John-Son Oei founder and chief epic officer, CEO of EPIC Collective, EPIC Homes social enterprise in Malaysia

Ep 116: The EPIC Life in Building Homes in 3 days?! | John-Son Oei (Founder & Chief Epic Officer, EPIC Collective)

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Welcome to Episode 116!

STIMY Episode 116 features John-Son Oei.

John-Son Oei is the founder & Chief Epic Officer (CEO) of EPIC Collective – a social enterprise based in Malaysia that helps the underprivileged community build homes in 3 days!

He’s had numerous international awards and recognition showered upon him, e.g. being accepted into the Ashoka Fellowship; Forbes 30 under 30 2016; The Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Dedication 2017; SME Malaysian Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2017; Tatler Malaysia—Force for Good Award; The Edge Inspiring Young Leaders Award; the Iclif Leadership Energy Award 2015; and Microsoft’s Global YouthSpark Star award. He was also Malaysia’s official flag bearer for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Commonwealth Day.

But did you know that his entire journey began out of GUILT?

Well, you’ll just have to listen to find out. 😉


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    John-Son Oei founder and chief epic officer, CEO of EPIC Collective, EPIC Homes social enterprise in Malaysia

    Who is John-Son Oei?

    John-Son Oei’s early life was marked heavily by his “gentle giant” of a father, who sadly passed when he was age 13.

    The result was that his homemaker mother had to start working, and his brothers suddenly found themselves with… a lot of time?!

    He also had to start working to earn extra project money. And got involved in a ton of things, including working retail with Polo Ralph Lauren, video production, becoming a fitness instructor & Marshall at Camp 5 and even… 

    As a model. 😏

    Upon graduation, he told his mother that he wanted to be a professional beach bum aka jet ski operator. 

    • 3:03 Having a gentle giant for a father
    • 3:52 Does God exist?
    • 10:58 I had two As & failed everything else 😳
    • 15:58 Aspiring to be a beach bum
    It’s not that I couldn’t be a dog. To eat other dogs. But I said, is that really what life is about?
    John-Son Oei founder and chief epic officer, CEO of EPIC Collective, EPIC Homes social enterprise in Malaysia
    John-Son Oei
    Founder & CEO, EPIC Collectives

    A Toilet Changed His Life

    Yet despite all that, John-Son Oei did in fact, want to give back to society. 

    Even though he was told by many people that he couldn’t stay idealistic for too long. 

    “The moment you go into the real world, it’s a dog eat dog world.”

    And that troubled John-Son, because, It’s not that I couldn’t be a dog. To eat other dogs. But I said, is that really what life is about?

    The opportunity to explore this ideal came when he visited an orang asli community & discovered their need for a functionable toilet. 

    He set up a Facebook group, and 64 strangers came.

    Not his friends or the ones who said they were into charities, but complete & utter strangers.

    And that sent John-Son down a rabbit hole.

    He realised that we all need a purpose beyond ourselves. 

    It wasn’t as though he, and many others, didn’t care about giving back – but that we all felt alone. And honestly, “What impact can one person have?”

    As it turns out?

    An EPIC amount.

    • 20:30 Giving back to the community
    • 22:47 Becoming Rain the KPop Superstar
    • 23:46 Building a toilet
    • 25:17 From toilet to a house for Pak Cihong?!
    John-Son Oei founder and chief epic officer, CEO of EPIC Collective, EPIC Homes social enterprise in Malaysia

    Realities of Running a Social Enterprise

    But this won’t be a STIMY interview if we didn’t talk about the “darker sides”.

    The difficulties in running EPIC as a social enterprise, figuring out their business model, convincing companies that they weren’t a “con job”, the pandemic and also, how John-Son would even question his own purpose. 

    So if you want to know the realities of giving back to the community, why it’s important to have a purpose beyond ourselves and how you can do so too?

    Then this is the episode for you.

    • 32:42 The realities of running a social enterprise
    • 37:33 This is a con job!
    • 43:33 Why is this team building?
    • 46:40 Why 2012 was a really difficult year
    • 51:38 The personal significance behind winning the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Dedication 2017
    • 53:21 Is there something more?

    If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:

    • Daniel Flynn (co-founder, Thank You): Realities of running Australia’s most popular & viral social enterprise by selling… water?!
    • Lincoln Lee: Winning the most prestigious $1 million HULT Prize for social enterprises
    • Rabi Malla: Bringing Nepali handcrafted goods to the world
    • Eric Sim: From being the son of a prawn noodle hawker stall owner to the former Managing Director of UBS with 2.9 million LinkedIn followers
    • Adrian Tan: President of Singapore’s Law Society & the King of Singapore

    If you enjoyed this episode, you can: 

    Leave a Review

    If you enjoy listening to the podcast, we’d love for you to leave a review on iTunes / Apple Podcasts. The link works even if you aren’t on an iPhone. 😉


    If you’d like to support STIMY as a patron, you can visit STIMY’s Patreon page here

    External Links

    Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:

    STIMY Ep 116: John-Son Oei [Co-Founder, EPIC Homes]

    John-Son Oei: Still, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Yeah, so, so I tried many different things and while studying as well, I was also working many part-time jobs. You know, aside from modeling, today we speak to John-son Oei. Now in John-Son's case it was his TED Talk about his social enterprise called Epic and the way that they build homes for people who otherwise wouldn't have any.

    I wish I went before Mohammad. Hi, my name is John-Son Oei and I'm the founder and CEO of Extraordinary People Impacting Communities, also known as Epic And, and so I always clarify the people that when I do what I do, my aspirations not for people who start more NGOs or start more of social enterprise, but actually for them to find their purpose as to what is the impact that they're actually being created for.

    17 years later, I, I was there, you know, going there to, to receive an award that means from a person that no, like was, I think one of my dads like heroes. I realized that actually in life there will be these ups and downs. There will be challenges, but you, you want to secure, I think, the kind of people that you want to do life with.

    Ling Yah: Hey everyone, welcome to episode 116 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah, and today's guest is John-Son Oei. Now John-Son is the co-founder of Epic Homes, which is a social enterprise that brings together thousands of volunteers to build a home for someone from the underprivileged community.

    But it still started from guilt because you see, John-Son found that he wanted to give back to society, but he wasn't. He was just all talk, but no action. And one day he found an opportunity to build a toilet for someone from the underprivileged community. And that kickstarted the whole journey from building a toilet to building homes for hundreds of thousands of people.

    This was hardly a task because John-Son doesn't have a construction background and neither does any of his co-founders. So if you wanna know what it's like to follow your passion, to find purpose and join giving back to the community and the realities and challenges of living that passion, then this is a episode for you.

    So are you ready?

    John-Son Oei: 2, 3, 4.

    Ling Yah: Hello John-Son. Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast today. I love to start all my interviews by going to the very beginning. Mm-hmm. And I learned that when you're growing up, you were in many different neighborhoods. You bounced from one to the other to the other.

    What's the story behind that?

    John-Son Oei: Oh, it's very, very simply the fact that my, my dad was in shipping. Yeah. And so his company's called for him to move from place to place. Yeah. And so I was born in PJ. Mm-hmm. And then moved shortly to Shah Alam obviously I don't remember that. I was too young.

