While well-known for their rich di­ver­sity of cul­tures, re­li­gions, tra­di­tions, lan­guages and his­to­ries, in­dige­nous peo­ples con­tinue to be among the world’s most marginalised pop­u­la­tion groups. Meet the individuals who are trying to im­prove the lives of the


It was in De­cem­ber 1994 when the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly de­clared 9 Au­gust as the In­ter­na­tional Day of the World's In­dige­nous Peo­ples. While well-known for their rich di­ver­sity of cul­tures, re­li­gions, tra­di­tions, lan­guages and his­to­ries, in­dige­nous peo­ples con­tinue to be among the world's most marginalised pop­u­la­tion groups. The Peak meets the peo­ple who have ded­i­cated them­selves to mak­ing a difference to the lives of the marginalised com­mu­ni­ties in Malaysia.

PRO­JECT TRY Ravi­raj Sawlani Founder, Pro­ject TRY “I have al­ways felt a need to act on my ideas, espe­cially when it in­volves mak­ing a difference and help­ing oth­ers achieve their goals,” says Ravi­raj Sawlani, the founder of Pro­ject TRY. Es­tab­lished in 2014, the main mis­sion of this so­cial en­ter­prise is to em­power youths re­sid­ing in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties by de­vel­op­ing learn­ing cen­tres that would pro­vide them with the nec­es­sary tech­ni­cal skills that are re­quired to work in Malaysia’s highly com­pet­i­tive tourism in­dus­try.

Like any bud­ding en­ter­prise, the path to suc­cess hasn’t al­ways been smooth sail­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Sawlani, se­cur­ing fund­ing for this pro­ject posed a ma­jor chal­lenge, even from the very be­gin­ning: “We ini­tially re­ceived seed fund­ing from the in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity centre, MaGIC (Malaysian Global In­no­va­tion and Cre­ativ­ity Centre), which had just taken off then, but this meant that the funds were de­layed.” In the mean­time, Ravi­raj de­cided to ex­plore other means to get Pro­ject TRY up and run­ning. “I had co­founded a pri­vate en­tity called Sky In­ter­na­tional Acad­emy, which of­fers cour­ses rang­ing from learn­ing English to hos­pi­tal­ity ser­vices man­age­ment. Us­ing the prof­its from this business, we de­cided we could sub­sidise the cost of ed­u­ca­tion for those who could not af­ford to at­tend school on their own.”

“We started off be­ing very ide­al­is­tic about our ap­proach but, over the years, we re­alised the im­por­tance of work­ing to­gether within the ecosys­tem of change-mak­ers. It is important to un­der­stand the prob­lem you are trying to solve as well as iden­ti­fy­ing the right part­ners and op­por­tu­ni­ties to work with, espe­cially when it in­volves com­ing up with a long-term so­lu­tion. We also try to avoid in­sti­tu­tion­alised think­ing and have op­ti­mised struc­tures within our op­er­a­tions to de­liver ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions de­spite hav­ing a very lean team. When it comes to em­pow­er­ing peo­ple, the train­ing process has to be con­tin­u­ous in or­der to make an im­pact. As for progress, ev­ery mile­stone comes with its own set of chal­lenges, and we are al­ways trying to fig­ure out how to help these stu­dents over­come that.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sawlani, the com­pany is also in the midst of de­vel­op­ing new streams of rev­enue that will en­able Pro­ject TRY to thrive. “We work closely with ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and a lot of them have ac­cess to land. Be­cause of this, we de­cided to ex­pand our business model so that while we set up these schools, we also de­velop a liveli­hood pro­gramme that will make their way of life more sus­tain­able by teach­ing them how to be­come mi­croen­trepreneurs through ei­ther farm­ing or even set­ting up their own lodg­ing and F&B business. The goal is to teach them ways to be­come in­de­pen­dent from ex­ist­ing sys­tems so that they are not en­tirely de­pen­dent on hand­outs from the gov­ern­ment or cor­po­ra­tions.”

