014 No Ordinary Business with LEAP & Forever Sabah

The Highlights

·      The old dynamic of the colonised mindset by big western-based NGOs and the recipients or beneficiaries in the south or in the east still exists: compelling beneficiaries to be beholden to how they should spend their funds and tick specific predetermined boxes to be held accountable. We need to be mindful of the impact and the relevance in the years to come on local levels; we need people to be quick on their feet to respond to very localised issues.  

·      Many philanthropists say that they are focusing their efforts on changing the market. While that’s necessary, putting resources towards the producing regions of the world to change their practices is as important, if not more important… When you try to make simplistic pledges at the high level, it can add to a kind of distortion of the picture that doesn’t necessarily support the work on the ground.

·      By deploying a facilitative model to convene and gather the folks from the different silos [sectors], a different conversation starts and that gives life to different solutions.  By bringing all stakeholders together, the dots become connected. This makes the doing more viable. It is the result of a collaborative effort, a cross-sector effort involving business, government, civil society, community, and scientific partners.

·      Partnerships require a level playing field with the stakeholder governments, companies and NGOs all working towards collaboration and an alliance.   There has to be ownership, co-design, co-development of outcomes, and co-financing.  

·      It is necessary to deploy funds in a collaborative manner rather than into siloed solutions… With this model, you have greater success because you have the input and buy-in from all sector stakeholders and you don’t need as much money to achieve [the goal]… Any given sector stakeholder may not have the funds themselves, but together we can pool resources if we have identified a specific goal and how to get there. 


Gina: Today’s guest on No Ordinary BusinessCynthia Ong, is the Founder and Executive Director of LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People), and Co-Founder and Trustee of Forever Sabah based in Sabah, Malaysia.

Hi Cynthia, welcome to No Ordinary Business! I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and welcome you.

Cynthia: Thank you, Gina.

Gina: Before we kick off and delve into your work with Forever Sabah and LEAP, would you share a little bit about your story and your journey how you got to where you are today?

Cynthia: As a child, I was expected to be pretty and obedient in Malaysia where that’s not unusual. I think I did pretty well with that until my teens when I began to question the patriarchal constructs around me. Then I studied in Switzerland in the hospitality field where I got up close and personal with European Imperialism, wine and cheese. I returned home at 22 and that’s when I started my first enterprise, which still exists today. 

By 32, I founded a couple more businesses and despite commonly held perceptions of women – long hair, long legs, no brains – I did well as a woman on my own terms. Around 35, I needed a different exposure, a different experience. I became very passionate about facilitation and I moved to the U.S. and did work in the criminal justice system in California. Young men in prison facing 25 to life, sometimes death sentences, that experience politicised me for life and exposed me to the nonprofit world of activism.

After that, I decided to hybridise my experiences in the entrepreneurial and the nonprofit world and founded LEAP to respond to requests for building partnerships in Borneo, Malaysia. I founded LEAP Inc. in the U.S. and LEAP Spiral in Malaysia to bridge the east and west and focused mostly on facilitating partnerships, projects, fundraising, and implementation. Always with a focus on decolonising processes and levelling the playing field. 

About seven years ago, wanting to look more systemically at issues and solutions across the landscape, we started to ask the question: ‘Where will we be in 50 years if we continue on this development trajectory in Sabah, Malaysia?’ What came from that was a deep two-year engagement across the sectors, the private sector, government, civil society, science, and communities, trying to unpack answers to that question. Through that exercise, Forever Sabah was born. Forever Sabah is taking the linear conventional extractive economy and looking for openings to build different solutions towards a diversified, more equitable, and generative circular economy. 

Gina: How did you make the leap from working with incarcerated individuals in the U.S. to going back to Sabah and critically examining development issues?

Cynthia: On the surface, it may look like there are no overlaps but at a deeply profound level, it was about my politicisation in that system, about justice, balance, and fairness.  When the request came from Sabahan communities and NGOs asking if I could help build partnerships because they did not get the support that they needed, something about that request was compelling and I felt I had to at least try to answer the question: ‘Can I build partnerships?’ I had access that stakeholders did not, which, in itself is a privilege. Could I use that privilege? Could I use that access to build partnerships? Similarly, the young men that I was sitting in circles within the prisons in California were searching for the same things that communities and NGOs in Sabah were.  There was a system in place that kept them in this entrapment, this situation where partnership resources were not accessible to them.

