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Kampong Guru – Tay Lai Hock

By Joshua Chiang

I first met Tay Lai Hock at a walk along the KTM railway. With his grey shoulder-length hair and beard, one could be forgiven for thinking that he is some sort of new-age guru. As it turned out, that’s not too far from the truth.

Tay Lai Hock is the founder and current 'kampong chief' of Ground Up Initiative (GUI) a non-profit organization that aims to “foster connection between Man and Earth through sustainable activities” – so says its mission statement.

One of the ways it aims to achieve that is to teach its members to, well, get their hands dirty. Every week volunteers come to the plot of land within Bottle Tree Park, Yishun to dig, shovel, weed, and do what their rural ancestors had left behind when they went searching for a ‘better’ life. And once in a while, they fly to another country and dig, shovel and weed the land over there.

Or at least that’s the impression I got when I read the various reports about the group. I was certain I was wrong. GUI must be doing something right to attract close to 1,000 volunteers to its fold. Many educational institutions had sent students to work on various projects under GUI. When I arrived to interview Lai Hock, he was talking to a group of students from Singapore Polytechnic.. One group wanted to build a purifying system to make the water GUI uses drinkable. The water now comes from the stream next to the main shed. Another group was looking to build a portable bridge over the same stream.

Clearly it was the power of Lai Hock’s vision that struck a chord amongst many people. But what is it? I spent one afternoon with the man to find out.

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GUI isn’t just about learning how to grow your own crops is it?

We often talk about Singapore’s lack of soul. What are we doing to have this soul? Is it more arts program? Singapore’s concept of land is only about money; en bloc – “I will sell my home for the next better price”. But this isn’t the case in many countries. So why keep this piece of land? I think in the urban jungle we need a piece of space like this for people to reconnect back and feel free, feel empowered to come together and do something together. In other places, for example in community gardens in HDB estates, you need a lot of permit and approval to do things. Here, it is about empowerment, it is about free spirit, it is about freedom to do things responsibly and collectively as a community. So this is the spirit that is powering GUI and this is what’s happening.

So tell me more about this concept of empowerment. How does that translate into the activities and even the management of the place?

When we came here more than a year and ten months ago, we were given a space of 100 square metres of empty space. We came here because somebody told me that the owner here is looking to turn it into an education garden for the community.

Young volunteers empowered GUI style

Since the day we started, we mobilized hundreds and hundreds of volunteers to come here and do work; they laid the bricks, they do practical work, they become builders. And all these people are not contractors; they’ve never done this before, they’ve never had any training. They came and hacked the ground, they come and do everything week after week. We don’t have much money, so how do we raise the bricks? We get everybody to donate bricks. 50 cent per brick, minimum ten pieces, $5. So that’s how we started. Everybody starts chipping in.

The owner got inspired by us. Eight months later they gave us another plot of land – 600 over square metres. We asked everybody, “What do you want to do with this piece of land?” Of course, I can give the broad vision like we want to have the food garden, but what kind of food garden? So everybody chipped in. And the style here is, I always tell my members and all, don’t come and offer something and just *washed hand*. You not just only have to say it, you have to participate in it! Empowerment doesn’t come by just talking; empowerment comes when you go down to the ground and show that you mean what you’re saying. Then people will start trusting you.

People who feel empowered; they want to come and do something. This is the power of community, true power of community at work. It’s not just me and my volunteers. Different stakeholders. Businessmen came in and ask, “Lai Hock, do you need money?” I said, “More than money, I need you to come and be involved.” Because I believe when you got involved, you got ownership.

In this country, many people don’t have ownership anymore. There is a disconnection because everything is built by foreigners. Thirty, forty years ago, you can probably say, “Oh my father helped to build this HDB flat, helped to plant this tree, helped to do this thing.” We’re not against foreigners especially in GUI. Here we have people from all walks and many nationalities; Americans, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, all kinds of Asians. Sometimes we have a mini ASEAN here also. This is a celebration of the human spirit, and this is what I call empowerment.

One of the goals of GUI is teaching about land sustainability. How do you define sustainability?

The first thing I ask people when they come to me is, “Do you know what’s the meaning of this land, the value of this land?”

You mean the monetary value or something more?

Lai Hock explaining the guiding principles of GUI to a group of students

Are you prepared to shed blood to defend your piece of land or not? Singaporeans have no concept about defending of the land. That’s why recently there’s an NTU student saying, “Why should I defend for this country? Why should I die for this country?” And our dear SM got concerned. But it’s true. When you pull away everything and got them disconnected with the land, what sustainability are we talking about? All sustainable issue talking about now is at best bullshit.

You’re not even prepared to work on the land to sustain your own life. Everything is now relegate to urbanization, globalization, everybody. So I always tell people, the first definition of “sustainability of land”, you must know your own connection with the land – this piece of land that sustained your life. When I say “land” it means the broader context of ‘earth’, the whole Earth that sustains your life, your air that your breathe, the food that you eat. Do you value it or not and do you want to treasure it?

Okay so if I’m not hearing you wrongly, it has to go beyond – when you refer to ‘land- it has to go beyond the intellectual concept?

Yes.

