Johnson Oei
Ashoka Fellow since 2018   |   Malaysia

Johnson Oei

Through his organization Epic Collective, Johnson is harnessing the power of collective impact by creating a collaborative model for community development. All parties are empowered to take action,…
Read more
This description of Johnson Oei's work was prepared when Johnson Oei was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018.


Through his organization Epic Collective, Johnson is harnessing the power of collective impact by creating a collaborative model for community development. All parties are empowered to take action, and communities in need are no longer viewed as the other, but as an equal player in community work.

The New Idea

Johnson believes that vulnerable communities should not be viewed as “the other” with a problem for NGOs, government or individuals to solve. He is convinced that communities, rural and urban, must organize amongst each other to realise their potential to be changemakers and seek external collaboration based on their own needs.

Through his organization, EPIC Collective, Johnson is proposing a collaborative model for community development. By creating a decentralized online platform, he is building changemaker spaces for people/organizations to create collective impact for their local communities. It allows individuals to build teams and align the collective potential of the community towards a shared mission. To enable these spaces, he aggregates community-based groups, civil society groups and industry players like government agencies, private companies, and educational institutions, to engage in a collaborative ecosystem, to work together in recognizing the community’s assets, values, and aspirations, with the intention to create resilience.

Orang Aslis are the indigenous people and the oldest inhabitants of peninsular Malaysia who predominantly reside in remote forest areas, the rural outskirts and some coastal areas. For this community, known to be the most marginalized in Malaysia, Johnson recognized that inadequate housing is a symptom of a much larger web of local and systemic problems. The EPIC platform is creating a long-term support system through a network of urban changemakers who are involved in the act of building homes for these communities in need. He capitalizes on this intervention point, to engage both communities in a visioning exercise, that creates a pathway to building their resilience for internal transformation. Over 50 organizations have helped to deliver low cost housing for the Orang Asli, in the process building trust and collaboration to mobilize their assets to solve local problems keeping the community dignity intact.

The Problem

In Malaysia, there is an unhealthy dependence on NGOs and the government to solve rural and urban civic problems.Most of the support from charity organizations and the government, is siloed with limited room for collaboration. In parallel, the urban malaysian communities are keen to engage in community service, but lack team support to engage in such activities. Even though there are NGOs connecting people to social causes, the number of people involved in changemaking activities is limited.

As the Orang Aslis are viewed as most marginalized in the country, NGOs, religious institutions, government organizations offer infrastructural and material aid that does not match with the actual needs of the community. With more 76.9% of Orang Asli living in impoverished conditions, they are stuck in an interconnected web of problems, which portrays them as victims of aid. The unnecessary dependence on external aid has created an unbalanced development roadmap for them. Members of the orang asli community cannot see themselves as problem solvers who can find ways to build their economic and social relevance.

Johnson is convinced that the old model of community development, aid and skilled volunteering needs to evolve into a larger social network of changemakers, where individuals take the initiative to drive internal transformation of their own communities by envisioning the future.

The Strategy

With EPIC homes, Johnson mobilises urban dwellers to build a home for an Orang Asli family in 3 days. He has built over 100 homes across 10 villages spanning 5 states. For every build he engages a community of 35 builders who are trained by EPIC. Each person joins as a volunteer, then grows within the EPIC community to become a specialist and eventually a master builder who leads a team of 35 builders. The homeowner who is involved in the design process and the build, follows a similar process of upskilling as a builder. The homeowner has to pay it forward by building more homes in the community. Through this act of building a home, Johnson is bridging the gap between urban and rural communities, in the process building key skills such as collaboration, team work, empathy and leadership in urban dwellers and Orang Aslis.

After building trust and a network of relationships, the Orang Aslis initiate an asset mapping exercise focussed on their key issues. The urban dwellers who are actively engaged facilitate this process of mapping missing assets and also help realise their strengths and their aspirations. Johnson brings in NGOs and government organizations to address the priority missing assets, and creates a collaborative space for these stakeholders to plug-in to community needs. In this process of community development, local champions are identified, a social network is established and local resources are committed, which sets the foundation for a community initiated visioning plan.

To solve the housing problem at scale across different communities, EPIC created Platform 80, an open build design solution platform where anyone can find solutions for their design challenges. They will use this platform to host all their designs and the designs created by partnering developers, construction and design firms. Platform 80 creates an open collaborative space for design based solutions to be replicated across different geographies. This will create an open marketplace for changemakers to create design based solutions, that can be shared for communities to adopt around the world.

Johnson wants to make it easy for everyone to create change. Early in 2017, he launched an online development platform - Sedunia, which is activating ordinary people on the street to be aware of the concerns that surrounds them – it could be anything, a clogged drain, a homeless man around the corner, someone struggling with his business, potholes to fix, plants to water, etc. Instead of complaining, people can launch a mission on Sedunia focussed on solving a problem. It makes it easy to build a team and solve the problem as a collective. As individuals map the missing assets in a community, he is positioning NGOs and government in this collaborative space to address civic issues with the right resources and expertise.

He is empowering all his builders from the EPIC community to start their own mission of building a home on sedunia, to recruit a team and to use the designs on platform 80, to build homes for vulnerable communities at scale.

The Person

At 22, Johnson built a small team of young people and set an ambitious goal to register 2 million malaysians to vote. He realised that 4.9 million malaysians were not registered to vote and believed that people had the power to hold the government accountable. They started campaigning on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to get people's attention on their right to vote. In collaboration with the Deputy Commissioners of election, he started a citizen initiative called 'Front your voice' to drive people to vote. They would set up a booth with a govt officer in malls and key public places and get people to register on a serialised form in 5 minutes. He got political parties to work together, share resources and enabled people to start booths by circulating a toolkit, that took the voter registration movement to 10 states, in 8 months resulting in 460,000 new voters for Malaysia. Due to his effort, the government offered his organization the status of an assistant registrar and their own stamp. They took the voter registration movement digital for the first time in Malaysia. He made a statement that young people can do something and this journey helped him realise that change needs to happen with the people and there was an urgency about it.

Johnson's first interaction with the Orang Asli community made him realise that he really cared about helping people, and wanted to do more for communities in need. After few interactions with the Orang Asli, he noticed that none of the villages had toilets which made it unsuitable for urban dwellers to engage. He set up a post on facebook to recruit a team and was pleasantly surprised when he received interest from 64 eager people to help build toilets and paint houses for the Orang Asli. He realised that most of them cared, wanted to serve but lacked the peer support and direction to get involved. There was a perception that NGOs and government officers would solve civic issues in urban and rural communities.

He started EPIC in 2011, to actively involve people from urban and rural communities in changemaking, by breaking barriers and organizing them on a level playing field to create resilient, sustainable communities. He used home building as a foundation to build trust and start conversation around the future of communities. Having lost his dad at a young age, he realised that a home offers a pivotal stability to any family and solving this challenge was key to building a roadmap for internal transformation.

He realised that there are 12,000 families that need homes and he can't be the problem solver for all issues. He needed to create an easy mechanism for people to realise their changemaking potential and adapt to social issues around them. At scale, he felt the need to decentralise the network of social change, creating a platform that make it easy for people to start their initiatives, and a space for NGOs and government organizations to plug-in based on the needs identified.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.