As for the main rea­son why Pro­ject TRY de­cided to fo­cus all its ef­forts on work­ing with the pockets of in­dige­nous peo­ples re­sid­ing in Sabah, Sawlani ex­plains: “Here, there are heaps of de­vel­op­ment and tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties. There’s also a huge pop­u­la­tion of iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties re­sid­ing in re­mote ar­eas that have not been

ex­posed to for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. Be­cause of this, we de­cided to go there to cre­ate train­ing pro­grammes that will pair them with the right jobs within the tourism in­dus­try. Our plan is for them to make enough so that they can add to their food re­serves and in­vest in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. In most cases, the only thing that these peo­ple re­ally have is land. But instead of just sell­ing it off to the high­est bid­der, I al­ways en­cour­age them to work with or­gan­i­sa­tions that can help them ac­ti­vate their land, so that they can build a con­stant rev­enue stream. At the end of the day, this is all they will have to pass down to their chil­dren.

“In the past, we con­ducted short-term pro­grammes in places such as Mabul, Kam­pong Tibabar, Ku­dat and Kun­dasang. Cur­rently, we are look­ing into de­vel­op­ing our first vil­lage, which we tar­get to com­plete some­time in Q1 next year. The plan for this is to build a vil­lage that of­fers so­lu­tions for shel­ter, food re­serves, ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing and clean en­ergy. While these so­lu­tions will be in­tro­duced and devel­oped by Pro­ject TRY, our ul­ti­mate goal is for this vil­lage to be managed by the com­mu­ni­ties them­selves.”

As ex­plained by Sawlani, Pro­ject TRY is also open to work­ing with other or­gan­i­sa­tions that are ea­ger to be part of the greater good: “I pre­fer work­ing with part­ners that offer creative so­lu­tions, are ef­fi­cient and can pro­duce the re­sults that we de­sire while bring­ing these new so­lu­tions to­gether. We have al­ready se­cured agri­cul­ture part­ners from In­done­sia and en­ergy part­ners in Sabah, while Sky In­ter­na­tional Acad­emy will serve as the pri­mary part­ner for pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tion. Al­though we’re in the ed­u­ca­tion business, we are also look­ing into de­vel­op­ing food re­serves and clean en­ergy. If there are any or­gan­i­sa­tions within these sec­tors who are look­ing to make an im­pact on these marginalised com­mu­ni­ties, they should reach out to us as we’re al­ways look­ing for new ways to col­lab­o­rate.”

As for his fu­ture hopes for Pro­ject TRY, Sawlani ex­plains: “Five years from now, I want to cre­ate a model ru­ral com­mu­nity that is com­pletely in­de­pen­dent and run­ning in a sus­tain­able way. This means clean en­ergy, hav­ing enough food re­serves and ac­cess to a dy­namic level of ed­u­ca­tion. With the In­ter­net and pro­grammes be­ing devel­oped to cater to in­dus­try de­mands, I don’t see why these youths have to be left behind. They are equally if not more en­er­getic, hun­gry for op­por­tu­ni­ties and pretty good with vo­ca­tional work. They are a huge ta­lent pool and play an in­te­gral role in de­vel­op­ing the country’s econ­omy.”

“With the In­ter­net and pro­grammes be­ing devel­oped to cater to in­dus­try de­mands, I don’t see why these youths have to be left behind.”

EPIC HOMES Loh Jon Ming, Jayne Kennedy & John- Son Oei Founders, Epic Col­lec­tive It all be­gan with a weekly group gath­er­ing where JohnSon Oei, Jayne Kennedy and Loh Jon Ming would meet up to dis­cuss how to be­come bet­ter lead­ers and individuals. Oei rem­i­nisces: “We were just about to grad­u­ate from univer­sity and en­ter the work force; we re­alised that un­less we started walk­ing the talk, we will never be able to achieve these goals. That’s when we de­cided to start our first pro­ject in Kam­pung Jawa in Kuala Kubu Ba­haru, Se­lan­gor, where we built a toi­let and painted 12 houses.” It was from this ex­pe­ri­ence that the trio dis­cov­ered there were many other individuals want­ing to vol­un­teer, but the lack of proper plat­forms made it seem unattain­able. “It’s not that peo­ple don’t care, but that they feel alone and in­ca­pable of mak­ing a difference, which pre­vents them from tak­ing action.”

Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of their first pro­ject, the group de­cided they would con­tinue their ef­forts for the next three months to see how far they could go with this en­deav­our. Seven years on, the group now known as Epic Col­lec­tive has blos­somed into a bur­geon­ing so­cial en­ter­prise that not only builds homes for marginalised com­mu­ni­ties but also cre­ates, in­vests and dis­cov­ers var­i­ous dif­fer­ent so­cial ini­tia­tives. In April this year, the com­pany cel­e­brated the 100th home that was built through its non-profit ini­tia­tive, Epic Homes. “We never ex­pected it to be­come what it is to­day,” says Kennedy, who serves as the COO at Epic Col­lec­tive. “It’s also ex­cit­ing to ob­serve the cul­ture of the team behind this col­lec­tive, which cur­rently stands at around 30 peo­ple. This is not just about the three of us but about how we can bring ev­ery­one else along with us on this jour­ney by em­pow­er­ing the peo­ple who are part of Epic Col­lec­tive. As we con­tinue to ex­pand, we are also search­ing for other ways to en­able the team and share this vision to help shape how this com­pany will work, which will be one of our big­gest chal­lenges in mov­ing for­ward.”

To this, the group’s CFO Loh adds: “I think the more personalities there are, the richer a com­pany cul­ture becomes. While not ev­ery­one might be tech­ni­cally sound or su­per-ca­pa­ble, ev­ery­one who works at Epic Col­lec­tive has a pas­sion to grow with this com­pany with in­tegrity and hon­esty. Most important of all is to be gen­uine with what you want and what you are do­ing now to achieve that goal, while en­sur­ing that both these el­e­ments are aligned with each other.” For Oei, who serves as the Group CEO, the im­por­tance of find­ing the right in­di­vid­ual makes a big difference to the suc­cess of the com­pany: “At Epic Col­lec­tive, we be­lieve it’s not about what you do but who

you be­come. Instead of hav­ing achieve­ments or tick­ing things off their lists, the peo­ple who are part of this com­pany are look­ing for ways to make a difference... at the end of the day, they be­lieve that through this process, good work will get done.”

When asked what made the group de­cide to fo­cus on the plight of the orang asli com­mu­nity, Oei ex­plains: “These ini­tia­tives are designed to build bridges be­tween the orang asli and ur­ban vol­un­teers. Through build­ing these homes, re­la­tion­ships are formed and trust is cre­ated. We also en­cour­age both par­ties to re­main in con­tact so that they can em­pathise and find ways to sup­port one an­other. On one end of the spec­trum, you have a fam­ily that’s be­ing shel­tered so that they don’t have to worry about where to live and can fo­cus on their big­ger goals, but you also have these ur­ban vol­un­teers who are be­ing ex­posed to the orang asli way of life.”

In speak­ing with the group, it becomes ev­i­dent how work­ing with this marginalised com­mu­nity has left a deep im­pact on their own out­look on life. “You can re­ally learn a lot from these great peo­ple, who have such a rich her­itage. Not only are they in­cred­i­bly re­silient but they also have great val­ues – a sense of com­mu­nity, the im­por­tance of fam­ily and want­ing to take care of one an­other. These val­ues are also what im­pact the ur­ban vol­un­teers the most. Ad­di­tion­ally, vol­un­teers can also im­pact one an­other. While many might start out as strangers, the way we’ve designed these projects pushes them to go be­yond their own bound­aries, which, in turn, en­ables them to discover a side of them­selves that they might have otherwise never known,” says Oei.

