Seeding A Ground-Up Revolution
Tay Lai Hock is getting individuals, communities and corporations involved in the building of Kampung Kampus, which sits on a part of the former Bottle Tree Park in Khatib.
Tay Lai Hock is the inimitable founder of Ground-Up Initiative, a volunteer-run, non-profit organisation that seeks to nurture community spirit by connecting city dwellers to the land and one another. We speak to him about the birthing of his dream and the process of turning it into reality.
BY CELINE LIM SU-FEN
PHOTOS ALECIA NEO
he December 1997 crash of SilkAir flight MI185 shocked Tay Lai Hock into rethinking his life path. For the then regional sales manager, the tragedy drove home the fact that life is unpredictable, and he eventually decided to quit his high-salaried job to travel the world. In 1999, he embarked on a backpacking trip to the African continent that was meant to last six months but later turned into a four-year journey to 35 countries.
From 2002 to 2007, in between freelance work that funded his travels, he visited various countries, at times doing volunteer work. He went to New Zealand for five months in 2007, volunteering in homes and villages that practise organic farming. The experience led to an epiphany of sorts.
He says: “The year 2007 was the turning point for me. It was the first time I saw a community coming together to farm. I saw beautiful compost toilets, an abundance of harvest, and people eating fresh food together. I saw how people conducted lectures in outdoor classrooms, saying, ‘If you want to lie down, you lie down.’ And I saw people lying down.
“I asked myself, ‘I’ve done many things for the past five years, trying to make changes, but what’s the missing link?’ And in the end, I realised it was the kampung, the community.’’ But Tay also saw how people seeking refuge in the ecovillage from a consumerist society eventually returned to the latter out of financial necessity. He wondered if there was a way to bridge the two.
That same year, he and a group of friends helped with flood-relief efforts in Malaysia. It was then that Tay first gave a name to what would eventually become his endeavour to solve Singapore’s problems of disconnection from nature. He called it the Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), which aims to nurture grounded leaders and build a 5G – Gracious, Green, Giving, Grounded, Grateful – community.
The name came about because a man whom Tay had worked with during that relief mission had asked for the name of the group. “I said we didn’t have a name, but he kept insisting that we must have one, so I came up with GUI on the spot – because we are not top-down in our approach,” says Tay.
In 2008, GUI established a physical presence on a small farming plot in Lim Chu Kang, before moving to a 1,100 sq ft plot at the former Bottle Tree Park in Khatib in 2009, which later expanded to 16,000 sq ft. There, it fostered activities like farming, carpentry and craftwork. Over the years, it has attracted more than 35,000 volunteers from all walks of life, 30 per cent of whom are non-Singaporeans.
GUI has also been teaching juvenile delinquents – sent by government agencies to be mentored – skills like water filtration and compost production. It eschews the charity model and earns income through its social entrepreneurship and leadership programmes for schools, government agencies and corporations.
Regional and international researchers have been visiting GUI to study it as a model of learning. Most recently, a team from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, visited GUI in early March.
Tay feels that what is affecting people here is not so much material, but mental, emotional and spiritual poverty. He says: “When I first started GUI, people thought we were a farming organisation. I said, ‘No, no, we’re not. If there’s one thing I could ask you to farm, it would be your heart.’”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Last year, after its rent-free lease expired, GUI sublet a 280,000 sq ft plot of land from the Chong Pang Citizens’ Consultative Committee, which is leasing the land from the Singapore Government for six years. This plot is where GUI will establish a community learning campus called Kampung Kampus.
Expected to cost $6 million to build, Kampung Kampus will be a low-carbon footprint campus, featuring tropical sustainable architecture, farming plots, camp grounds and other facilities. It will feature education that integrates the arts, music, humanities, heritage and sustainability with technology, design thinking and craftsmanship. GUI is involving individuals, communities and corporations to help build it.
This big step has given Tay pause: “When I first started, I had no doubt that I’d go ahead with GUI because I wanted to make a regional impact. It’s only now that I’ve started asking myself, ‘Is this the right way?’ Now that we have the land for Kampung Kampus, we’ll have to raise $6 million to build it. It’s a heavy responsibility. But I tell my team, one should never stop just because we have no money.”
He adds: “It takes time to nurture community spirit from the ground up. I’m a soul sculptor. I know that I’ll never see the finished product if I die today. GUI was set up for the greater good of humanity and to save the earth.”
GUI, with Tay as Singapore’s country representative, is currently undergoing the accreditation process for joining the Global Ecovillage Network for Oceania and Asia, which is a global association of people and communities dedicated to building a sustainable future.
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