Cover Story
A Heart for Service
Grace Lim 
With a strong desire to change the world, EPIC Collective continues to build new homes and lasting relationships

If you were to tell John-Son Oei that his name would one day be used in the same sentence as Muhammad Ali, it is very unlikely he would believe you. In fact, the founder and group CEO of EPIC (Extraordinary People Impacting Community) Collective actually saw himself building a career as an outdoorsy person, and going down the social entrepreneurial route was never his first choice.

“Ask people who know me; we can all agree this was not the plan. I’m quite a laidback character, relaxed by default. I thought I was going to become a fitness instructor, tour guide or even a jet ski operator because I was passionate about that,” Oei says.

So it came as a surprise to all – even himself – when he founded EPIC Collective with a few friends in 2010, after seeing in those around him the hunger to make a difference. He had just graduated with a degree in Communications and Media Management when he got together with a group of buddies to work on a potential house-painting project in Batang Kali, Selangor. From there, they found out that the village also did not have toilets, so they put out a request on social media and were overwhelmed when 64 people turned up to help.

Oei was inspired by the overwhelming response from people to help others in times of need

Soon, they were approached by residents of a nearby village for assistance, and found that some of them were living in dilapidated homes. Once again, they called for help and in just 30 minutes, they had amassed many volunteers and rebuilt the abodes in only three days. This was what sparked the beginning of EPIC Homes.

“How I got into this in the first place was not because I had a grand plan. That first experience I had was life-changing for me, and transformed the way I thought about others. People are hungry to make a difference but they have no platform to do it. I realised it wasn’t because they didn’t care but that they felt alone, disconnected and incapable of making any significant change as individuals. When we called people to help us, we were surprised by the number who showed up, and most of them were outside our social circle, too,” Oei continues.

Encouraged by the warm reception, Oei and his friends decided to see where it would go in the next three months. That turned into another six months, then nine months and before they knew it, a year had passed since they started. At that time, Oei was working several part-time jobs but he knew this project was his calling.

“Something felt right about this; the goal was to build and discover what it was that felt so right. We couldn’t articulate it, and many said we were just noble people who wanted to change the world but for me there was something more fulfilling than just wanting to do good,” he notes.

By 2011, they had already built two homes, toilets, and even helped with a voter’s registration campaign.

“Along the way we were always validating the fact that people wanted to come out and make a difference. We looked at the potential of this to really make an impact and understand the problems out there, which were not isolated to just one village. To be honest we didn’t see it as something we would be doing for the rest of our lives, but we realised that if we wanted to discover how far we can go, we had to jump right into it full time with no hesitation,” he adds.

From there, the team gave themselves a one-year testing period to see if it would work out. Six years later, EPIC Collective is still going strong. In the beginning they relied on the goodwill of others and donations from individuals who wanted to support what they were doing. Now they are mostly sustained by funds from companies and organisations who want to participate in their projects as team-building activities.

“It was never only about building homes, although that is the most tangible thing you can see. We often had strangers trusting each other to do tasks they never imagined themselves doing, and leaving as best friends by the end of three days. Relationship building has always been a huge part of the way we try to transform people’s lives or empower them. It doesn’t matter what shape or form you take, but you look at what fruit you bear.”

The finished product 

They have since worked with nearly 60 companies such as Prudential, Nestle and GE. They recently launched two of their own – EPIC DNA, an experiential learning arm that focuses on equipping people with the skills and ability to impact their surrounding communities, as well as EPIC Communities, a community-driven developer that aims to bring people together to build cooperative, resilient and sustainable communities.

So how does legendary boxer Muhammad Ali factor into all of these?

In September, Oei was named the recipient of the Dedication award at the fifth annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian awards, in recognition of his work with EPIC Collective. The awards was created in 2013 to publicly recognise and celebrate people who have made significant contributions in terms of peace, social justice, human rights and social capital in their communities and globally. Six young adults aged 30 and under are selected according to Muhammad Ali’s six core principles – confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.

“It was a fantastic experience. There’s a certain cool factor to be affiliated with Muhammad Ali, and to find out that I was one of six chosen out of over 700 names was a huge honour. I was flown to the ceremony in Kentucky, USA and to immerse myself in their culture, meeting his wife, nephews, daughters, friends and even the people in the town was amazing.

“We could see his impact on his community. I knew he was involved in humanitarian work and he transcended so many barriers in doing so. The work we do has a lot to do with empathy and bridging the gap, and being tied to such an iconic figure is great.”

On a more personal level it was his first time to the United States, and gave him the opportunity to visit his father’s grave. His father had passed away 17 years ago after undergoing a surgery for a rare condition in Houston, Texas. The operation had gone well, but his recovery had not.

“As a teenager I couldn’t just hop on a plane to the States,” he recalls. “I didn’t come from a privileged background; we had to organise fundraisers to get my parents there for the surgery. When he passed away, he was buried there. What came back with my mother was just a picture, and we had a wake service back here.”

When Oei found out about this opportunity, he informed the organisers about his plans and they agreed to fly him to Texas first before heading over to Kentucky for the event.

“After 17 years I was able to see his grave, and it was a very significant moment in my life. I had a flashback of where I started and where I am now – and it all made sense. I do what I do because I find pleasure in helping people help others. I like to see people discover their purpose. When I was there, I gave thanks to God that everything worked out, and for the privilege to live such a life.”

“At that time we questioned why my dad was taken away and what was going to happen to us. We felt it was so unfair but being put in such a vulnerable position, in a family and as an individual, I got to experience first-hand the goodness of people,” he says.

“Many came together to help us: my uncle who taught me how to fish and become my substitute daddy, my aunt who would put in extra hours to help me with my studies, another aunt who gave us a lift to school so we didn’t have to start the day sweaty. Help can take many shapes and forms. This was how I realised that doing things unconditionally was really important.”

Oei admits it brought his family much closer, and he enjoys a good relationship with his mother and two brothers. “We’ve always had each other’s back in times of trouble. Not just financial issues, but also with relationships, girlfriends and even bullies. Sometimes we would get up to stupid things and we would have to back each other up when people wanted to beat us,” he laughs.

“This support system and stability grant us a lot of space and security to push the boundaries of what’s possible. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now without the support of my family. Instead of telling me I was stupid or crazy for going into this, they told me that although this was something different and they didn’t understand it, they would still support me. Without that environment I wouldn’t be able to do what we do now.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 262.