It is often espoused that one has to look to the future in order for progress to be made. The common perception is that there is a certain inertia that is associated with those who keep looking to the past. But perhaps it is necessary for us, every now and again, to be reminded of our history particularly when we are at a crossroads.
“The Malaysia that we know is at that stage now,” says Colin Swee, co-founder of the social enterprise Projek57, reminiscing of his days as a student, when ethnicity was something that was rarely pondered upon.
“This is slowly fading away,” he adds. Religious intolerance has slowly but surely emerged.
“What do we do?” asks Syed Sadiq Albar, the other founder of Projek57. “We really feel that Tunku Abdul Rahman had a clear vision of everyone working together, that the future depends on how different people live and work together. It is a very powerful and simple statement. We really subscribe to this.”
The project is clearly inspired by the birth of our nation. At its most fundamental level, Projek57 is about T-shirts that bear the spirit of nationalism, using the country’s first prime minister as a symbol.
“We are not fashion experts but we do like T-shirts,” explains Syed Sadiq. “We were looking for something that is uniquely Malaysian. We wanted something nationalistic but with a little bit of a twist and a bit of a cool factor.” The proclamation of independence was the apt choice given that it is identifiable to all. Hence, the name Projek57.
“What we do is go back to the founding values of tolerance, diversity, unity and progressiveness,” adds Syed Sadiq. “These are all the values that Tunku had for our country at its birth.”
The idea behind was to use the T-shirts to foster a culture of positivity, instead of focusing on the negative.
“When people ask us what it is about, we say it is about shifting the focus,” says Syed Sadiq. “Everyone’s excuse is always to be angry. As business people, we feel a responsibility to do something for the next generation. We feel a need to inspire the next generation to think about the country, to do something rather than be negative and talk about leaving the country.”
Projek57, they add, is non-political and engages with all parties. Even ministers have been seen donning the apparel.
“It is good to know that they share our views, that our country has to go back to its founding value,” says Syed Sadiq.
Projek57, however, has a bigger focus. The goal is to sell a million T-shirts, but it isn’t just about achieving this target but more about how to achieve it. The social enterprise will use a network of distributors comprising single mothers and underprivileged youth. From every T-shirt sold, they earn RM5. Apart from that, Projek57 also has an outlet that is manned by members of the Orang Asli community. The space is also used for training.
“Forty percent of our profits are ploughed back into empowerment programmes,” explains Syed Sadiq. “It is about elevating their position in society. It is about teaching them about entrepreneurial skills and business. In the case of our shop, it is to teach them about retail exposure. Everyone assumes that everyone has the same opportunity but that’s not the case.”
Syed Sadiq recalls the first day at the shop, when he told one of the kids working there that he could now add retail experience to his résumé. “It never occurred to him that he now had bigger opportunities out there.”
Furthermore, as individuals who have succeeded in business, Colin believes that they have a responsibility to promote the idea of social entrepreneurship.
“It is a movement that is quite new,” he explains. “Charities and NGOs do their part but there are still a lot of problems. Business people need to do something, instead of just focusing on making money. The focus has to be more than that and one of that is to impact society. Does our business help improve the environment or help alleviate poverty in a holistic way?”
As business people, he adds, they have a role. The hope is to inspire other businesses and people to take up causes.
The other aspect is that Projek57 is a reflection of the relationship that Colin and Syed Sadiq have cultivated over 15 years. “It just shows that we have no issues,” explains Colin. “We work very well together and it is all based on the basic values of trust and respect. That is what we bring to the social enterprise aspect. We want people to learn the basics of running a business.”