Justice is such a core theme. In the west, they talk about environmental justice and social justice as two separate things whereas in my experience in Sabah, justice is simply justice and the environment and the social issues are inseparable, they’re one and the same thing. I could see that these issues, although different, could not be separate as they are very embedded in one other. 

I started to see that I could, in my bridging work, really share that perspective moving between east and west.

Gina:   Would you elaborate on the mission is for LEAP and Forever Sabah?

Cynthia: LEAP is really designed to facilitate the partnerships, the exchanges, the projects that we saw was strategic to contribute to this larger process and conversation of ecological sustainability, coexistence, land, empowerment, animals, and people. And what we found interesting was that the land people worked on the land, the animal people worked on animals, and the people, people worked on people and there was little interaction in practice. We deployed a facilitative model that made sense, to convene, gather the folks in the different silos and just by doing the gathering, we found that a different conversation would start and that would give life to a different idea and different solutions. 

LEAP continued along that trajectory and somewhere along the way, we started to see themes arise. They were very distinct themes. Certain issues were hotter than others, certain things were more systemic than others, and we ask ourselves: ‘What would it be like to now try to instigate a more systemic initiative, a more systemic approach that really looked at those hot issues whether it’s food or energy and convene, facilitate, bring everyone to a space? How do we sustain that space long enough for ideas to become partnerships to become projects?’ 

Forever Sabah is very much about gathering people to take action based on shared knowledge.  By bringing all stakeholders together, the dots become connected. This makes the doing more viable. It is the result of a collaborative effort, a cross-sector effort involving business, government, civil society, community, and scientific partners. I’ve recently learned actually that this model is called the quadruple helix, the organisation of the future when you have all the sectors working together.

We come up against the mainstream conventional structures all the time and they cannot understand what we are. They ask: ‘Are you an NGO? Are you a for-profit? How can you be working with the government if you’re an NGO?’ We’re surprised that there are all these constructs that really seem to be quite impermeable in the societal psyche. We realised that these narratives are extremely important to question and to shift perceptions that NGOs can’t work with government or the private sector.

I’d like to walk the reader through a slide presentation I prepared (click here for the presentation) that readers can follow as I describe our process of asking the question: ‘Where will Sabah be in 50 years if we continue on our current development trajectory?’ I think in some ways it became a confronting question. When you ask that question in a group of NGOs we get some very thoughtful, interesting answers. You ask the same question of government agencies, they also start to talk about life and deep things. Ask the same question of a bunch of timber companies, they started talking about education and needing to shift it.  I was very surprised at that. It was somehow a question that brought a humanising value into the space. 

So being the facilitators that we are, with all the energy that was gaining momentum, we decided to take the next step. And if you click to the next slide, we went to what we call the first wave funnel. The next image illustrates how we convened and engaged across the sectors. Over two years, after many working group discussions and ideas recorded we were able to clearly identify what people were interested in, what they were worried about. 

And moving on, we then took everything that came up from our discussions and integrated it into this massive spreadsheet. On this day, people brought up the topics that they were concerned about with leaders of indigenous communities. We moved on from there, we clustered the data and we could see very distinct themes emerging, 7 to be exact. It was fascinating.

Gina: Would you highlight some of those themes?

Cynthia:  So, if you go down a few slides, we could see projects already emerging. It was watersheds, forests, energy, food, agriculture, and now tourism has been a key income earner. We call these the ‘First Wave of Projects’. 

That was a two-year process. If you click to the next slide you’ll see what emerges as part of a yin yang and it’s the living landscape. Why do we say living landscape instead of saying forests or land? We say living landscape because to us, it was about reclaiming the human life and the human component in the landscape. This landscape is shared by all species including humans and we wanted to make a departure from what we consider conventional conservation, which takes humans out of the landscape. It takes the people out of the park and puts a fence around it claiming it as protected and pristine. We wanted us to reclaim our place in the ecosystem. Moving to the next slide, the other part of the yin yang is the living seascape. And, clicking again, in the middle of the yin yang is nature, the unfolding of nature, culture, and economy and that to us is a natural progression. The root of the word economy is ekos, which is home and nomos, which are governance, the laws of and the management of the home. So the economy is really the management, the governance of home. 