    And my first memories were in JB in Johor Bahru, you know? And, and, and that's where I grew up. And then shortly, then we moved to Kajang. Yeah. Klang. And then finally, I, I think my, the rest of my teenage years was spent in, Damansara Jaya. Everywhere.

    Ling Yah: Literally everywhere. Yeah. I saw interviews that your father would describe as a gentle giant.

    Mm-hmm. He was a rugby player. What was he like?

    John-Son Oei: Oh, well. So gentle giant, I think would be what you describe him on a good day. Oh. But I, I've heard as well, and I've experienced it too, he, he could be real fierce and, and intimidating. Yeah. Yeah.

    Ling Yah: So, so when he says, don't, don't.

    John-Son Oei: Correct. Correct. Yeah. You know, so, so he, he, I think my brothers and I, we like to say that he instilled the fear of God in us very early.

    The loud, booming voice coming down.

    Very loud, very loud, very booming. Yeah, I don't think my brothers and I have his voice at all. Really? It's a lot louder. It travels so far, you know, or, or maybe it was just psychological visioning.


    Ling Yah: Wow. And then age 13 was a big year for you. Mm-hmm. Could you just share about that period?

    John-Son Oei: A large part of, where I come from and what my family stands for, and what we, we cherish is really family. I think when I was 13, my dad passed away. Yeah, yeah.

    So he was struggling with a condition called aorta dissection. Mm-hmm. you know, typically when you are struck with this you don't survive, you know, so basically your aorta tears and it bursts. Normally people, they die on the spot. So this happened when I was 10 years old, so three years before.

    But miraculously he survived.

    And then 13 years old we managed to raise enough funds for him to go to the states. Yeah. Because that was the only place they could do that. That was the only place at that time, you know, so it's an experimental surgery because it required them to stop the heart and replace the entire aota, which is your, your main blood vessel to the whole body.

    The technology or the, the technique only existed in Houston, Texas.

    So he went over the surgery was a success. Yeah. After 12 hours, I believe they managed to replace his aorta but there was a part connecting to the heart that they couldn't get.

    And that was scheduled for after he recovers from this first surgery. Yeah. But in the middle of that surgery, two weeks later, he was, I think in the middle of rehab and it burst. Yeah. Yeah. And then he, he passed away in my mom's arms.

    Yeah. I read that he was on the walk with your mom as well. I was trying to imagine if I was in your shoes, how I would feel. I mean, I would be so devastated. Mm-hmm. Cuz he would think that the worst has pass. Mm-hmm. It's gonna be better. And I just wonder what that period was like. Cuz your brother, he did an article in an interview and he said that that really sort of made him questioning his faith. He was angry with God.

    Mm-hmm. That makes complete sense. Like, why would God do something like that? Yeah. And I wonder what that was like for you in that period. Mm-hmm.

    Yeah. Yeah. It was a, it was a shock really. I mean now looking back, obviously we're thankful that we got three and a half years Yeah. Extra with him. And he didn't pass away when I was 10 because I think that would've been a lot more devastating.

    But at 13 years old, of course, we knew the risk of, going into that surgery.

    But for him to come out and to get the news because there was no social media. Yes. And there was only like phone calls and emails. Yes. You know, so I, I remember my dad sent an email saying he's a veterans on the road to recovery.

    Mm-hmm. And then suddenly you get a call at 5:36 AM in the morning. And then my, my brother just wakes me up and say, Hey, Papa died. Yeah. You know, my, my older brother didn't know how else to break the doors. Right. Yeah. Just say it. You know, so, so just kind of lined us up. We were like trying to open our eyes in the morning and, and just breaking the news to us.

    Yeah. So that was tough. Yes. but I think that, we were kind of spared as well, the fact that we were away. We were back in Malaysia. We couldn't make it to the states because I think we simply just couldn't afford it.

    So to us it's almost like he went on a holiday and he just didn't come back?

    But what did it do to our faith?

    I think it definitely brought a lot of questions and did Shake me up because you believe in, in God and how he's gonna, do good things. But when you're young, you think that God will do good things for you.

    Mm-hmm. You know, or, or do things the way you want him to do. Mm-hmm. But you realize that that's not the case. Yeah. You know, and of course, you know, sometimes you do meet characters in, in, in church and stuff that would prophesy and say, you know, I, I imagine him, you know, I, I see him in a vision, you know, and he's gonna be there, you know, for your, for your wedding day, and, and da da da, you know, and, and, and they say such things to give us comfort.

    But then in a second, you know, it just, it's just not. It is just not gonna happen anymore. You know, and, and so, so that, I think as a 13 year old boy growing up, that was really tough to take. Yeah. You know and I, I think I did spend a lot of years blaming God. Mm-hmm. For,

    Ling Yah: for that. Did you ever consider thinking, well, he didn't protect me.

    Why should I still follow you and believe in you?

    John-Son Oei: Oh, for sure. Yeah, for sure. That's exactly, I think what I, I carry with me throughout my teenage years. Mm-hmm. You know? Of course. That's, and that's so fundamental, you know, and now looking back like, why was I such a brat? You know, why did I do the things that is so stupid?

    You know what, I think fundamentally, you know, that there was this, there's just this anger that was just carrying around and Yeah. Yeah. And I, I think. Yeah. Yeah. That, that was, that was something that I, I have to honestly say that I, I, I struggled with.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. Yeah. Because I heard an interview before, you said that at the time your mom obviously homemaker to having to work all the time, and you said suddenly we three brothers had so much free time and we did all sorts of things.

    I was like, huh. I wonder what it was.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. Yeah. So, so just to clarify, I wasn't spending my time wrestling with this, these existential questions. Yeah. You know, this wasn't on the top of my mind at all. Yeah. I think immediately, like you said we got freedom, you know, because my dad was quite, quite disciplinary.

    He was very orderly. He, he demanded for, you know, things to be in a certain way. Yeah. And I, and I used that very, that used that word very intentionally, you know? And, and so the moment I think that almost that that foundation was taken out, suddenly we had to figure things out ourselves. You know, three brothers at home with our helper and sometimes our grandparents.

    You know, but you, you know, that's not gonna really replace the Yeah. The, the figure that was my, my dad at home. So we some might say that we were lost. We would say we had a lot of fun.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. Yeah. And what I heard and gather was that your family really just came around. Like your uncles, your aunties, they help you get into your new house.

    So you have a lot of love around you. Yeah.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. Amazing. Obviously you didn't, didn't recognize all of that at that time. But I do recall, even prior to my dad passing, because we had that three extra years. Yes. So the preparations were made.

    And that's why we had also moved from a house in Klang to Damansara Because my, my uncle found a house and we determined that that would be a better place to grow up in.

    And so, right, I think a few years, one or two years before my dad's passing, we had already moved to that to that place and, and got acquainted with that, so they were very intentional.

    I think especially with my uncle Ronnie and Auntie Irene, they're like my parents. But aside from that, because of the place that we grew up in as well, we were, blessed to have neighbors who came in at, at various times to chip in, you know, for, for different things that we needed.

