional help). 10 months down the line, we managed to build a team fully made out of volunteers and built another house without any professional help. One of the most significant moments was the relationships that were built during the process. There was a lady we called Ibu Biah and her sons, and they taught us how to harvest bamboo and treat it. We applied that to the house and worked together to build up the house. At the end of it, she called us her children and that was the point when we decided to see where this idea can take us.
What were the challenges moving forward from that experience?
The first challenge was believing that this was going to be possible in the long run. At that point it was just my wife and I, and there were many occasions that I thought about quitting but thankfully for Jayne, who has really been my cheerleader throughout; she has helped me in more ways than one. The second challenge was to make this more scalable, and that required financing. We managed to get a grant thanks to My Harapan and 1MDB [laughs] and we got enough money for materials for 7 houses. However we forgot to factor in money for operations so we had homes to build but nobody to build them! We had to be creative in making it desirable for people to come and help us out, not just the building aspect but the planning as well. We had a lot of engineers and architects come up to us saying they love what we’re doing but the houses weren’t that pretty, and so they offered their expertise. That’s how we were able to roll out house after house, improving in structure and design along the way.
Has there ever been a time where you think this might not work out?
All the time, actually. I tell people that this journey is an adventure for me as it is to other people. A lot of people view the leadership team at EPIC and think that we know exactly what we want to do, but honestly it’s just a step in our journey where it’s not about knowing what we want to do, but who we want to be in the process. We’re believing that as a byproduct, we would be able to do amazing things. We’ve always had this mindset that wherever we are or whatever resources we have and whoever we’re working with, we want to try and maximise those opportunities to see how much value we can add to the stakeholders we’re working with.
There are so many brilliant ideas out there, but the thing that’s lacking is proper execution. What drives you to make sure you see a project through?
Firstly, it’s having the clarity of why we’re doing something. If that’s not clear, then tough times will surely come whether you’ve planned for it or not. It depends on how strong the foundation of your ‘why’ is that will determine whether you continue with what you set out to do. Secondly, it’s having a perspective that we’re all young and there’s really nothing to lose. If you’re compelled enough by your why, then why not give it a go? To be very honest, I’m not the best executer. I’m someone that comes up with the idea and then we work the plans out together as a team. Having a group of people who are like-minded and skillful in other areas would motivate you and contribute to the execution.
If there’s something I took away from our sit-down with John-Son is that you don’t need a big plan to make big changes. His honesty on being lost at times shows us that things don’t always go as planned - and they really don’t! The heart and core behind John-Son’s initiative stemmed from having positive people influencing his life, and now he has made it his responsibility to reproduce that within society. It’s not just about being the nice guy that helps build houses, but the person he’s aiming to become along the way.