Even the metaphorical concept?

It’s a hybrid of everything.

We have different kinds of characters and souls. But is this something most mainstream people agree? No, people will not agree for the time being because we’re still not… we’re still seen as hippies. To me, I always say this is mainstream - the rest are not the usual. This should be the norm. But the society has evolved in such a way that this, we are not the norm, the rest are the norm. So there’re many many things to be done here and I’m just using everything as a classroom. I said, “Everything you see here, whether you do gardening, farming, is a platform to be a classroom.”

I hope to inspire future people to start thinking deeper – what does it mean to have a land like this? People leave their lives as though everything runs forever thinking that the government will solve every issue, whether it is waste management or whether is it electricity and food. So how can Singaporeans feel empowered when everything is still being take care by somebody else?

That’s pretty radical talk – you were saying that you are the mainstream and that everyone else (the majority), oh that’s the slipstream right? But I’m sure if you talk to the majority, they will tell you wealth accumulation, having a stable, comfortable life is what they want.

I have the opportunity in the last eleven years to live around the world in eco villages and actually I was very surprised to find a group of predominantly Westerners who came from very wealthy European, American, Australian, New Zealand countries wanting to live simply. And then I always tell them, “Do you know there’s a lot of people who are coming out from the Third World – the Indians, the Chinese, the South Africans, the Africans, all those people from Southeast Asia who wants to live the way like you guys live?”

What I’m trying to say is that, despite all these material wealth, isn’t it true that there is also an unprecedented level or amount of people who are stressed or unhappy and their happiness seems to be very short lasting? It doesn’t last as long as it should be.

But people can throw it back to you that look, you can afford this because you have reached that point of material satisfaction whereby you say “No, this is not going to give me happiness.” And you turn it around. But people in many developing countries do not have this luxury. For them, being a farmer is not a bed of roses.

Non-potable water is drawn from the nearby stream and filtered through this pump

Don’t get me wrong, I did not become a millionaire or even ten percent of it before I live this way. I’ve done a lot of third world humanitarian jobs in Mongolia. I’ve been to China small village for a month+, been to many places. I’ve backpacked for four years around the world, I’ve lived eight months in South America, I’ve lived in Africa. So I understand what you mean.

Two years ago, I was at an eco conference in Mumbai, India. Everyone was talking, and I stood up and I said that, “How do you tell the few hundred millions of Indians who have not tasted material wealth and success and you tell them that you cannot be like this?” How? I will tell honestly, I haven’t got that solution yet. But we all have to redefine the meaning of “success” and “material wealth” plus “happiness”. And how do you bring everybody to the level that everybody will have enough and still will not screw up this Earth?

Because the truth is that if we have all the Africans and all the Indians and all the Chinese people jumping on the bandwagon to live like the Americans and the Europeans and the Singaporeans. We all know the world will be busted, and that is true.

I’ve been doing a lot of talks to a lot of universities and they talk a lot of things. I said “Today the current lifestyle we can lead is based on this principle that there are 80 percent of the poor people supporting the 20 percent of the rich! But today if 80 percent of the world is rich, where do you find farmers – people who want to work in the farms? Where’re you going to find people who want to lay the bricks? Sooner or later this thing will confront everyone of us.

Interesting you said that because I was in this little town in Turkey last year. I think it’s Cappadocia.

Yeah I was there for 40 over days.

I saw the construction workers, they were locals and they were a part of the community. For them it was an honest profession that pays the bill. Very different from how we in Singapore perceive our construction workers.

Yeah and it also doesn’t help that Singapore don’t even want to adopt a minimum wage. I think you know we talk about, politicians talk about it but we continue to suppress wage because we have a pool of ready supply of low wage workers around this. This issue when I touch on, it can be political right? It can also affect a lot of things but it’s real. These are issues that people don’t think about, or even if they heard about they don’t care.

When I was in Barcelona, I stayed with my friend in La Rambla. The houses don’t have rubbish chutes. The people have to walk across the road – and I’m talking about at least 500 metre – to throw their rubbish in the bin. And in Singapore, we are still talking about having so much rubbish, but nobody wants to dispose them properly.

But we don’t have time! I mean it’s like if we slow down a bit, I mean, everybody else catch up with us, you know.

I used to buy into that. So I worked very hard and everything but when I started backpacking, and I live in Europe twice I’ve been to all the major cities – Barcelona, Lisbon, Paris and of course all the small, second tiered cities and everything – then I look at Europe. Then I said, “Wow, a lot of them are within one hour flight zone or two hour flight zone, and they thrive together.” Of course now we can say EU screwed up. This is fiscal policy, I’m not going to go into that.

But the thing is that Milan exists, Frankfurt exists, Munich exists, Paris exists – all these great cities that Singaporeans like to go and visit, do they have problems? Do they always talk about second tier and first tier and everything? We are told to constantly upgrade and upgrade and upgrade and upgrade whether is it intellectually so that you can have better job skills or upgrade your houses so you can be better; basically endless upgrades. There’s no time for us to sit down and say, “Yeah actually I did well. Actually I should give a pat on my shoulder and just relax a little bit.” I took an early retirement eleven years ago, do I live less? I don’t have a proper job in many people’s eyes. I don’t have CPF for eleven years now.