    When we needed it, you know, such as, auntie Lee down the road, who's helping with my mathematics and when I was failing, she would spend extra time, you know, to, teach me and scold me as well. We would have Uncle Choong down The street where he would take us out to help us learn about the wild.

    And, very skills that he taught me was fishing, wood carving, so those sort of things that typically your dad would take you on. So we did have substitute dads as well, and then there was auntie down the street that fetched me to school, during days where it was too hot or it was raining. I couldn't walk to school.

    So we could really see the community come together to kind of support us while my mom was out busy, you know, trying to make ends meet the three of us we had freedoms and things like that, but we also had needs.

    Mm-hmm. And they were met because of the community around us.

    Ling Yah: You're not Asian if you don't talk about your studies, so Yeah, I hear you. It didn't go so well. And I wonder about that period, what you were thinking about doing with your life, cuz studies is an integral part to the next day.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah.

    Yeah. So, normally, I mean, through throughout my, schooling years, I did pretty well without much effort. from primary school to the middle of secondary school.

    I guess once you hit 16, maybe life becomes a little bit more gray.

    You start to question a lot more things, your hormones perhaps yeah, takes over your brain. Just doing it for the sake of doing it, because that's your role, just didn't cut it for me.

    Obviously the Malaysian education system doesn't quite address the question as to why are you doing all of this, aside from, because as a student, your responsibility to study, or if you get good grades, then you get into a good uni.

    And the reason why you get into good Uni is because then you get a good job and you secure your future. You know? But to me, that just sounded like a regurgitated answer and I, it just wasn't enough for me. Yeah. And so I was searching, but in the midst of searching as well, I, I felt like, I guess that was also the rebellious phase where I said, if that's what's required me, I'm not gonna do that and we'll do something else.

    So I didn't study. So that's my, that was my long justification as to why I didn't study, you know? I was really bad, hardly went to school. Like I said, I had a lot of freedom. So days I didn't feel like going to school. I didn't go to school, I didn't show up for my trial re trial exams for SPM.

    I show up in school and people were like, you missed the exam, what happened?

    I said, I didn't know, you know, but whatever, you know, it was the, the terrible attitude that, that I had back then. But as a result, I didn't get enough credits to get into college. I went with my mom who didn't know what my results were, who were used to getting good results.

    I only had two A's and everything else I failed. Yeah. And you're supposed to get five credits right?

    To get into college. I remember, yeah, A levels Australian programs, Canadian programs, American programs. Everyone's like, oh, wow, you really had fun. But I'm sorry, you just don't meet the minimal requirement at all. So that was quite a low point for me.

    Ling Yah: But you still graduated in the end from Taylor's?

    John-Son Oei: I did. Thankfully. Thankfully, my results for SPM were not stellar. Yeah. But good enough to get me registered. Yeah. But unfortunately you couldn't get any scholarship whatsoever, so my mom had to, had to pay.

    Ling Yah: Speaking of paying, you also had to work for yourself, you and your brothers.

    You were modeling, we have to talk about that obviously.

    John-Son Oei: Amongst, amongst the other things. That was,

    Ling Yah: how did you fall into something like that?

    John-Son Oei: So. I'm pretty tall. Yeah. I guess that helps.

    Ling Yah: And I have to say, I suppose when people hear that, they go, they'll go, I have to see who this person is.

    Yeah. So obviously this is recorded via video and you can see.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, so I'm, just under six one. Yeah. And I think at 17 years old, I think some people had spotted me and asked me if I want to try modeling and, I'm actually quite an introvert, you know, as amongst my brothers, I'm the introvert.

    I think when I was 15, and that was for really bad reasons. Like I realized I was just so introverted that my relationships were working out. Oh, no. Yeah. So I was like, oh, I want to gain the courage, you know, to be able to speak up and be confident and things like that.

    And so when such an opportunity came about I also know that I, I needed some cash, you know, like, do you pay or not?

    And there was some money to be made in modeling. yeah. So I decided and, to challenge myself in that way. Yeah. so, you know, modeling needing to go out there and walk the runway or be in front of camera for hours, whether it's video or photo, or even acting as well for advertisements, you know? So all of that was really like a challenge for me.

    Ling Yah: I imagine you must have really changed in, given you more confidence. That's why lots of introverts become actors.

    Mm-hmm. Real life. They are severely crippled by stage. Right.

    John-Son Oei: I I, I I've heard that. I've heard that. Yeah. I can't, I can't say I can relate to that because I'm not in that industry, but I've heard that. Yeah. Even standup comedians, right? Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So, so that was, I think that was a good, that was I mean, honestly, I didn't feel too proud about it because of the stigma that comes from being a model.

    Oh. I think that around that time, that was when like Zoolander came out as well, and so when people say, oh, your model, you know, immediately, you know, plus my results went very good recently. But I have to say that that really helped cover a lot of costs. Yeah. During, during that time.

    Ling Yah: All worked out on the end. Who cares?

    John-Son Oei: All, all worked out in the end. And I, I mean, on that note of challenging myself, I did. Now looking back, I think I gained a lot of skills. Yeah. You know, in, in being in front of the camera, being able to to hold a conversation, being able to socialize, it's a very different kind of atmosphere.

    You meet a lot of people. It's a quick turnover of people and different people coworkers or models that you'd be working with. So just going through those motions and learning how to do it, man taught me so much. Yeah.

    Ling Yah: So I guess it's pretty clear you weren't inclined to be a professional model.

    John-Son Oei: Not at all. I don't think I had the, the potential to do such things.

    Ling Yah: But then you were studying communications and media management. Yeah. And I heard you say before, it's because you wanted to broaden your horizons. Mm-hmm. Try everything. See what's out there. Yeah. At the end of it, did you figure it out? How did you end up saying to your mom, I wanna be a jet ski operator and a pilot?

    John-Son Oei: Wow, you clearly went through old stuff. I, yeah. So, so while, while I think my college and uni years were very defining in the sense that first of all, going through those failures of getting to college that taught me to overcome my fear of failure. I think the story that's told many times is how disappointed my mom was, but how she had responded differently to me, where she took me out to celebrate.

    You know, after failing to get into college, she took me out to celebrate and I. Genuinely. And, and it's not like people who meet my mom today will say, Yala. It's natural for Auntie Pixy to be like that. You know, you're lucky to be her son. No, she had to train herself too, you know? And, and this was one of those moments where I think I saw her at her limit.

    Like, you could see tears in her eyes. She could see maybe anger or frustration and disappointment. But I also saw a very conscious decision that she made and said, let's go celebrate. Let's go have lunch, popped open a bottle of sake, you know, and, and, and order the, the best stuff on the menu.

    And I'm sitting there like, what the heck's gonna happen to me, right.

    She actually says that, let's celebrate today. We've learned an important lesson and where failure is not fatal or final and success isn't forever.

    I mean. That, itself changed my life, being able to be at the receiving end or the experience that really changed how I saw myself.

    And that really gave me the courage to do things differently in college, in uni. And I think I got to explore different things and really stretch my potential a little bit more than I think I would get in typical government high school. But still I didn't know what I wanted to do.

