TWO indigenous ethnic groups live in the Belum rainforest — the Negrito and the Senoi. Kampung Sungai Kejar is home to more than 200 villagers of the Jahai tribe, the main sub-ethnic group of the Negritos. 48 people had signed up for a five-day event to build two houses in this village.
"No water?” Someone gasped as John-son Oei explained to the 48 people gathered around him that there was a possibility we might have to survive without fresh water supply for the next few days. For some reason, the water from the mountains had stopped flowing to the village.
After travelling more than 12 hours (by bus and boat) to the heart of Royal Belum State Park in Perak, most of us city folks probably did not want to hear that we might have to use the bushes as a substitute toilet and bath in the man-made lake. But the disappointment was momentary as we quickly regained our sense of adventure and purpose. After all, we knew we had to tough it out when we signed up for this five-day event to build two houses in the Orang Asli village of Kampung Sungai Kejar.
Two indigenous ethnic groups live in the Belum rainforest — the Negrito and the Senoi. Kampung Sungai Kejar is home to more than 200 villagers of the Jahai tribe, the main sub-ethnic group of the Negritos. One of the beneficiaries of the houses, Sempat, says the villagers have been living there for a few years, after abandoning their nomadic lifestyle.
This was just the beginning. What followed in the next three days was a battle against the elements and a race against time. The foundation of one of the houses was not ready as planned when we arrived. Then we discovered rocks in the ground, which made digging of the foundation more tedious and time consuming. The columns had to be raised higher in case of flooding due to the site's close proximity to the lake. And it rained every day, restricting the use of power tools.
But one thing was clear — no one wanted to go home without finishing the job.
Dubbed the "xXx Build", the event was organised by Epic Collaborative, a non-partisan, non-religious initiative that focuses on building sustainable housing for underprivileged Malaysian communities with a current focus on the Orang Asli. Epic, which stands for Extraordinary People Impacting Community, recruits volunteers — made up of people from all walks of life, most of whom do not have any construction knowledge — to build houses for the underprivileged.
"This was our most challenging build to date, both for the participants as well as us, the organiser. When the government first approached us to do this build, we were told that contractors didn't want to take up the project because cost-wise and logistically, it seemed impossible. But we love challenges so we took up the project," shares Oei, who is the co-founder of Epic.
Epic was formed in 2011, and in two years, has built 14 houses with the help of participants. It has gained supporters and participants from all around the world, including China, Taiwan, Germany, the UK, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Sweden and Australia. It has also caught the government's attention.
It all started with what Oei calls a crazy idea.
No grand plan
Oei had just graduated from university with a Degree in Mass Communication and Media Management when he started Epic with a few friends.
"There wasn't any grand plan. We were just young people looking for something to do and some lives to impact. Someone we knew was already working with the Orang Asli and we thought we might as well chip in," says the 26-year-old.
What started out as a project soon evolved into something more meaningful. Oei and team didn't expect much when they posted a message on Facebook to seek volunteers but the results were surprising and set Epic on its course.
"We thought we might get 25 people or so but 64 people signed up in 1½ weeks. The number itself was very inspiring and the reason why I decided to pursue this work. It really broke the mindset that I had. I did not believe that people would care but once I saw it with my own eyes, it changed the way I saw things," says Oei.
However, turning an idea into reality requires a lot of work. As Oei says, they needed to make sure it was possible.
"We started Epic with a team of people who weren't exactly involved or skilled in building. Most of them were architects and engineers who put together a simple building system," says Oei.
Epic's first few projects were humble — building two toilets and painting 12 houses. Epic's first house was built with the help of property developer Prima Properties Management Sdn Bhd, which provided architects and engineers to work on the group's concept and ideas. The house was built for a man in Kampung Hulu Tamu in Batang Kali, Selangor, whose dilapidated house at the time was barely standing. It took a team of 15 people to complete the small house over three days but it was not without missteps.
"We forgot to factor in the rain. Some of the materials we used turned out to be less durable than we thought. And the house turned out to be bigger than we expected, which I guess was a good problem but not when you're building it," Oei laughs.
"We decided to focus on Kampung Hulu Tamu because that's where we started and the wise ones would tell you that in social work, it's best to focus on one area."
1MDB Youth Fund
In 2012, Epic received a RM150,000 grant from the 1MDB Youth Fund that helped to sustain the organisation for a while, giving Epic the opportunity to experiment with different versions of the house and strategically improve from one project to the next.
The 1MDB Youth Fund offers grants to youths between 15 and 40 years old to support projects that promote national unity.
As time went on, more architects and engineers volunteered their expertise and by houses four and five, Epic managed to reach its target of completing a good-sized house in three days.
"Houses four and five were milestones for us. We have reached the point where we can build a six- module house measuring about 600 sq ft in three days, even in tough conditions. Three days is our target because our participants have full-time jobs, so three days is ideal for them," says Oei.
While Epic had managed to fine-tune its building system, it wasn't until houses six and seven that the aesthetics were improved.
"People would tell us how great it is that we could build a house in three days but when asked about how it looks, their answer is, 'It's very interesting'," Oei says.
He adds, "It was only when we built houses six and seven that people started to appreciate the look and the villagers started to approach us to build houses for them."
Epic has also experimented with the use of professional labourers to see how many will be needed to complete the house in three days.
"We thought it would take six to seven labourers but to our surprise, four labourers managed to complete a house in three days. That was a milestone for us too. It's about the building system and not just the skills of the labourers," offers Oei.
