Eco-warrior Tay Lai Hock dreams of creating kampung-style community

Ground-Up Initiative founder Tay Lai Hock gave up a high-flying job to start an eco-community and revive the kampung spirit

Discarded bicycle wheels are put to good use by the farm in Ground-Up Initiative, which has grown from strength to strength since Mr Tay Lai Hock started it six years ago. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The crash of SilkAir Flight MI185 took the lives of 104 people, but set one person free, metaphorically speaking.

Back in 1997, Mr Tay Lai Hock was a jetsetting regional sales manager in an American multinational company. The tragic SilkAir crash that year jolted him out of his comfortable but not terribly satisfying way of life.

Now the 51-year-old founder of one of Singapore's rare eco-communities, he recalls: "I thought, 'Even such a safe airline can crash. If I were to die today, what would be the greatest regret in my life?'"

After months of soul searching, he realised that the thing he really wanted to do before he died was to see the world on a backpack and not out of a briefcase.

He gave up his job and its five-figure pay cheque and sold his Toyota Corolla, Palm Pilot and laptop.

In April 1999, he took off on a backpacking trip to Africa that was supposed to take six months, but instead spanned four years, five continents and 35 countries.

Witnessing natural phenomena such as a total solar eclipse and visiting impoverished villages deep in the jungles stirred in him a passion for both the environment and social work.

Out of this and other later trips, a dream was born.

As the bachelor puts it: "I wanted to build a community where people can come and forge a connection and, at the same time, hone their skills at farming, craftwork, carpentry, leadership and so on, so that when the situation arises and help is needed somewhere, they are prepared to serve as a team."

This dream is now a reality with Ground-Up Initiative, a six-year-old non-profit group he founded which has drawn thousands of volunteers with its philosophy of living in harmony with nature and people.

It currently occupies a 1,500 sq m farming plot at the former Bottle Tree Park in Khatib, with areas for cooking and eating, craftswork and courses in leadership, character building and social entrepreneurship, among others.

Recently, the group scored an unexpected coup. The lease for its rent-free base, courtesy of a supportive management, had expired earlier this year. However, it managed to secure a much larger 26,000 sq m plot of land at the former Bottle Tree Park.

Chong Pang Citizens' Consultative Committee, which is leasing the land from the Government for community use for six years, agreed to sublet the space to Ground-Up Initiative at a "five-figure rental", Mr Tay says.

At the groundbreaking ceremony last month, he announced plans to build a "Kampung Kampus". When the site is ready in about two years' time, there will be additional areas for camping, a field for growing rice and a prototyping zone for the design of green solutions using different technologies.

The project is expected to cost Ground-Up Initiative $6 million, which will come from fund-raising projects, revenue generated from its programmes as well as hopefully, government grants.

Mr Tay is optimistic that he can raise this amount. "When you do something good, there will be people who are prepared to support you," he declares, brushing back his unruly, shoulder-length tresses, which, like his beard, are streaked with grey.

During an interview with this reporter at the current site, one catches glimpses of his concern for people and the environment and his desire to walk the talk.

The self-described "kampung chief" interrupts the interview now and then to yell cheery greetings to volunteers who have just arrived or to say goodbye to those who are about to leave, thanking them for coming.

While taking the Life! team on a tour of the grounds, he keeps an eye on the surroundings, picking up the random plastic bag and other objects lying around.

He says it was a seven-month stint in eco-villages in New Zealand in 2007 and 2008 which inspired him to start a similar, self-sufficient kampung culture back home.

Mr Tay recalls of the experience in New Zealand: "They made their own jam and grew their own vegetables. They built their own houses, furniture and earth oven."

It was a creative and resilient way of living that was also in sync with others and the environment, he says.

The villagers cooked, ate and worked together. Almost nothing was wasted. Things that were broken were fixed. Fruit and vegetable peelings and even "your own s***" were turned into compost for fertilising plants.

He adds: "After you did your business into a hole in the ground, you covered it with materials made of dried grass, soil and sawdust."

All that made sense to him, he says.

"When you live in such a conscious and mindful way of others and the environment, you become a better human being."

It also made him realise why Singaporeans are so apathetic towards other people and their environment.

"It is because they are so disconnected from the land they live in. Just look at how much of our food is imported," he says.