    So I tried many different things and while studying as well, I was also working many part-time jobs, you know, aside from modeling. I was helping a facilitation in, team building. I was doing part-time work in retail, video production, retail in, in sales, in Polo Ralph Lauren.

    That was my first job actually. I was a fitness trainer Yeah. And rock climbing, Marshall at Camp five. Wow. Oh my goodness. I was in market research and then doing all sorts of like, just part-time jobs because I wanted to just try different things.

    when college was about to end and we needed to decide where we were gonna go for our university suddenly, we had different people come in and share with us. Your counselors in uni will come in and make presentations and stuff.

    And I realized that I didn't really want to continue studying, but at the same time, I know my mom really wanted me to have a degree. And so I, I wanted to select something where, you know, wouldn't be too strenuous academically. And so I guess, the stereotype would be mass comm, you know, do mass com.

    But I think technically it was also to expose myself to a broad range of things which mass comm provided where it wasn't just like typical journalism or broadcasting, but there's also a little bit of law. There was also a little bit of psychology. There was also a little bit of like political science, you know, how that works on a mass level.

    And so I saw the different offerings that they had, and I realized that, okay, this would help me figure out what I would like to do after all of this. So went through three years. Did I fail anything? I might

    have, it's okay.

    I might have failed one subject because then that would make it three and a half years.

    And and then following that thought that I'll have it all figured out. Yeah. But all I knew was what I didn't want to do. Mm-hmm. And that's just getting trapped in a job just for the sake of surviving. And I wanted to do something that would mean something to me, but I didn't know what exactly that was.

    Yeah. And so the thing at, at that time that meant the most to me was fitness activities and the outdoors. Mm-hmm. Hence why at that time I thought it'd be pretty cool to be a jet ski operator, start a business perhaps in one of those islands and give people a good time.

    Ling Yah: So obviously you have to tell your mom. Yeah. And I thought it was so funny. One interview she said, you just wanted to be a beach bum. But I have a feeling she didn't say those exact words to you. Those were

    John-Son Oei: the exact same. Oh, she did? Yeah. Those exact, exact same words. My, my mom's very frank. Yeah. I mean, we've got a good relationship in that, in that sense.

    Yeah. But she's also a very, very blunt person. Mm-hmm. Yeah. So she, she said, yeah, you just wanna be a beach bum. Bu I say yes. That that's what I wanna be.

    Ling Yah: So how did it all change from beach bum to something that is giving back to community?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah, so I think I was the, at the final semester in uni.

    I was pretty set on, once it's done, maybe just starting with three to three to six months and just seeing where that goes. but at the same time, I was part of this group led by my mentor, Jasmine Ung. Yeah. who at that time said to my mom that she's passionate about mentoring young people.

    And so my mom volunteered all her sons and girlfriends and a couple other people's kids to be under Jasmine ung. Yeah. And so we formed a group called Growing Emerging Leaders.

    And the idea was to just form a safe place for us to figure out life, in how we could make that successful transition from studying life to working life, but centered around leadership and personal development and is value-based.

    I think at that time, I did have the desire to be a person of substance and character, but didn't know really how to do so because we haven't been exposed to the challenges of the world, and so a lot of people will say, you know, John-Son you're very idealistic.

    But you can't be idealistic for too long cuz if not, people that cheat you. You know, the moment you go into the real world, it's a dog eat dog world. And that troubled me.

    It is not that I couldn't be a dog, you know, to eat other dogs and things like that, but I said, is that really what life is about?

    Mm-hmm. And and so that's what this group was for. Yeah. And so we had talked and talked and talked a lot.

    One of our desires was not to just talk, but, or to also see how do we practice, what we are preaching and what we are talking about. And, and how can that impact other people beyond our circle as well?

    Towards the end of uni, I, I think that desire kind of grew because there was this desperation to do something before I get caught up with real life. Cuz that was the, thinking, right? And the idea was that, the moment real life starts, then you can't think about community, can't think about society.

    It's about just survival about yourself. It's just about working hard and making a living. And then perhaps when you are 55 or nowadays 60, 65 when you're retired, then you can go and give back. And I just didn't feel that was true.

    So there was a desperation to do something and that's what led us to our first, social project or at that time we call it Project Epic.

    Ling Yah: Just before we go down that path, since you mentioned Jasmine Ung. Yeah. I heard her in once interview say that you were wanting to be Rain, the Korean singer. Please give us the context behind that.

    John-Son Oei: Okay, fine.

    Like I said, I was a fitness instructor. Unlike today, I was fitter. I looked fitter without my shirt on.

    And I think at that point in time there was a movie that came on where Rain was starring in it called Ninja Assassin. And so since I have small eyes and Rain has small eyes, I thought maybe that's a look I would like to emulate. So I grew my hair out.

    It was so close actually, to being able to be tied up in a top knot but Epic started, and there was an interview.

    It was my first TV interview, I think on live TV. It was going through that awkward phase where it's neither long nor short. And so I tried to like style it and look so greasy on camera. I couldn't stand it. I I chopped it all off.

    Yeah. So, so that and the, the rain period. Yeah. But there's no regrets really. I mean, it really shows you the kind of priorities back then.

    Ling Yah: So. Obviously you've explained how you end up doing Epic. I thought it's so interesting the wording you used that Epic was born out of guilt.

    Mm-hmm. But obviously it makes so much sense now. So that first project you talked about wasn't the whole houses that we see, but a toilet. Yeah. How did that come about?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah, so who's Sebastian? Oh, so Sebastian worked with different, or communities and so we were kind of supporting him but we also felt like he wasn't being paid fairly. He needed some support.

    And so at that time we started by maybe just supplementing his income. But after a while he was saying, Hey, you know, like, don't need, don't eat this. How can we help you? He's like, wait, what's important? You come and follow me and go to a, go to a community. And and so we did, we followed him and met up with with a family, you know.

    So he was the first person who really introduced us to orang asli communities around us. Yeah. I think apart from that, the only time I had interactions with Orley community was when I went hiking when I was really young. And remember, our trail led us true a village.

    But I, I hardly spoke to anyone. Mm-hmm. Yeah. So the first time we met a community was really in ung curling in Hulu Selangor just about 15, 20 minutes from KKB.

    Ling Yah: That first toilet, you brought together 64 strangers through Facebook. Mm-hmm. And it sounds as though it really had a huge impact because after that toilet you decided that you were gonna continue, obviously had to convince your mom three months, six months.

    Yeah. How do you go from a toilet to building a full home for Pak Cihong?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah, so it was during that season where I was searching.

    I was looking for, and what exactly is my purpose here? What's meaningful to me? And, and so that particular project, as mentioned before was supposed to just be something to scratch that guilt or scratch that itch.

    And then following that, I would go and find the job. And so this was 2009 September perhaps where we started engaging the community Pak Ali and family actually. And just learning so much through those interactions, and uncovering our naivety in making a difference in people's lives as well.

    You know, coming in with that sense of privilege and thinking, you guys are poor and I'm not. I was, I'm not rich, right?