Opening up from there, the focal areas of concern are first, food, agriculture, and fisheries, second energy, infrastructure, and waste, third forests, water and soil. Lastly, we have livelihood, tourism and enterprise. Those are the four focal areas. 

It doesn’t mean that over 25 years, which is the timeline of Forever Sabah, we are only focused on these four things. It means that in this first wave over the first five years, these are the focal areas. They may roll in to the next wave, we may add another focal area but that will be emergent over time.

Gina: I see that Sabah is working towards producing 100% certified sustainable palm oil (‘CSPO’) by 2025. 

Cynthia:  Yes, that was a policy that we were part of initiating. Sabah produces 12% of the global supply of palm oil, which is a large amount for a small state with a lot to lose. You may ask: ‘What does certification mean? Why is that good?’ To get to a certified product, it means we have to get our house in order.  This includes free and informed consent for local communities, high conservation value forests, high carbon stock in forests. We have to look at land legalities. We have to stop burning land to open oil palm. We have to look at smallholder livelihoods. So across the board, using the certification standard as a means to get our house in order is really what it’s about for us. It means we can’t lose more forests, it means we can’t degrade our watersheds, no more exploitation of labour. CSPO is government mandated, thus private sector, civil society, science, smallholder communities are all a part of it. 

Gina: Your approach differs from traditional conservation in that you reintegrate the human back into conservation?

Cynthia: Yes.  A long time ago I had a conversation with someone from Shell International and they asked me: ‘How do you think conservation is sustainable and how do you think you’re able to scale up your impact if what you’re getting is effectively crumbs off of the corporate table?’ If you look at traditional philanthropy, donors have their business and then they have their philanthropic arm.  If conservation activists are not at the table, if conservation is underneath the table fighting for the crumbs, which I believe is the case, is this an effective model? Do we want to be fighting for the crumbs under the table or do we want to be at the table? For me, from that time, it became really necessary to be at the table. 

Forever Sabah is about creating the new spaces to bring the sectors together. When I present this concept to savvy business people like I did with the logging industry players, they said: ‘Wow, you’re kind of building a new government with this!’ And I replied, yes that is what it is because we are getting to a place everywhere in the world where the old constructs are going to continue yielding the same results which has got us here.

Gina: Do you feel that the movement to encourage corporations to sign up for various commitments such as net zero deforestation is creating a space for you to sit at the table, to be a part of that discussion that you may have once not been invited to participate in?

Cynthia: Yes, at one level and no on a few levels. Take palm oil as an example. Many big buyers in the manufacturers that use palm oil have made pledges like no deforestation in their supply chains. And yet, being in Sabah, a major producing state and arguably progressive in wanting to address the deforestation question, we are very far away from being able to put that product on the table to the buyers of the world and say here’s a zero deforestation product. 

Gina:   How so?

Cynthia:  Our laws, our policy, our practices are geared towards opening land to plant.  It means policy change, it means behavioural change, it means a change in business practices, and it means needing help from the international community to get to that goal.  The world could demand zero deforestation in let’s say palm oil, but there’s no capacity to produce that product. And I think it would take many years if not decades to build that capacity. 

I approached many philanthropists, even the big foundations in California and they say that they are focusing their efforts on changing the market. While I think that’s necessary, putting resources towards the producing regions of the world to change their practices is as important if not more important. As I said, even in a well-intentioned place like Sabah, we don’t have enough resources to accomplish these goals and we can’t do it alone. Sometimes, an international NGO will promote all these wins, because companies are now pledging to commit to zero deforestation. It is good to see that as a win but how that translates on the ground is very different. A lot of the time, companies are strong armed into making the pledges, they then try to deliver on the pledges and find themselves in conflict with the smallholders. And then chaos ensues. It’s a very complex situation on the ground and when you try to make simplistic pledges at the high level, it can add to a kind of distortion of the picture that doesn’t necessarily support the work on the ground.

