“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” -The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Tay Lai Hock is the founder of Ground-Up Initiative(GUI). Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) [pronounced Gee-U-Aye] is a volunteer-driven non-profit community that seeks to restore the connection between city dwellers and the land for the many universal values and life skills it teaches us. Since 2009, GUI is housed at Sustainable Living Kampung (SL Kampung) in Bottle Tree Park, Yishun, in the island city state of Singapore.
How did GUI come about?
I did this several years ago when I wanted to show others that we may not be the best, but we [Singaporeans] are not terrible.
There are many different motivations, one of the main one is that I felt that Singapore needs a place like this[GUI], that allows different people to work, hands on, different things, be it art, planting, cooking, architecture, humanitarian, all housed under one roof. Its not just doing what they like, but do it in a community setting.
I find that there is a disconnection between humans and the land. In Singapore, “Land” is a property, something to be sold, and not something social. There is no spiritual, emotional connection. The place you see here, at Sustainable Living Kampung is all built by volunteers, who painstakingly used recycled materials to build the whole place up. People don’t build their own houses anymore. When there is a disconnection between you, and the land, what would happen to Singaporeans? We become apathetic and self centered.
What is then, the main difference between the nature clubs and GUI?
We are not a green club, but a “hands on” community; a community that wants to revive the good old kampung spirit. It isn’t the kampung spirit that is archaic, stored in the museum. Many younger people came over and said “I don’t know what Kampung Spirit is, until I came here”. They understood the spirit that embodies connection.
GUI can be summed up by two words, Connect and Heal. You come here you learn how to connect within yourselves. Here, we emphasize on the notion of “respect[ing] all life”. You learn how to connect to yourself first. That’s why all activities we do are about grounded-ness. The word humility, was derived from the Latin word, humus, which means, soil, similar to the Chinese saying, 脚踏实地.
Connect within yourself, then to each other. You take time off from the digital indulgences, and allow yourself to build your other senses and your heart. And then, connect yourself to the nature.
We connect in order to participate in the healing process, to heal our own heart and soul. That’s why we have social delinquents, old folks and people from all walks of life here. We have people with all kind of issues here, wanting to find themselves. They start to find comfort here, then they find peace, clarity. They find purpose and meaning [in their lives].
Do you then, see yourself as a social worker or sustainable living advocate?
I see myself as a soul sculptor. The word “sculpture”, denotes that it’s a long process, and takes time. I don’t change people. I let people come here and be inspired, and feel the need to change themselves.
Everyone needs to find their own purpose for the change. Bit by bit, people will slowly find their own purpose. But of course, everyone needs a bit of guidance. That’s where my role comes in. I always tell people, if there is one thing I want you to farm, it’s your heart, and then, garden your soul.
Since you have so many volunteers here, what do you think is the biggest difference you see in them from the first time they joined you?
For the core members, and those who chose to stay, you find them more grounded, more at ease, and more personable. There is a culture here, where you take time, to talk to others. You need to be able to look into people’s eyes, and speak. It’s the human connection and interaction which is very important in every society. This place is about making you care. Why do people want to care? They may not have founded GUI, but they have the same belief, and in doing so, they meet others, and inspiring them further.
I recently told off a Swedish lady, I told her, Singapore may be a small little country, but we are not so insignificant as she was commenting that “Singaporeans think that Singapore is very significant, but you guys are [actually] very insignificant.” There were other Singaporeans there, who dare not even stand up to speak. Singaporeans don’t usually like to confront. Nobody says anything, we just keep quiet. Here, I want people to learn how to speak up, to speak up for a purpose, and not be confrontational. To respectfully disagree.
That’s why people keep coming back. They become grounded, become connected. They become driven. And the most important thing, it is not done for profit. Many would willingly sacrifice their hours and time from their jobs, and spending more time here.
I heard about you wanting to create a fifth university for Singapore?
The lease for our land is ending and we are trying to collaborate with as many people as possible (including the Bottle Tree owners) to use this space for social, community and even humanitarian purposes. We want to tell the government that a piece of land is needed [for such activities] for Singapore. We know that the lease is expiring. And I have told my team, that before it expires, we need to redefine the purpose of this entire piece of land.
So last year, I told them, perhaps this piece of land could become the fifth university in Singapore – Singapore Open University of Life (SOUL). We need to give Singapore a soul. We need to give the world a soul. We have many visitors from overseas who visited us[GUI], and realized that our model is very unique and so unique that many foreigners told me “Lai Hock, GUI may have the solution to the world’s issues” I felt so excited when I heard that! But the only reason why we could do (what we are doing) that is because we have this space.