    But comparatively, or relatively, you know, we have a bit more resources that we come from the city, right? Yeah. You know, so we have that sort of coming in with this sort of mindset, oh, I'm here to help you just tell us what you want.

    And learning that actually there's so much more to it.

    You know, there's human dignity involved. These people are people.

    There is benefit to or importance of building real authentic relationships.

    And so going in there the first time and meeting Pak Ali and having him serve us strangers an entire meal was a surprise in itself.

    And then just having a conversation and leaving empty hand handed after that, you know, because we wanted a project, but we left with talk and conversation at that time. We didn't hit our KPIs. And then coming again, you know, and having that talk and then leaving again without any projects.

    Mm-hmm. And then the third time, then being in a situation where we could suggest and explore and brainstorm together what we could do for Pak Ali's family or for his community, you know, learning that there's a process to go through that. Mm-hmm. So that was yeah. So, so following, so you

    Ling Yah: thought you just had to lean into it and go even further?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. So, so I think at that, at that time finally we managed to find that project. Yeah. Which we ended up with a toilet simply because there was a need. More comfortable amenities for outsiders. Yeah. Because they wanted to attract more part-time teachers to come in cuz there's a high dropout rate for their kids.

    And so we suggested and said, you know, I think a toilet would really help. Mm-hmm. And to them, they actually didn't, it didn't occur to them at all. And so they said, yeah, I think that that makes sense to us. Let's do that. And then we ended up with the painting of houses as well.

    What was it that led me to continue this?

    It wasn't really the project itself. But it's also just the realizations that I had along the way, even going through that cynical phase where I had not engaged in any type of activity like this before. So again, there's that guilt there, right?

    And you just want to do it before you Getting get into work. And so because I had not engaged in anything like that, I didn't know anyone who would actually answer our call to come and volunteer. So even writing a post, I was thinking who, who will actually come?

    When we put it out there and when we got 64 people show up in, I think it was one and a half of weeks. That to me was so encouraging.

    So I was like, wow, people actually wanna do this now. Of course, on one hand I was thinking, you know, I'll target my friends who I know are into charity work, I'll target them. None of them showed up. Oh no. It was my friends who would party with me And many other strangers that had just led from a friend of a friend.

    Of a friend that showed up. And that to me was just so inspiring.

    They came together. It was the most fulfilling time. Not just because you're quote unquote, you know, helping the less privilege. But because of the quality of interactions that we managed to have as well.

    It forced us to talk about things beyond ourselves.

    When you meet in our case, this orang asli kampung, to see how happy, how together they were, then it makes you question like, why aren't you happy? Why do you take things for granted?

    And we had so many people explore these sort of things together as well.

    And so following the completion of that, we got a lot of feedback from people asking, you know, when's the next one? I've never really got this sort of opportunity to really make an impact and see how, you know, really helps people or to even meet the people making impact.

    And so they ask us and we realized that there wasn't that many platforms or such such things to happen.

    So that was realization number one.

    I think realization number two was asking myself like, why haven't I engaged in anything like this before? Mm-hmm. Because, definitely the fulfillment was there.

    But apart from that, I think on a personal development standpoint, you know, everything that I had learned or were talking about in this group called Growing Emerging Leaders suddenly came alive. We could put values and principles and technical lessons to practice. And I grew as a person just doing a small project like that.

    And I asked myself, why didn't I engage in this earlier? And I realized it wasn't because I didn't care, cuz I did care. And I believe so do many, many people as well. The problem is just that you you feel alone.

    You feel like, what impact can I actually make as one person.

    And there was just something so powerful to, to see strangers come together and encourage one another and realizing that, hey, I'm not alone in this.

    And so I wanted to create a platform one where it would help guide people to get started in impact making. And two, a platform where we could create a community where people didn't have to feel alone, and they could encourage one another and spur each other on to be that difference that they want to be in the communities that they see.

    Ling Yah: So do you feel that I found my why at least at that time?

    John-Son Oei: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I, I think that was something that really made sense to me. Mm-hmm. I think on top of that, I, I realized that in, in Malaysia, you know, a developing country that is moving from survival mode, I know there are still communities in Malaysia are still in survival mode, but many of us who are perhaps more well to do today our parents, our grandparents were in survival mode.

    So sometimes in survival mode, it helps you survive It's an instinct that you grow and helps you survive and adapt. But it doesn't put you in a position to explore the long-term why, you know, you do something. And that's missing in our educational system as well. But I realized that the arena of service provides that environment for people to ask those questions.

    I fundamentally believe that we were put on this planet, not just to enjoy the luxuries of life or just to enrich ourselves, but there's always a so what, right?

    In this case it's so that you could leave positive impact, you know, around you.

    I mean, our lives are finite, and within 70 to a hundred years nowadays, people are thinking we can live on the hundred, but still finite in the grand scheme of, time, and what's more meaningful than to lead that impact, you know? But we don't ask those sort of questions.

    And so I always clarify to people that when I do what I do, my aspiration is not for people to start more NGOs or start more social enterprise, but actually for them to find their purpose as to what is the impact that they're actually being created for? Yeah. What's that? What's that?

    You know, because your purpose always goes beyond you. It shouldn't just be about your happiness. Yeah.

    That was really the why. And I discovered that myself. I'm prototype number one. Just going through the motions and going through the project and all that, unlocked that within me.

    Mm-hmm. That then led to whatever else that that we've been doing or that we do now.

    Ling Yah: When you think about the why, you have to bring it to reality. Obviously that's what brings a lot of people down. The fact that you have to actually run this thing, but resources have to come from somewhere.

    Mm-hmm. The people, the finances, everything else. I imagine at the time there was no such thing as social enterprise. It's very common. Now you throw it out. Yep. But then it was charity, which is relying on the goodwill of everyone. Generosity or acts of faith. Yeah. What was it like and how did you discover this whole concept of social enterprise?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah, yeah. So, so at the beginning I think that, I mean, it's, it is very important to, to to, to understand that there are many people who are looking to give and they're generous and they wanna believe in something and they wanna fund it, and that's how we started, because we had no ambition to do this long term, again, it was supposed to just be one project and that's it.

    But after being in this a little bit longer we realized that there's so many restrictions that come from that come from running it as a pure nonprofit or as a charity. I understand that regulations and governance are put in place to, to ensure that there's no abuse of funds, there's no siphoning and things like that.

    But it doesn't necessarily equate to more impact. Yeah. Which should be the sole focus or the primary focus of impact driven organizations. You can't brag and say, oh yeah, my governance systems are so good. And that's what makes me a good soc an impact driven organization.

    At the end of the day, it's about creating impact, you know, and, and we realized that one of the things one of the things that I noticed was that in typical definition of successful organizations is the bigger you are, the better you are. But in the case of non-profits or charities, the bigger you become, the slower, the less less agile you are.

    And social issues are so dynamic, you know, so you end up with, oh, I've got five focus pillars, that's really where you work within, but that's not necessarily reflective on what's happening on the ground.

    On the ground you, you have like small micro issues that you face that still need solving as well, and at the same time, we also got involved with an activity like building homes, where we foolishly went out there and challenged the notion of how we are building homes.