Gina: When you say that there should be more philanthropic capital geared towards providing on the ground support, what does that look like in practical terms?

Cynthia: There’s a diversity of opinion on this issue but I don’t agree with the kind of sweeping aid support that uses a carrot and stick approach such as: “Here’s ten million dollars, do this.” Partnerships have to be at the table where the playing field is level and a state, such as Sabah, enters into a conversation with the stakeholder companies and NGOs all working towards collaboration and an alliance.  There’s a co-designing, a co-initiating, a co-development of vision and there’s agreement what each group of stakeholders will bring to the table. I think there has to be ownership, I think there has to be co-design, there has to be co-development of outcomes of this and co-financing. 

This isn’t throwing money at the problem but rather is redistributing the funds that are already there. Deploying funds in this collaborative manner rather than into siloed solutions that are in some ways conflicting. For example, we’re bringing some of these key players to Sabah in November this year for what we’re calling an ‘Implementation Dialogue’. Together we will identify the key issues and the key opportunities to partner. We want to end the day with partnership pledges and a timeline to deliver on those partnerships by all sides.

Gina: What stakeholders have you invited to come to this convening?

Cynthia: There will be high-level government, the private sector, NGOs, and science representatives at the table. That has to be quite carefully curated - we need to have the key decision makers in the meeting.

Gina: How are you convincing everyone to come to the table?

Cynthia: This about presenting a narrative that is sincere, is truthful, is hopeful, is game changing. They can see themselves as part of it, as it’s the next step towards the goal they want to reach. I think people can see that the cross-sectoral collaboration is necessary. Any single sector be it private sector, government, civil society on its own will not get there.

Gina: I agree.

Cynthia: If we go back to the slide presentation you see the ecology opening up including humans, habitats, and highways. We’re working with roads, infrastructure development, wildlife habitat, humans, settlements, and bridging between the science and the advocacy. 

These are how the four focal areas open to the individual programme areas and if you go further into the presentation, you’ll see it unfold into a suite of projects. For example, our forests programme area includes work with a forest management unit (FMU). Sabah’s forests are divided into FMUs of about 100,000 hectares or 250,000 acres and they’re managed in 100-year licenses. Lessees have the license to log and that’s a policy that’s been put in place over the last few decades. We think that the policy needs to be transformed, so we’ve gathered a roundtable of the forest management unit holders also known as concession holders, and we’ve engaged them as private sector companies in a discussion of what the transformation could look like. 

We are working to move away from a single profit focused bottom line toward identification of other stakeholder issues such as the primary areas of forest that hold significant wildlife populations, hydrology and watersheds, etcetera, and need to be protected. Identifying areas where there could be viable plantations. We are working to create conservation economies, ways of making money that do not mean to deplete the natural assets. 

Gina: How are you making the case?

Cynthia: We’re making the case that you need to factor in the degradation of natural resources into your profit and loss balance sheet and income expenditure statement. 

From there, we work with the government of Sabah, with NGOs, with private sector companies and embark on this 25 year forest management plan to shift policy and practices from the old days of logging everything in sight towards a new vision of what a progressive, evolved industry looks like. 

It is also important to bring the local communities to the table along with government and its agencies, industry, and the NGOs working in that area.

Moving the slides ahead, you’ll see the areas of work with regards to the palm oil process along with watersheds and communities. We’re working with payment for ecosystem services in the watershed that services 500,000 people. Hopefully, there will be a policy shift where the communities that protect the watershed will receive payment for their stewardship from the water users in a particular area. At the moment, they don’t get anything. The water company and the government get the money but the communities whose lives were impacted by being part of the watershed have no say.  The hope is that a small percentage of the water usage bill will be allocated to a fund that will go towards protecting the watershed. 

The slides go on to show the 25-year trajectory of Forever Sabah of which we are five years in. 

Gina: What have been some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in this first five years?

Cynthia: Struggling with the old construct, the old format of how institutions and how groups react to efforts to build this new common ground. It has been a challenge to get people to see how this can work. But then more and more as the space becomes visible, people are seeing something tangible and becoming excited about it, that’s how more and more people are coming to the table. 

Gina: So you’ve established proof of concept that you can attract people across all sectors to come to the table?