Without this space, our activities will not have the breadth and the depth. Just like how you often hear people say that Singapore is a souless society. And even the Wozniak guy said that Singapore has no talent because we are so stifling?
What change did you see in yourself after setting up GUI?
I think when I started GUI, many good people came in, and they were leaders in their own rights. I had a question: How do I lead these people? I need to be an even better leader, as number one, I don’t have the skills like many of them. But I have the capacity to see things differently.
In the last four years, I have become more appreciative of the meaning of “everything is connected”. I definitely became a better person in my own way. How do you tell that somebody that what they are doing is not quite right? How do you engage members? I have members who disappeared, and I have to go down to their homes, to bring them back. I founded GUI, and I [know I] needed to bring in people. I gained a deeper understanding of “interconnection”. You may not be aware that what you are doing now has huge impact later on. I became very aware, and very mindful.
How would you define the culture in GUI?
After backpacking for 4 years, I came back and did a lot of things and realize that there is a disconnection. I wanted to nurture leaders. We need to nurture leaders to be different. Currently, our education system teaches you to be of one dimension, to be economic machines. Everything is about economy. There is nothing wrong with such a policy. We need to have such fundamentals to sustain ourselves. But we’ve become so driven in this aspect, that we forgot the other things in life. I want to convey the message, that the meaning of education should be different. I may not be the only one doing it. But I definitely have created this space to get my members to challenge themselves and push these boundaries. We need to nurture leaders differently. What type of leadership are we talking about?
I would think we need someone who is a thinker. Not just traditional mainstream thinking, but you need to differently, to think compassionately, to think sustainably, and to relook at the whole issue and see how, in the pursuit of our success model, not to hurt the Earth. This is not in our current education system.
The second thing I want to nurture is for people to become warrior. The idea of thinker and warrior came from the Chinese proverb, 文武双全, where the Chinese emperor is selecting his subjects, he would want them to be a scholar and to be a warrior. In GUI, the concept of “warrior” is someone good with his hands, the “hands on” culture. There are no qualms to get your hands dirty. Also, I am referring to the mental resilience. A person who is versatile and can adapt, and has a lot of inner strength.
However, “能文能武” is not good enough, you also must be able to 能动土(work on the soil), which I translate to “farmers”. I do not mean that you need to be a farmer, in the agricultural industry. But I want you to understand the meaning of the land. You need to appreciate the weather, the land. You become very grounded. It is not just appreciating nature. If you go to Botanic Gardens, it is also nature, but it’s a very organized [nature], prim and proper, “PAP”. It is very manicured. Interpreting the meaning of the land, I took the interpretation as Benjamin Franklin ever said – There are only but three ways to make a living, firstly, through war, like what the Roman does, conquering land, robbing resources. But this, is barbaric. The second is through commerce, trading. This is cheating. And I know it. I have been in the corporate world for 11 years; I know what is all about. The third is through agriculture, farming. What you plant, is what you will reap. It is an honest way of living. A thinker, a warrior, a farmer. This is GUI leadership.
How would you like to engage the people you may not have reached out to?
First, they need to know. You can only care when you know. After the awareness, comes understanding. You have to realize that “well, this is important in my life”.
Then, you will have a struggle, like most people do. The competing, conflicting priorities that you feel, which are more important. But you have to understand, why is this important in your whole life, your society or your community eventually?
Then comes acceptance. You accept that there is a trade-off for what you want to do. By spending my time here, I forego other pleasures in my life. One of the things about GUI members is that material pursuits are not something high on their priority list.
After acceptance, you must start to come in to do something, to be involved. It need not be GUI, and I will tell people, if you have the leadership, you should go ahead and do what you believe. Why do I do this? I have the leadership capacity, to stand up and rally people to the cause; I have accepted this role. And I must accept it happily and willingly. This is very important. A lot of people do things, but they are grumpy, they are reluctant. One must accept the role, and start to rally. So, let’s say there is someone who believes in something and has the leadership capacity, and they should do something about it. If you don’t have the skills and talents, go and find people to join you, and give them a chance to play their part. Or else, you could go and pick up the skills. Start small.
Many a times, people come to me, to tell me that they want to change the world, but they don’t succeed even the first step. You must first find out exactly what is your interest.
You must care, and then love what you are doing. If you don’t love what you are doing, the project will not sustain.And in loving what you are doing, you have to realize that there are sacrifices, or rather, trade-offs.
Last night, I was at Esplanade and I exclaimed, “Wow, I haven’t been here for a long time! Never have I seen Marina Bay Sands from such an angle.” But it’s worth it.
So, platforms like yours should promote such causes, to make more people aware.
– Profiled by Lim Zi Song