He has not always been this clear-eyed and focused. The self-confessed "pai kia" (Hokkien for "bad boy") grew up poor in a Hokkien-speaking family in a two-room HDB flat in Jalan Batu.

His father was a seaman and his mother did various odd jobs including babysitting and laundry washing.

The oldest in the family - he has two brothers and one sister - he started working part-time when he was nine and studying at the former Tanjong Rhu Primary School. He did odd jobs such as selling drinks and ice cream at the former national stadium and making noodles in a factory.

But the early exposure to the working world also made him vulnerable to bad influences. He hung out with gangsters and started stealing and being involved in fights.

The turning point came when he was 15. The Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School student decided that he did not want to "go down that path" and distanced himself from the gangsters.

"I did not like that I was spouting Hokkien vulgarities every time I opened my mouth."

However, even during this rocky patch, he enjoyed being with people and lending them a hand.

In school, he was "always the one organising outings and other things". When he saw friends being bullied, he would stand up for them and fight the bully. "I have never been a bystander," he says.

He confesses that it could partly be the influence of the wuxia (Chinese martial arts) novels of Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong. In secondary school, he had been an avid follower of excerpts serialised in Shin Min Daily and novels he borrowed from friends. Cha's fiction depicts justice and righteousness, where good always triumphs over evil.

After his O levels, he wanted to be a social worker, but did not meet the paper qualifcations for the job, having only three O level passes.

He took up two part-time jobs as a service crew in a fast-food restaurant, working one evening shift at A&W and another midnight shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In 1981, he enlisted in the army and later signed on to be a combat soldier.

Six years later, the bright lights of the corporate world beckoned. Thinking that he might have the gift of the gab, he joined a company as a salesman to sell encyclopaedias from door to door. He topped the sales figures in his first month.

He spent the next 11 years in the corporate world, first as a sales representative in a computer company, then climbing up the corporate ladder to be a regional channel sales manager in an American MNC. By the time he left in 1999, he was earning about $10,000 a month.

This is in stark contrast to the present. Like the other 15 full-time volunteers at Ground-Up Initiative, Mr Tay does not get paid. It was only about two years ago that he started to receive a transport allowance, which now amounts to about $1,000 a month.

He reveals this without flinching. Group-Up Initiative, he says, "is a calling, not a job".

However, he hopes to hire and pay staff as the group expands to get ready for Kampung Kampus.

On the side, he earns some money from odd jobs, such as giving motivational talks. The money is enough for him to cover his telephone bills and other living expenses as well as help pay for his family's household and medical expenses.

He lives in a four-room Housing Board flat in Simei with his parents. His father, 76, is in day care while his mother, 70, still makes coffee at a finance company.

In 2008, he started Ground-Up Initiative with just a handful of like-minded volunteers in a small farming plot at Lim Chu Kang. He got to know them mostly through flood relief mission work in southern Malaysia the year before.

Ground-Up Initiative's flagship Balik Kampung (meaning "return to village") programme got volunteers to do farming as a way for them to reconnect with others and the environment, while cultivating life skills such as creativity and risk taking.

A year later, the group moved to a 100 sq m space at the former Bottle Tree Park - a 7ha park in a sleepy corner of Khatib which included a seafood restaurant and fishing pond.

With the support of the park's management, Bottle Tree, which had leased the space to the group for free until August, the space for Ground-Up Initiative grew to today's 1,500 sq m.

Currently, it draws more than 35,000 people, mostly teenagers, young adults, families and foreigners, for its activities and training courses.

But Mr Tay is practical and does not believe in running his outfit as "a charity".

"I wanted it to generate revenue and be self-sufficient," he says.

He achieved this aim through initiatives such as Wow Kampung, an educational arm set up two years ago to run programmes for schools and companies.

Financial sustainability aside, he says idealistically that the eco-village idea is, "at the end of the day, all about being a better person".

Friends say he is someone who walks the talk.

Mr Aaron Tan, 40, who runs an events management company, has known Mr Tay for more than five years.

Mr Tan says the eco-activist is someone who cares about people. "Whether you are a CEO or a roadsweeper, local or foreigner, he gives everybody the same amount of attention. He remembers people's names. He greets them and strikes up a conversation with them," he says.

Ultimately, it is the people who matter, says Mr Tay.

"If you ask volunteers why they keep coming back to Ground-Up Initiative, they will tell you it's because of the people here."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.