    And we came out with a house that can be built in three days. Yeah. And succeeded.

    And that also led us to thinking like whether such a endeavor would be able to exist if we were a full on charity, where you have an entire committee to answer and this was such an innovation that that took place.

    And the reason why we could do it was because we also had we were small at that time.

    But we're thinking, you know, as we grow bigger, how can we retain that that freedom? To still explore, to still be adaptable, to change in the ground. And of course at the same time, we in Malaysia, right? So countries with stronger economies their social workers get paid a lot better.

    If you're in an ngo, you still get paid pretty good reads. Whereas in in Malaysia, you're doing it at your detriment. And you're sacrificing your life. But at the same time, I was thinking like, if we want to solve complex, big social issues, we need the best talent. We need the best minds.

    And definitely, you know, a lot of times, and even until today, when we talk to people, if it goes to our operation, they don't want to entertain that. They want the money to go directly to the community or to the beneficiary in need. But they forget that actually in order to design the solution. In order to deliver the solution the way it's meant to. You also need talent. You need people as well, the stewards

    Ling Yah: who are underground. Yeah,

    John-Son Oei: yeah. And so I wanted to be able to grow an organization where you could attract the best talent and be able to pay them market rate.

    So that's where we started to challenge the notion.

    Can we come up with something that's in the middle? Mm-hmm. You know, that's what we called it in the middle. It wasn't social enterprise or anything, but we were telling people I wanna do something in the middle. I will con focus on impact, but I also got business as well.

    We can generate our own funds. So that en enables us to, to do what needs to be done, you know, where needs to be done.

    Ling Yah: Your mind must have blown in 2013 when this social enterprise concept came.

    John-Son Oei: Well, three, yeah, three, three years into it from 2010, 2013 came around suddenly Mohammad Yunus, I mean, maybe I, didn't study, I didn't read enough.

    He's been around for a long time and running as a social business. But it suddenly became a lot more legit in Malaysia, you know, social business, social enterprise, that at least gave us some academic handle to what we were trying to do, or a term to, our organization. and so that, I think put us at ease. But ultimately it's not the terminology that ensures success for your organization. You still needed to make sure that there's a business model that works if. It's no use.

    Ling Yah: And were the companies convinced, cuz I heard that when you were first pitching the companies, they were like, what is this con job that you're trying to get me to sponsor?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. So, to give some context to to that, I think it's so, it's so important.

    So this is in regards to building homes, right? At the Epic Homes Initiative. And so we, we intended again to, to just build one home. This was still in 2010 and I was still in my exploration phase.

    My mom was still asking me, Hey, when are you gonna get a proper job? My grandmother was still praying to Jesus to, oh no, give me a proper job. Cause she sees me every day on my computer and she says that You're just playing computer every day. I know she doesn't. She did. Yeah. So she, her mind

    would blow Now that you can be a gamer and make so much money.

    I know, I know. But I don't think she'll be able to accept that. Yeah. So, so that was, that, that particular phase. And so we just wanted to build one that was successful. And then suddenly we managed to get a lot more attention and people were saying, Hey, let me help you. Hey, let me fund you. Hey, you know, maybe this could go somewhere.

    And so suddenly, wow, we know a lot of people wanna do this, you know? And, and so we, we had received some funds to build seven more homes to the re to, well, in their case, they wanted seven homes. In our case, we were building seven homes while also refining the, the product. As well, no one knew.

    Obviously, yes, the houses are still standing today. They look different, but they are still standing today. I mean, for those of you who are worried. But following that, we realized that we had something in our hands and we wanted to do more of that. But when we were raising funds previously, we didn't even think about ourselves.

    We are thinking about just the bare cost of. House material. Mm-hmm. And we are building smaller units as well at that time for us smaller families. Yeah. And we realized that in order to, to raise funds at an amount that would help the majority or the average family, it would require us to raise a little bit more.

    So at that time, I think we were looking at about 40 to 50,000 ringing, which we realized upon going to many CSR departments or corporates. It's a big sum. So a lot of them are used to starting their own partnering foundations or funding a flagship program that they're already committed to for years.

    So an ad hoc requests a proposal that comes in from us. Usually they park a site no more than 40,000, ring it, so we are thinking like, there's no way this is gonna work, you know, and we won't be able to do more of this. And of course at the same time we were thinking how do we support ourselves, our operations as well.

    So 40,000 was the cost of the house and we're thinking, you know, because of the rate of one home every three months that was back then maybe we need about RM 10,000 to survive. And I think that was about three or four of us. Yeah. So that was how it's still really low for Still very low. Yeah.

    That's still really at our own expense, that sacrifice mentality, which is needed, right. Any startup to kickstart you need to have that sort of attitude as well. But I was just thinking like, okay. At least even that amount, I put it 10k so the entire package was 50k.

    Yeah. That would be way more than most companies are willing.

    So we realized that we needed to do things differently. Hmm. And so we had the idea that, hey, could we double this up as a team building exercise? Because we were getting amazing results. Even not designing for team building outcomes.

    Mm-hmm. Strangers were coming together, leaving as friends, you know, some got married.

    It is just something so powerful about that particular experience. This would be so much more meaningful because sometimes a lot of it's simulations and games that you play.

    But although this one's a bit more tough, the outcome is a lot more tangible, a lot more meaningful. And I think this will be fantastic for team building.

    We started to try to present it that way. The reason for the tactic was so that the people that we meet could free up budgets from other departments as well. So we would go from company to company and say hey, have you thought about this as team building? So instead of charging 50,000, we charge 40,000 and then we upsell an add-on package to to service them as a team building experience, take all the work off their hands and organize it for them.

    And then also make a profit as well. You know, if it's a service, I can make a profit and not feel bad about it. Or at least that's what we were thinking, right? So we went to the companies and they're very used to just giving us a volunteer or giving us a charity, right? And so they're saying, oh yeah, I'll give my staff to you as volunteers.

    I'm doing you a service. And so we need to justify to them that, no, I'm doing you a service. Yeah. Your people are gonna have their lives changed and this is fantastic for team building. It's gonna beat anything else that you have. Or you've done before. Yeah. And so that's why when we met people they're saying, what are you telling me?

    Wait, I have to give you money for the house on top of that, I'm going to give you my stuff. No, that's going to cost me money and time. And on top of that, you want me to pay you to handle my stuff. That's a con job. Yeah. Said by a person who's now built multiple homes with us, and gone on to become like a specialist builder in our community.

    Yeah. But this was a person who turned us down two or three years before he actually built it. But that was his exact words.

    And so that was a kind of response, or if people weren't as blunt as him people were saying sometimes thought that as well.

    It wasn't until we finally got our break with thanks to PEMANDU who decided to use one of the homes that they were funding. Cuz we were part of the GTP 2.0 lab. Mm-hmm. And were trying to work out, how to do things differently for the pillar of low income household. Yeah. Yeah. And so he says, okay, sounds like good idea. Why don't you have my stuff?