For Kennedy, the ben­e­fits of build­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween peo­ple from var­i­ous walks of life are crys­tal clear: “Most peo­ple to­day pre­fer to work in their own si­los and will hardly in­ter­act with one an­other un­less it’s for func­tional pur­poses. For us, it’s about break­ing the stereo­types, build­ing con­nec­tions and get­ting peo­ple to recog­nise what they can do now by us­ing the knowl­edge that they’ve gained from this ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, Epic Col­lec­tive works closely with a lot of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers and other peo­ple within the same in­dus­try. When they get in­volved in build­ing these homes, they start to re­alise just how dif­fi­cult hard labour can be, which makes them aware of the need to treat their con­struc­tion work­ers bet­ter. Through these ex­pe­ri­ences, the vol­un­teers in­volved will be able to im­ple­ment changes within their own cir­cles, ul­ti­mately help­ing cre­ate a bet­ter world for ev­ery­one.”

As for what’s in the pipe­line, Oei re­veals: “Epic Homes is mostly run by vol­un­teers who are op­er­at­ing in dif­fer­ent roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties on a con­struc­tion site out­side their day-to-day jobs. Cur­rently, we have a com­mu­nity of over 5,000 peo­ple that have been trained through the ex­pe­ri­ence of serv­ing. The way we sus­tain our so­cial business model is by sell­ing this ex­pe­ri­ence as a team­build­ing ex­er­cise to com­pa­nies, while the money is used to fund the con­struc­tion of these homes.” In ad­di­tion, Oei also high­lights the need to con­sider the var­i­ous other as­pects that are in­volved in im­prov­ing the wel­fare of a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity.

“Be­cause of this, we’ve de­cided to launch two new com­pa­nies un­der Epic Col­lec­tive. The first is Epic Com­mu­ni­ties, which looks at de­vel­op­ing co­op­er­a­tive, re­silient and self-sus­tain­ing com­mu­ni­ties. We are not just look­ing at build­ing shel­ters but also har­vest­ing clean water, re­new­able en­ergy, food pro­duc­tion, im­prov­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity and so forth. Epic Com­mu­ni­ties will also ac­cept com­mer­cial projects and will op­er­ate sim­i­lar to how a con­sul­tancy works. The sec­ond com­pany is Epic DNA, an ex­pe­ri­en­tial com­pany that spe­cialises in us­ing ser­vice ex­pe­ri­ences for per­sonal, team and lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment. Our plan is to tie up with ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tutes, such as pri­mary and high schools as well as uni­ver­si­ties, col­leges and other com­pa­nies, to see how we can en­hance the skills of their peo­ple while giv­ing them the op­por­tu­nity to serve oth­ers.”

This month, Oei will be trav­el­ling to Louisville, Ken­tucky, to at­tend the Fifth An­nual Muham­mad Ali Hu­man­i­tar­ian Awards, where he will re­ceive the Ded­i­ca­tion Award. “It’s def­i­nitely a huge hon­our. At the same time, it serves as a re­minder that we actually have a lot more in­flu­ence than we think, and that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do even greater things.” Ac­cord­ing to the 30-year-young en­tre­pre­neur, this ac­knowl­edge­ment also provides a sense of clo­sure for a per­sonal tragedy that oc­curred 17 years ago. “It’s my first time going to US. My fa­ther went there for an op­er­a­tion and passed away but they couldn’t send his body back. Many kind peo­ple came to my fam­ily’s aid dur­ing our time of need, which wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble if not for this tragedy. I cer­tainly did not know that all this was going to hap­pen but it has, which makes this award even more of a mean­ing­ful mile­stone for us at Epic Col­lec­tive.”

“On one end of the spec­trum, you have a fam­ily that’s be­ing shel­tered so that they don’t have to worry about where to live and can fo­cus on their big­ger goals, but you also have these ur­ban vol­un­teers who are be­ing ex­posed to the oran­gasli way of life.”

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