IT was an unholy hour on a simmering June night when John-Son Oei received an email he wasn’t expecting: he was called to accept an accolade at the 5th Annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards on Sept 23.
Slightly baffled by what he’d just read, he leaned in closer to the screen to take a second look, examining every word of the email sent to him by the team at the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky.
Oei, the founder and Group CEO of EPIC Collective, had just been named the winner of The Six Core Principles Award, a recognition conferred to humanitarians under the age of 30 who’ve contributed significantly to their communities.
“The first thing I did was wake Jayne up!” he says of his wife and co-founder of EPIC, Jayne Kennedy.
“I couldn’t quite believe they picked me,” remarks Oei with a laugh.
Obviously still a little shell-shocked by the news, he shrugs his shoulders wondering how the humanitarian body had managed to find him.
As humble as he is about his worth, Oei’s stunning credentials are hard to miss.
Since starting EPIC in 2010, he has been named one of Forbes 30 under 30 Asia in the Social Entrepreneur category, August Man’s Magazine’s Man of the Year award for Community Spirit and has won several awards including the KL Blue Chili Award, the Iclif Leadership Energy Award and Microsoft’s Global YouthSpark Star award.
In 2012 Oei, then 24, was Malaysia’s official flag bearer for the Queens Diamond Jubilee and Commonwealth day.
EPIC, a clever acronym which stands for Extraordinary People Impacting Community, was conceived as a result of a conversation between Oei and three friends.
The young, idealistic and freshly-minted university grads were discussing how they could help the underprivileged through community work.
The four then set out to find small community projects they could work on when they stumbled upon an Orang Asli village in Batang Kali which needed proper toilets.
The project called “the toilet-building and painting project” received immediate responses from 64 volunteers after Oei blasted the message out on social media.
“There’s a very big misconception that people only want to receive. There are actually so many people out there who want to serve and help others,” he explains.
While working on that project, the team came across a house inhabited by a villager and his family which was in a state they couldn’t even begin to describe.
The house, made from patches of zinc, pieces of wood and attap leaves, was lopsided and crumbling to the ground. It was so far down that even the grass was starting to grow in between the cracks of the bamboo flooring.
For Oei and his friends, the appalling living conditions clearly affected everything else in the village — the lack of health and livelihood of the people, two things which directly impacted the education of children in the settlement.
“We decided that this would be the first house we’d rebuild,” shares Oei, recalling how difficult it was in the beginning.
“What we realised after the first few times was how we needed to build relationships with the community before building houses,” he continues, saying that the gap between rural and urban was most apparent.
The rural people, he shares, always branded city folks as rich capitalists, while urbanites often thought lowly of the capabilities of the communities living deep in the interiors.
“We realise there’s no progress or social mobility because of this gap,” says Oei, adding that building the homes together with the villagers has made both sides learn and understand each other better.
Over the last seven years, EPIC’s simple mission has attracted over 5,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries. All in all, the volunteers and the rural communities they work with have built 100 houses to date.
The number of lives they’ve changed through these simple acts of kindness and compassion, however, is immeasurable.
“I think if anything, my journey with EPIC has only reinforced my belief that kindness goes a long way,” divulges Oei, revealing that the roots of the social enterprise were deeply imbedded during a very difficult period his life.
When Oei was only 13, his father succumbed to cancer. His mother lost the love of her life, while Oei and his brothers lost a father and the person they considered their role model. For a while, a sense of bleakness shadowed Oei’s normally sunny disposition.
His eyes are glazed and the tip of his nose reddens when he talks about the man he describes as a strict, no-nonsense, tough-love kind of dad.
“The way he showed his love was through meals. He’d always buy us food,” recalls Oei, a smile slowly forming at the corners of his mouth. “And when we did something good, he’d buy durians!”
The cancer was a rare one, says Oei, the most complex the doctors had seen at that time.
Treatment for this form of cancer in the early 2000s was only available in the United States where his father eventually died.
“We didn’t have enough money to go to the US to see our father even after he died. So only my mum went for his cremation,” he recounts, pointing out that they didn’t hail from a privileged background.
For years after, Oei’s mother worked several jobs to put food on the table, but working constantly also meant that the boys were left to mend their own heartaches.
“I was so broken,” admits Oei, before recalling a rebellious period in his life. “My brothers and I were all hitting puberty and we had no male role models to look up to anymore.”
He spent his formative years partying hard, skipping school and being a total rogue.
When he flunked his SPM trials, a strange thing happened. “I was so ready to be whipped by my mum for failing!” he says, letting out another laugh.
Instead, his mother took him out for a fancy Japanese dinner and said things he’d never forget. “I remember it well. She said, ‘Let’s go and celebrate. Today is the day we celebrate your failure. Today you learnt a lot more than in any time of success.’”
Oei admits that the anger and resentment he felt during the passing of his father set him at odds with his mother. But that changed after their outing at the Japanese restaurant. “She allowed us to make our own mistakes and learn from it.”
Adding, he confides: “My mother taught my brothers and I that sometimes great outcomes can happen out of the hardest of times.”
It was also around this period that Oei started noticing acts of kindness shown to his family.
“We didn’t have a house to stay in so my uncles offered a place. We couldn’t afford to go for holidays so my uncles chipped in so we could experience a vacation,” he confides.
Even the braces Oei wore for seven years was given to him by his dentist at a discounted price, another act of kindness he remembers.
UP AND AWAY
In two months, Oei and Kennedy will be packing their bags and heading off to the US for the award ceremony.
He may have won numerous recognitions, but this particular award is also a personal one.
“I’ve wanted to go to the US for a long time to see my father,” he confides, referring to his father’s ashes which are interred in Houston Texas.
“Actually, 17 years is a long time to wait,” he adds, head bowed. “Now it’s like it has come full circle for me. There’s finally some kind of closure.”
On Sept 23, Oei will walk up to the podium of the Marriot Louisville Downtown, Kentucky to receive the award for his work with EPIC.
There’s no doubt, thousands of kilometres away, his family will be beaming with pride. There is also no doubt that somewhere up there in heaven, someone will definitely be cracking open a delicious durian fruit.