Materials and cost
Another reason the houses can be constructed in three days by people with no construction skills is the use of prefabricated materials, such as concrete blocks for the foundation, while the core structure is made up of steel columns and beams.
Timber is used for the floors, sub-frames and the internal walls, while Shera boards (fibre cement) are used for the roofs and the walls. Bolts and nuts are used to put the structure together and each module is about 3m x 3m. A typical Epic house comprises six modules.
Oei notes that the Orang Asli already have the capabilities and skills to build their own houses, using mostly materials collected from the forest. But these houses can only last about five years and it can take up to six months to build one.
"The core structure is one of the most important components. We want to provide homes that can last 20 years, so for that amount of time, they don't have to worry about the housing," says Oei.
Steel is very accurate in the prefabrication process, and by using timber and Shera boards, it eliminates the need for skilled labourers. The system also reduces wastage during construction.
At the moment, a house comprising five to six modules cost about RM50,000 to build. The cost covers the materials for the house, lighting, installation processes, toilets, logistics and operations.
Having turned the idea into reality, Epic is looking at the bigger picture — providing houses for every marginalised Orang Asli family in the country.
"Over the past two years, we have documented and put systems and processes in place with the goal of empowering ordinary people to do such projects in their own locality. We are looking for people who would like to champion the cause of providing every marginalised Orang Asli family with a house."
That is a tall order. According to the Department of Orang Asli Development, as of 2011, some 12,322 Orang Asli families in Peninsular Malaysia live in unsafe housing conditions. However, Oei clarifies that Epic doesn't plan to build every one of these houses.
Last year, Epic was invited by the government's Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) to participate in the labs under the Government Transformation Programme and the Economic Transformation Programme. The labs were created to tackle difficult issues and experiment with solutions to speed up the development of solutions and programmes through brainstorming and problem-solving.
"Pemandu has formed a nationwide five-year plan and we are looking to support that goal. We have put a five-year time span on ourselves too. We have always represented the people and believe that ordinary people when gathered together are capable of doing extraordinary things. We want to act as a platform for collaboration between the government, private sector and the public," says Oei.
Pemandu has sponsored five Epic houses since then and in late November last year, 36 personnel from Pemandu built a house in Kampung Hulu Tamu together with Epic as a team-building exercise.
The next six months to a year is crucial for Epic as it plans on achieving the goal, which will involve putting together the necessary networks and forming strategic alliances with private companies.
The short-term goal is to find parties to house the operations and to provide resources such as logistic facilities and network know-how. Epic is also working on a website that will allow it to keep track of what is happening on the ground.
"We want to be able to provide templates and get people into our system to contribute to the movement all the way from funding to selecting families for the build. Potentially, in the later phases we will be able to connect each build," explains Oei.
The idea is to make it easy for people to help the Orang Asli community. With this system, people from different backgrounds and fields are able to connect, brainstorm and discuss ideas, and initiate projects.
"The short-term goal is to put this system in place and the long-term goal is to make it work. Epic is not a developer or an architectural or engineering firm. What we do is inspire mobilising," says Oei.
Also on the list is to build an army of builders. Epic is putting together a comprehensive builder training programme to train builders to the level where they can organise a house build using the Epic building system themselves. The programme is open to the general public and Oei is looking at recruiting about 3,000 builders this year.
"We will be running the programme soon on a weekly basis for different levels of builders. We hope the public will come and join us. They will be able to learn new skills, a little bit of architecture and engineering, how to build a house and find out more about our work. We are aiming for a database of 20,000 builders by next year," says Oei.
Being a social enterprise, Epic is looking at sustainable ways to grow the organisation.
"We are looking to establish more credentials and get more funds from companies. One of the reasons why we haven't pursued this much is because our idea seems so crazy that companies are worried about potential legal issues and meeting government guidelines. Maybe now that we are working with Pemandu, things can be different," says Oei.
Epic is not interested in just getting funds from companies but to also provide value-added services. This will come in the form of team-building experiences and corporate social responsibility (CSR) opportunities.
"We will organise the entire build for a company and facilitate the team-building experience, and the company will fund the build. What we give to companies is not just a CSR opportunity but a unique team-building experience you can't buy anywhere else," explains Oei.
The public will also be able to contribute money. Epic is working on a payment system that will give a person the means of contributing every month.
"If you believe in our mission, you can donate, let's say RM30 per month through online transfer or credit card deduction. If 50,000 people do this, we can build 30 houses a month. By the end of the year, you would have contributed to 365 houses," says Oei.
"Some will say we are selfish by nature but I believe it is our innate nature to want to serve. People find fulfilment when they do something for the good of others, however small. We discovered that about 70% of our builders in each build are first-timers in doing social work. We count that as a success," says Oei.
As for the xXx Build, waking up to the sight of the completed houses in the cool, clear light of morning was worth the three days of seemingly endless rain, sweat, mud and even blood. Even more rewarding were the smiles of the new owners, Sempat and Taboi, when the houses were handed over to them.
As Oei says, people can accomplish anything when they come together as a team.
Editor's note: It feels good to see young people take the initiative and be enthusiastic about helping those in need, in this case, building homes for the Orang Asli in Malaysia. Our Cover Story this week is a slight departure from the norm as we want you to be inspired by what these youths are doing and how they are doing it — their commitment, resourcefulness, transparency, resolve and team spirit. By supporting and investing in our youth — who represent our future — they can do even better and contribute even more to the community.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Mar11-17, 2013.