    And so we gave him a very good discount. Yeah. Almost like we didn't make money, but we just needed something on a portfolio. They did it. They said there's the most amazing team building experience. Yeah. They then recommended it to Media Prima, Air Asia, GE and then Taylors. And then it snowballed from then the rest is history.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. Sometimes you just need that Right break from the right person.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. So, so thankful to, to him for that shot.

    Ling Yah: For those who have never been on one of these things, what does it look like? What does the team building exercise the whole experience? What does it mean?

    John-Son Oei: The mission is to build a home for a family.

    Yeah. It's, it's pure and simple, right? There's an actual family there. Mm-hmm. And, and the commitment required is intense. And the challenge is very real. When you arrive on site, there is nothing but the anchor point for this house. And although we've built 188 homes to this day, when people arrive on site, they still question is it possible?

    We've designed these homes to be safe and and also to be built structurally sound. Think of it like IKEA furniture. As long as you follow the instructions, you'll get it up. Right. And Lego as well. And Lego. And Lego, yeah. And you'll be led by a team of so a, a team of specialist builders.

    Mm-hmm. So there'll be four of them, and you'll be split up into various groups focusing on different parts of the house. In our case, the roof, the walls, the structure, and the floor. Right? And you'll be working in tandem, you know, and, and putting this house up as you go. You will be led by a master builder.

    And so all these more specialized or more senior builders are there to ensure that the house is put up properly. That's quality control. And you are kept safe and hydrated as well. You know, and, and, and, and you, you get to it, you arrive on site 9:00 AM you start building we have a lot of breaks in the middle with ice cream and snacks and things like that to make sure that people still very spoiled.

    Oh, absolutely. These are things that I would expect as well, because we're not full-time. Yes. labourers. And we're not built that way. I think we need to make sure that energy levels are high. Morale is high. Yeah. So you trust one another while working on your own component.

    And as the day goes by, you'll see how all your components fit into this home. And at the end of it and there will be fights, there will be challenges. You'll say, Hey, you're not holding the hammer properly. Eh, you don't know what you're doing. And it doesn't matter what level you're at, whether you are the office boy talking to the ceo.

    The CEO cannot do it properly. This is a real house for real family. We have to stay objective. You know? And so you see that sort of collaborations happening and you see the leveling of Of hierarchy. Yeah. Happening in this space as well, which also becomes a great platform for relationship building, so you can have really good deep conversations as well.

    Every night there's a debrief where we look at how can we do better the following day. We swap teammates around. Sometimes they express that, okay, I don't feel confident with heights, you know, I think you're gonna move me somewhere else, or I had this problem here, but okay, let me talk it out with each other because we have to build a house tomorrow.

    You know, you have to solve your forgive me, but you just have to solve your shit, you know? Then, then because it affects the quality of the house. Yeah. You know, and then finally on the third day you finish the house, you, I mean, to most people, it's still a surprise. It's so fulfilling. Yeah. And at the same time you get to See a family move in, and hear from them what it means to them.

    Yeah. And know that what contributed to that was really you guys coming together, putting your differences aside and, and making something epic happen.

    Ling Yah: So obviously there's all the epic things that are happening impacting, changing literal lives, but then there's the reality as well, because things don't always go that easy.

    It's not always that smooth. I read that 2012 was a really difficult year for you, and I wonder if you could share to the extent possible of why, cuz it end on a high note.

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. So, so 2012 I, so, so the thing about Epic and we're still very, very thankful for is just immense support and help that we got from just people coming off the internet of friends, of friends, you know, saying, Hey, I'm so and so, and.

    I'm here to help. You know, and they really did. Of course, there's a lot of people who said they helped that, that didn't help. But we remember the ones that did help, you know? Yeah. And, and so in the earlier days, we were very much volunteer driven pro bono. And, and actually a lot of things that we still do today relies on volunteers coming to help.

    Mm-hmm. But that, at that time, we were like totally relying on them because our team had no technical help. And, and so we had many, many teams of volunteers that would come in three months at a time. Yeah. Work out prototype at home, refine it, build it, and then they'll move on. And then another team would come in.

    And, and so the thing about the work that we do is it's very emotionally charged. It's very, you know, it's very, there's a lot of intangibles that are the motivation as to why people would stay and help us because we couldn't pay money, you know? And, and so I think the reason why it was tough was it was a leadership lesson for me where one of the things that we learned is that actually how you do something is equally as important or more important than the outcome, especially in, in our case, you know, and, and so we, we realized that although, you know, we tried our best to create a unified culture and to propagate our values, you know, by putting the seven values up on the wall, you know, when they come in, you know, and, and telling and then talking to them, you know, on a very shallow level, it's like, Hey, do you agree?

    Yeah. You know love, you know, generosity, what not to agree. Of course, I agree, you know, but realizing that actually people come from many, many different backgrounds and they have very different definitions as to what those words mean. And there's a need to put it to the test, and there's a need to work it out.

    Yeah. But I didn't know these things, you know, so as a result, we had people who were really good in, in terms of performance, but we just realized that the, the values just didn't match, you know? So as a result, then there was a there's different factions that started coming up, you know, and so the epic that we knew we wanted it to be suddenly became this very political Oh, we felt, you know, thing in, in, in our small, little, small, little world.

    And, and the manner in which it was in our, i our idea in how things should be done and things should be delivered was very, very different. Yeah. You know, and, and so in, in, in my case, like in doing epic homes and, and you know probably by now you've figured out that there's a lot of parallels between like what I've experienced as a, as a child or as a teen growing up and, and why we do what we do.

    And that experience where we would've messed things up and we were learning how to grow as adults by having people extend grace and love, and kindness in those moments is what I believe has led to me being the person that I am. So, likewise, in working with the people and stuff, we try not to calculate. We try not to put too many conditions cuz I want them to know that we do it because it's really outed goodness of our heart.

    Ultimately with Epic, it's about unlocking your potential, whoever that we provide a house for, that's that platform so that they can become an epic person to then become the change within their community as well. And I believe to kickstart that journey cannot come with conditions.

    It needs to come from their own personal convictions. And so they need a genuine experience. But in, in our case, like, you know, you meet many times, you meet people who are going through tough times in their life or who has had it tough. And so they're broken people, you know? And broken people hurt. Other people hurt.

    Hurting people, hurt people. But those are the people that need love, you know? But it's very easy for people to say, oh, they don't deserve it. You know, because you don't, at that point in time, you don't seem like you appreciate my gesture, you don't deserve it. You know? And so that was the kind of dilemma that we had back then.

    And so we had built 12 homes, but the entire team just broke apart. And so I felt like a failure as a leader. And I didn't know what to do. But as you've rightly put it, it ended on a high that gave me time and space to think about what's important in life.

    I realized that actually in life there will be these ups and downs.

    There will be challenges, but you want to secure, I think, the kind of people that you want to do life with. That's when I also made the decision to marry my my girlfriend at the time and,

    and also co-founder. You worked

    together? That's right. Yeah. Jane. Wow. Jane's one of co-founders of of Epic.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. Amazing. So obviously we've talked about the loss. We have to talk about the highs. Mm-hmm. And, and on a depressing note, you have received many awards whenever it was in Mohamed Ali Awards. Obviously it was also personally very significant for you. Could you share why?