Cynthia: Yes. An interesting result is the people who are living with the consequences of unsustainability, who are experiencing climate change and sea level rising, whose crops are dying, they were initially the ones who reached out to us desperate to save their villages. We found them to be the most ready collaborators and we found government at the level on the ground were also dying for change because the top down approach didn’t work for them and was causing discord. Approaching this from the ground up was one of the early decisions we made. It includes listening to what the ground is telling us. I think that’s actually how to be because we know the issues that are faced on the ground. Headquarters in the capital city can be very easily disconnected from them without needing to be. 

The key is facilitating the leadership to humanise the process. Whether it’s a company CEO, or a government leader, or an indigenous leader, we find that when we create formats that support humanising the process, a very different conversation opens up. The indigenous imperative to us is how does everyone feel? It’s not so much about I’m a person of this land and this is my indigenous territory but it’s more about here’s the land, I belong to it, I care about it, I commit to it and its sustainability and protection. We believe that everyone has to have that experience. 

Gina: Can you expand a little on the different funding models that you are utilising as an organisation to become financially sustainable and attract capital for these initiatives?

Cynthia: In the first years under LEAP, the seeding process was very much straight up grants that our core funding partners provided; they believed in what we were doing. More recently, in the last two years, we’ve been diversifying and exploring and inventing hybrid funding opportunities. 

The kinds of models we’re building involve cross sector funding, civil society putting its money on the table and getting the government to match funding along with international philanthropy, private sector to match (at all levels) and then we have a pot of funds created by each sector and we have a goal. With this model, you have greater success because you have the input and buy-in from all sector stakeholders and you don’t need as much money to achieve that. You can throw one billion dollars at something that you haven’t done a lot of groundwork with and not know how to spend it or spend it not so wisely. Because we’ve done so much groundwork and know where the gaps are, we can deploy reasonably small amounts or medium sized amounts of funds quite effectively. Any given sector stakeholder may not have the funds themselves, but together we can pool resources if we have identified a specific goal and how to get there. 

Gina: What you’re describing sounds like a Blended Finance approach where public and philanthropic and private sector capital come together to fund a project or initiatives. Under this model, all stakeholders are contributing to fill the funding gaps while providing input into the process at the same time.

Cynthia: Yes, exactly. What we find actually is that the money is there but it’s not being deployed in partnership. People are contributing into their one little area but not getting the impact that they hope for. That same amount of money put in a different place based on collaboration changes impact potential.

Gina: That’s very powerful.

Cynthia: We’ve also developed a concept of what we call ‘different currencies’ contributions. We would call it currency of reciprocity for example, we bring X amount of ringgit, of dollars to the table to target a particular issue, let’s say watershed restoration, and the affected communities will contributed their time, bring their hard work, their potluck meals, bring their generosity to the table and there’s infinite value to that. We may bring the cost of a workshop or the transportation cost of getting people to a place but the value of time, local knowledge, and then local mobilising is a currency. So we, with a circular economy, we’re seeing more and more of these kinds of currencies that we know are not valued, the currency of generosity, responsibility, showing up, the currency of people giving their cultural or local knowledge. We acknowledge a community that doesn’t give a single cent monetarily to a project as an equal partner because the currency that they bring has very tangible value to whether our project takes off successfully.

Gina: How can conservation efforts be mobilised to facilitate these different models? How do we encourage those in the conservation space be it on the implementation side or be it on the funding side to challenge the traditional funding models and look at alternative opportunities through collaboration to work towards impact and sustainability?

Cynthia: That’s a really fascinating question. I just read an article in The Guardian, saying that the hardest ice in the arctic has started cracking and floating away and scientists are currently scared because they expected that this ice would be the last to go. We need to stop, pause for a moment and see if we’re really making an impact or are we sustaining mechanisms that are preventing change on the ground?

I think it’s hard for, let’s say an NGO in California to put all of its money into campaigns on the other side of the planet. That is very much about imposing their constructs onto a region. I don’t know if that yields anything on the ground. Is it part of the process of change? Perhaps yes, but I think it’s important for us to consider whether that change is more about ourselves than it is about that place that we’re hoping to impact. 

