1. Gave up IT career to start non-profit group GUI.
2. Believes the key to a sustainable future is in inculcating what he refers to as a 21st century kampung culture.
3. GUI is building Singapore’s first integrated nature campus on a 26,000 sq m piece of land in Khatib.
4. Dubai’s education ministry has expressed interest in learning more from GUI.
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” Leo Tolstoy’s truism is never far from the mind of Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) founder Tay Lai Hock. Just two years ago, GUI scored a coup when it secured a sprawling 26,000 sq m piece of land in Khatib. Since then, the 53-year-old has been busy transforming this land into Singapore’s first nature-inspired community, Kampung Kampus.
“These are the mud bricks, made on the premises, that will go into constructing our new building,” explains Tay, as he takes us on a tour of the work in progress. “This is our organic farm, which is going through the certification process.” Workers are busy building an outdoor amphitheatre; future plans include campsites, a co-working space, a padi field and a multi-purpose hall, culminating in an integrated space that brings people together.
The work on Kampung Kampus may be far from complete, but Tay’s vision is crystal clear. “A sustainable future needs to have a 21st century kampung culture where people have an open heart and are open to constant unlearning and relearning, where people have a sense of rootedness and feel interconnected with one another. There are what we refer to as 5Gs: being gracious, green, giving, grounded and grateful.”
Being the eco-warrior, as many refer to him today, hasn’t always been on the cards. It was the 1997 fatal crash of Silkair flight MI185, which killed 104 people, that set the gears in motion. Then a successful IT executive, the tragedy jolted him out of his comfortable life and got him thinking.
“(Singapore model and author) Bonny Hicks was on that plane. She wrote, ‘The brevity of life on earth cannot be overemphasised. I cannot take for granted that time is on my side – because it is not.’ I was on a plane every week for my work. What if I die?”
He gave up a lucrative career and backpacked around the world for four years, visiting 35 countries and immersing himself in spectacular natural environments, from the sands of the Sahara Desert and the forests of Ecuador, to eco-villages in New Zealand and Holland.
It was a visit to the Sahara Desert in 2002 that got him thinking. “The younger generation in Singapore has little connection to the land. When you’re so disconnected from nature, every decision you make will not involve earth. I’m hoping to teach the country that there are more things that are more important. What is that something worth defending?”
“A sustainable future needs to have a 21st century kampung culture where people have an open heart and are open to constant unlearning and relearning.”
As testimony of his risk-taking nature and creative values, he refuses to make GUI a charity. “My life has never been about handouts. When I started GUI, I wanted to use this platform to solve social ills. One of this is a very ‘dependent’ mentality. Those who follow me become very resilient. That’s the spirit I want to nurture.”
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GUI runs a diverse range of social enterprises, including Wow Kampung, a social enterprise for experiential environmental education; Touchwood, which encourages practical craft skills; and Ground- Up Troopers, which nurtures grounded leaders. “When we form this greater eco-system, it’s just like nature. How does nature become so vibrant and resilient? It’s the biodiversity. We’re creating that.”
Over 35,000 people have returned repeatedly to experience the transformative power of what Tay calls “going back to basics” and “doing real work”. Beyond putting in place sustainable practices like water harvesting and recycling, Tay’s larger vision is to modify behaviour by building a community that creates change together. “We ask people to be a direct participant and not to be an audience.”
Last year, Dubai’s education minister visited Tay on Kampung Kampus after Tay’s name appeared on Google following a keyword search for holistic education, youth and happiness. They have expressed interest to learn more from GUI.
But back in Singapore, Tay admits he’s facing an uphill climb – GUI needs to raise between $3 million and $5 million to realise his vision. He refuses to give up. He says: “(You need to) remember your original intention when you started. Because, when I remember that original intention, I find ways to rediscover my courage.”
In 60 Seconds
The historical period that interests me the most is: I think I belong to the era when a commander leads his people and faces the enemy in the battlefield. I always feel Iʼm born in the wrong era.
Misery is: To die in this world without really trying to fulfil your destiny.
One of my favourite quotes is: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said French philosopher Blaise Pascal. I can be impatient so meditation has helped me mellow down. Since January last year, weʼve been holding weekly meditation sessions at GUI to quieten our thoughts and develop mindfulness.