    John-Son Oei: Yeah. So so yeah, I think we've been, we've been so grateful and blessed to receive many, many awards.

    I think, as you've rightly put it, the Mohammed Ali Award was especially important. I mean, first of all, it's really, I didn't expect it at all. You know, who is this? Malaysian guy, going to the states to receive an award from, you know, attached to such a prominent figure in history. I think that that itself was amazing.

    But to me, that trip, that whole experience was so much more important because first of all, I think my dad was a huge fan of Mohamed Ali, right? And on top of that, like that was the first time I could go to the States, you know, so it had been 17 years since my dad had passed, but he's never seen his, grave quote unquote. I mean, he got cremated, right?

    So it's a columbarium. And so I've never seen it in person at all. And so I put in, put in a request to the foundation Mohammad Ali Foundation and asked them if they are willing to fly me there instead first, and then to Kentucky Louisville, where they are based.

    And they agreed.

    And so 17 years later I, I was there, you know, going there to, to receive an award that means from a person that no, like was, I think one of my dad's like heroes. And then being able to, to stop by. Yeah. And, and see, see my dad's grave after all these years. So that was especially, a significant moment in my life.

    And I mean, I got to do that all with Jane as well, you know? Yeah. So, that was really nice.

    Ling Yah: I wonder, you know, obviously very personally meaningful, very exhausting as well from a emotional perspective. Do you sometimes think this is all to life? There is, cuz I feel like we always have an inclination of being dissatisfied.

    We, we already have, even though it is very fulfilling and we do think it's fulfilling. I wonder if you ever have the thought of, oh, if there's something more.

    John-Son Oei: Definitely. Yeah. I think we're human.

    On certain days, I mean, especially during Covid where things were just not going well.

    Mm-hmm. All our businesses could, could not run all our initiatives couldn't run.

    Everything was just turned on its head. We had to work out how to sustain our team. At the same time, Jane and I had to make sacrifices as well, not take a salary for a year.

    And so things was very tough.

    It's very easy to forget like what you have already. And so on days like that we are guilty or I am guilty of asking, is this really all?

    But I suppose, you know, when you just take time to breathe and to think like I think that's, yeah.

    I think there's already been so much. I mean, yeah. I mean if that's, if that's your, if that's your

    Ling Yah: question. Yeah. Because the next question then becomes, obviously there is that confusion, conflict. I always love to end with these questions. Do you feel, at least at this point, that you have found your why?

    John-Son Oei: Hmm. Yeah. So before

    Ling Yah: you said, you said yes before, right. And I wonder it's been a 12th, 13

    John-Son Oei: years, right? Yeah. Yeah. So I think, I think before that, like yeah. I, I, I think, you know, it's, it's really human nature to, to always want more, you know and also to scrutinize, you know, the person that you are today, whether you're good enough or not especially in times where you're given things that are beyond you for now. Sometimes you have this really strong imposter syndrome as well.

    But I mean, I'm of the belief that at the end day in my life, God's in control of it, you know? And he won't give you something that.

    You can't handle, or if not, then it's a really good lesson, you know?

    It's very easy. And even my wife and I as well, we do sometimes struggle with that.

    Like 188 homes, only 188 homes. Yeah. You know, we could be doing so much more, you know, oh, the design can be improved. You know, so many things that we are not happy with, you know, we can improve on. But actually it's easy to forget

    Ling Yah: that God cares about the one sheep, right.

    John-Son Oei: It is. It is. Yeah. And I, I think that it doesn't help in the long run, you know?

    That's our programming, I think being in Asia, you know, to always like beat yourself first, to try to get yourself to go, but it doesn't go very far. Mm-hmm. I think you need a foundation of Thanksgiving and gratefulness, you know to know what you have in your hands today, because that itself can already make a lot of difference.

    So that's just maybe just to close your last question and then the question in terms of what is it, have I found my feel like find the why today? I don't think that has changed really. I think the, the why hasn't changed. I, I think it's just how is it how does it take.

    In this season in my life, I've been doing this for 13 years. Yeah. And it's very easy to get caught up with like the tangible stuff and the things that work, especially after Covid where I've learned that anything could happen, and whatever that you think is a cure can be taken away in an instance.

    The why hasn't changed.

    I still believe in our human purpose.

    We need to find something that goes beyond ourselves, that creates a lasting impact in society. And creating that platform for people to discover that. I still believe that's, that's my why.

    But just how is what I'm trying to figure out today.

    Ling Yah: And what about legacy though? What kind of legacy do you wanna leave behind?

    John-Son Oei: Mm.

    It's funny, this is one of those questions I asked in when I Good interview people. Good. Oh, I recruit them and I thought I'd be more prepared to, to answer this. But I think the legacy I'm gonna leave behind really isn't about like, oh, changing the world and stuff. I think all that's a really a bonus.

    But I think it really would be dependent on the testimonies of the people that are near and dear to me. You know, whether they could say that I was a person of integrity, whatever I said I did, you know, that I was I was, I think first of all, like a person who was obedient to I think whatever that God has called me to, I guess that one, we need God to tell me when I, when I visit.

    The other side. Yeah. Yeah. But I think to the ones that are close to me that I was, I, I guess Hmm.

    Yeah. I mean, for a lack of better word. Like a good person Yeah. With them and consistent. Yeah.

    Ling Yah: I just love that, you know, especially those with strong faith. The answer is always community based. Like when I was interviewing the Anglican vicar, Nicky Gumbel. His answer was just simply love. Mm. Which is very simple, but you wouldn't expect, say, a normal entrepreneur to say that would be like, oh, grit.

    Driven. Very inward looking. So I think it's just such an interesting sort of distinction. Next question I always ask is, what do you think are the most important qualities of a successful person?

    John-Son Oei: Oh wow. What are the most important qualities of a successful person? I think the challenge there is You need to feel like you're a successful person to speak with some authority.

    I think integrity, conviction, grit, and faith. I think integrity because if you don't have integrity, you would be a walking hypocrite, life is just tough. Yeah. There is no easy, you can't be a beach bum. Yeah, you can wait. I'm sure it would have his own challenges as well, but definitely not challenges for me.

    Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 116. The show notes and transcript can be found at

    And stay tuned for next Sunday, because we'll be meeting a former US Congressman who is also the Frank behind the Dodd-Frank Act, which is the greatest Wall Street reform ever in history.

    He is also the chairman of the House of Finance community. And his journey all began where he was studying at Harvard Law School to when he decided to run a campaign based on the slogan. Neatness isn't everything. We talked about a lot of things. For instance, what it's like to be the first gay and most prominent politician to be coming out.

    What it's like to live through the age of the subprime mortgages and also the Lehman Brothers, and also what it's like now, obviously with the meltdown of the banks, with SVB, his role as a director at Signature Bank and so much more. So this is not an episode you wanna miss.

    Do stick around, subscribe and see you next Sunday.

    John-Son Oei founder and chief epic officer, CEO of EPIC Collective, EPIC Homes social enterprise in Malaysia

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