The old dynamic of the colonised mindset by big western-based NGOs and the recipients or beneficiaries in the south or in the east still exists: compelling the beneficiaries to be beholden to how they should spend their funds and tick specific predetermined boxes to be held accountable isn’t most effective. Even for our own work, we need to be mindful of the impact and the relevance in the years to come on local levels; we need people to be quick on their feet to respond to very localised issues. 

I think there must be a kind of reckoning where we rethink our strategies. If you’re a foundation and you made a ten-year strategy that says only focus on this, you may be missing out on the really burning issues that require you to be very quick and responsive. This is why I spend almost half my time out in the field, it’s so important to have contact to the ground. Part of why I think we are able to build some really significant collaboration is that I tell the stories from ground zero at the international tables. I feel that I cannot tell the story if I don’t spend half of my time out in the field and I just hear it second hand or rely on scientific papers as a means to create our strategy. There’s a place for those things in the whole ecosystem of change but I worry sometimes that there’s less and less connection to what I call the ground zero. The voices on the ground that are seeing their crops failing year after year.  The knowledge that they bring to the table is significant and not being deployed in the usual processes.

Gina: Is there any particular sector that should we be pushing this approach to try getting as much momentum as possible or do we need champions in all of the sectors? 

Cynthia: I think shaping a new narrative is important in the international community and getting it out there, which is why I show up at the kind of international platforms, I feel like it’s part of the job to share these stories. I do think that champions in different sectors are necessary and that they are always there, it’s a matter of finding them. 

I also think building more and more facilitators, people who come from a place of facilitative leadership and see that the problems are in the cracks and are not willing to be the corporate rock star or the NGO rock star or the government rock star, that are prepared to do the quiet kind of thankless work of bringing resistant people together. The more people with that kind of courage and skills necessary is desperately needed and that’s also why I’m excited about my mentorship role where I want to cultivate this and excite people about convening and gathering and engaging sincerely. That intention is so powerful in and of itself.

Gina: Absolutely. I just want to acknowledge that you’ve recently become an Ashoka Fellow and congratulate you for that!  Plus, you are using the stipend you receive from this fellowship to fund a mentorship programme that you set up for young leaders in the space, which is commendable, along with your commitment to imparting your wisdom and knowledge through cultivating the next generation of leaders.

Cynthia: Thank you.

Gina: Is there anything that you would like to raise that we haven’t covered? 

Cynthia: I think the conversation around feminine leadership could be overstated and yet, I feel that there is something very potent there. Certainly for me as a woman, it has been my journey of finding this unique way of leadership that isn’t about leading with the same kind of principles and constructs of the patriarchal, male owned systems and masculine dominated ways. I think that facilitation as a process is very feminine. It’s about bringing people together. There isn’t any mutual competition because why would we compete when there’s so much to do? We need as many people as we can to take on these challenges and there’s a place for everyone. 

Forever Sabah will essentially have a lot of feminine qualities and at the same time, there’s a move to be linear in particular parts of the process. Yet the core process, of getting all stakeholders making consensual decisions, I believe is a more feminine principle. I certainly would love to see more and more of that. It doesn’t have to be led by women - I don’t believe that. I think anybody can lead in this way; it is a matter of understanding more of where the imbalances are.

Gina:  Agreed. Whilst there’s a time and place for the traditional linear or more masculine approach, we have been missing the facilitation that the feminine approach brings to the table, which is very important. Hopefully, as a society, we are moving more in that direction where we apply a balance of the masculine and feminine energies to any initiative at any level. If we are successful in that, we will see significant change occurring naturally and I sense it will have a very powerful impact on sustainability efforts through an integrated balanced approach.  Thank you for raising this point.

Cynthia: Yes, very good.

Gina: Thank you for sharing so much of your wisdom and your time with us today. The model encourages me and excited to see how it unfolds. It’s not an easy endeavour to bring different people to the table within a sector, never mind different sectors that may have perceived competing interests. Finding the commonality is no small feat so I commend you for those efforts and I wish you the best going forward.

If readers want to reach you, what are their options?

Cynthia: I think email would be best; I can be reached at cynthia@foreversabah.org.  Our websites are www.foreversabah.org and www.leapspiral.org.

Thank you Gina, this was good.