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The Girl Who Grew Up to Be Sabah’s Protector




In conjunction with International Women's Day, we interviewed Cynthia Ong, founder of LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People), an environmentalist and one of the rare Malaysian women out there who has dedicated 25 years of her life in preserving the forefront of ecological conservation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

One can tell from as early as the first glance that Cynthia Ong is someone who embodies confidence. Bold, determined and opinionated, yet gentle in her love for the ecosystem which she so fiercely protects, former model Ong has dedicated decades to ensure its prosperity. Our home state Sabah’s, in particular.


For those of you who are from Sabah, the name (and maybe even face) of Ong might strike as familiar to you. This is because Ong is no idle figure in her line of work, going as far as to create organizations to protect Borneo Sabah’s precious land, rainforests, marine life, culture and so much more. As recognition for her work, Ong has been named one of the Pillars of Sabah, a project that acknowledges those who made a difference in Sabah.


Artist: Yee I-Lann


Thanks to the project, a portrait of her image has been painted on one of the pillars at the Sabah Street Art Gallery, Kota Kinabalu. On an international level, Ong has been named an Ashoka Fellow, a title she earned as recognition of her role as a world leading changemaker.


Thankfully, we were lucky enough to snag an interview with Ong! Let’s take this chance to learn a bit more about her.


Hi, Cynthia! Please tell us about yourself.

I’m a mother, a troublemaker, a facilitator and an innovator. I am practical, organized, a problem-solver, quite OCD about cleanliness and neatness, and I have a lot of shoes. Too many shoes. I pride myself in being a lifetime learner. I believe politeness is used to hide a multitude of manipulations and I’m an advocate for authenticity. I love process. And I also equally love task. I am learning to slow down and be more graceful. I love my family and my community fiercely. I am pretty fierce.


How long have you worked in ecosystem and community activism?

I’d say some of my first initiatives were in my twenties, so a LONG time ago. Decades! Three to be precise. I see it more as a way of being, an attitude, rather than work per se.

What are the challenges you face in your line of work? How did you overcome them?

The nature of the work – excuse the pun – is challenge, and facing, moving through and overcoming becomes a way of being. It is cyclical rather than linear. If there weren’t challenges, there would be nothing to work on.


Can you tell us what drove you to take up this line of work?

Being asked to help was a first clear impetus. I care deeply about balance and justice.



Ong cleaning Tungog Lake with renowned actress Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Michelle Yeoh


What is your most memorable project thus far? Why?

I guess the firsts are memorable because they marked the opening of new pathways and journeys; they always become some sort of portal into the future. Every project is memorable in unique ways; I tend not to have attachments but like to hold each in its own right and context.


Ong facilitatiing a team training


Forever Sabah follows a rather unique strategy. How did you come up with it?

I did not come up with it. We initiated a conversation with the question: Where will Sabah be in 50 years if we continue on our current development trajectory? The consequence was a two-year deep dive exploring the question, its answers and possible solutions. Forever Sabah is what took shape, through a facilitated group process that listened to and grappled with input and wisdom of diverse sectors and groups.


Do you have any advice for those who wish to enter this career path?

Make the path yourself; find an opening/a crack, venture into it, a step at a time, crawl, fly, dive, whatever it takes. Trust the process, believe in your own quiet voice, do it scared, keep going on.


It's inspiring to know the work Ong has done to help conserve and preserve the state of Sabah. It is equally and individually our responsibility to act and think with an environmentalist mindset to help preserve our beautiful country.


Learn more about Ong’s work

Forever Sabah || Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP)

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