You don’t have a family to support.

Because it’s a choice. I make that choice because I realize that there is a lot of BS going on. Many people I met, they got tired and just left (Singapore) but I chose to come back to Singapore. And when I started this piece of land, many people said, “Lai Hock, don’t waste your time. Don’t do it here in Singapore. Nobody will appreciate you; the authority will not let you do a lot of things. Forget about it, one day you’ll be asked to dismantle.” I told all these people, “If as a concerned citizen, as a person who loves my country, I don’t want to do this here, then what is the future of Singapore?” I don’t want to sound like I’m very great but I’m saying that, I think anybody who’s concerned enough will try to do something here.

So do you now see that this is beyond sustainability? For many people to come here to a space, a freedom to do things responsibly, to know that when we erect something… while we need all those permits and everything to safeguard… we also need to learn how to start to trust people to take responsible actions. Isn’t that what the civil society is trying to advocate – that Singaporeans are responsible and mature enough?

Were there any moments when you felt like giving up?

Yes, yes of course.

I’m doing this full time, not being paid. I always tell people I don’t need to do this to pocket myself, I can go back to the corporate world, I can earn so much more.

It's the people element that really make me want to give up; that people who talk a lot, say a lot, but in the end don’t want to put in the real effort, people who don’t really understand the true value of what we’re trying to do here. But I’m a fighter. I’m a survivor. I’m a warrior. It takes very little for me and I just come back again.

But when I started this organization, even without this piece of land I gave myself a mandate of five years – five years to do what I needed to do and nurture as many leaders as I could, and then I’ll pass it on. There’re some people sitting in some positions for a long, long time and still feel that if I’m not there, this society will collapse everything. Personally, I feel it’s a very sad thing isn’t it? If the moment you leave and the place collapse, then the fundamental you have done is not right.

I think nothing lasts forever. Once we understand this then we will be more chill about this.

I read that you stayed in an ashram for a while.

Ya.

So I mean, it’s like and also at the same time I noticed that one of the things you have for this mass yoga session-

The kampong carnival?

Yeah. So is there, how to put it? Is there a spiritual core underpinning- ?

Firstly, GUI is a secular organization; there’re people from all kinds of religions here. But I always tell because I don’t want people to think that - especially when I look like a hippie and they look at me - but there is a spiritual dimension.

I met this Filippino who is the founder of Gawad Kalinga. When we spoke, he said, “Now actually what you’re trying to do in Singapore is the same as what I’m doing in Philippines.” I said, “Yeah I know, but there’s a fundamental difference; in Philippines, you have a real issue to work on and that’s physical poverty. 90 million people, two third of them are poor or more. You have really a lot of work to be done. In Singapore, I’m trying to work on spiritual poverty and emotional poverty.” And he told me, “Yeah that’s the hardest.”

So yes, there’s a spiritual dimension. This spiritual dimension is understanding that everything is interconnected. Everything. Why do we need our land to feel grounded? Why do we when people come to a space like this, they feel that their spirits are uplifted? Why do people want nature? Why do people want this?

Leo Tolstoy said, “The first rule of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” Urbanization cost a lot of broken links.

If you read about all these spiritual books and all, I do not mean spiritual as in like-

A new age book.

Yeah. You were saying that there’s always this new emerging consciousness, you know which perhaps you seem to exemplify. But do you really think that this is what’s happening? That the human consciousness is, this is kind of like the turning point where you know we are reawakening back to this connection so to speak?

There’s an emerging consciousness which I have seen in my travel around the world. As a backpacker, I stayed in many places. But unfortunately, I’ve also seen that all these people who’re now awakened and want to go and live simply and humbly, there’re a few things that has happened. One, they become hermits. Two, they go into that kind of what we call hippies kind of culture – free sex, free this, free that. This is not for me to say this is right or wrong.

Okay last question.  The NEA (National Environmental Agency) wrote in a recent report that on the contrary to what people were thinking, we have more green lungs than before now.

I think Singapore as an urban planner we did very well, so well that I think around the world people are looking at us as a model. But this green park, this green lungs – whatever you call it – what do people do with it? Are you direct participants or are you just at best an audience or passerby? That’s my question always.

If you look at what happened to Europe and many places like the more advanced nations, they don’t have luxury to access to a lot of cheap labors. And because they also have minimum wage and as a result more people do DIY (Do-it-yourself). But here we don’t have DIY culture.

This green space must also translate to the value for this society. That to me is what I’m more concerned about. You can tell us you’ve done how many solar powers and everything but if at the base, people are still continuing to be wasteful and everything and not understanding that Singapore actually rely on everything import, then we have not succeeded in educating them.

And that is what this space is all about again – shaping, nurturing people to be… I use the Chinese word – ““能文, 能武, 也能动土.” (Can study, can fight, can till the soil)

The scholar, the warrior and the farmer. Interesting…

Yeah. We need scholars but I think we needed scholars to be grounded. That’s what I’m saying here: We need leaders to be grounded and it has to start from the ground.

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View the slideshow below to see more of what goes on at Ground Up Initiative.