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A taste of kampung life

21st century kampung aims to renew the community's connection to Mother Nature

"Those who can hear my voice, please gather around me."

A voice as cheery as the surrounding sunflowers rang out in the cool morning air, bringing people out of the wood workshop, the farm and elsewhere, to gather and introduce themselves to one another.

The volunteers had signed up for Balik Kampung, Ground-Up Initiative's (GUI) flagship community programme that is open to anyone willing to work up a small sweat. Some even came as a family to take part.

After stretching exercises to warm up, the real work began.


Children launch water rockets recycled from PET bottles, as part of a partner programme with the National Library Board which allows young library-goers to visit Kampung Kampus to explore different forms of flight, through activities such as competing to see who can fly their paper airplane farthest and running in an open field to launch their self-made kites. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The group was split up to attend to different tasks. Some flower pots needed to be moved, lunch had to be prepared, plants watered and a path alongside a flowing stream cleared of weeds.

Kampung Kampus, home of GUI, buzzed with such gotong royong, which means communal work usually associated with kampung life, until a communal lunch at noon.


Armed with broomsticks taller than themselves, Joven Lee (above, left) and Ryan Kek (right) enthusiastically go about sweeping up rambutans that have fallen on the ground. These Balik Kampung participants busy themselves with gotong royong, or communal work usually associated with kampung life, until a communal lunch at noon. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

It seems to consist of menial tasks, but it is much more than that.

Balik Kampung, which means "going home" in Malay, aims to renew participants' connection to the land and to one another.


Invited guests touring the Learning Space @ Ponds during the phase one launch of Heartquarters, a net-zero energy building, last month, at Kampung Kampus. The next phase will feature two ponds with surrounding flowering and fruit trees, a lodge and an educational padi field. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Mr Eugene Goh, 27, a programme coordinator at GUI, said when people are willing to roll up their sleeves and work the ground, they begin to develop a sense of ownership over it.

"The sense of groundedness is absolutely essential because we are a young nation. If our young people cannot believe on a deep level that this land is theirs and derive a sense of ownership, the meaning of home becomes eroded," he said.


The pre-schoolers learn to loosen the soil using their hands, plant wheatgrass seeds in the planter box and water them together. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Founded in 2008 by Mr Tay Lai Hock, a former regional sales manager for a US software company, GUI aims to nurture grounded leaders and model a society with a sustainable future.

Its 5G philosophy is to create a society that is gracious, green, giving, grounded and grateful.

Mr Tay, 53, the "kampung chief", feels that if more Singaporeans adopt the 5G way of living, "Singapore will be kinder, warmer, greener and much more liveable".


Children from a PCF Sparkletots Preschool @ Tampines Central Block 858 explore the park next to their school with "ranger" Yazid Jalil during a programme for pre-schoolers conducted by Ground-Up Initiative. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Occupying 26,000 sq m, or the size of about four football fields, the land at the former Bottle Tree Park in Yishun is leased from the Government at a five-figure rental. The entire place is an experiential, nature- led learning campus.

The education arm, WOW Kampung, organises school and corporate programmes that focus on character development and shaping attitudes. Held either at Kampung Kampus or their client's premises, the programmes employ hands-on learning and aim to bring participants outside of four-walled classrooms into the green environment to engage their senses for enhanced learning.


Mr Imran Rashid, a full-time farmer, waters a plot of New Zealand spinach, one of many crops grown on the 1,400 sq m farm at Kampung Kampus in Yishun. The produce is sold to an organic produce retailer in Singapore and regular customers who visit Ground-Up Initiative. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Farmily, the farming arm, grows a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs without using pesticides. Two full-time farmers and volunteers tend to the 1,400 sq m of arable land. The organic produce is sold to a local retailer and to its own loyal customers.

GUI's craft arm, Touchwood, finds useful ways of recycling and re-using unwanted materials, and conducts wood-working classes for children and adults.


"Mummy, this is heaven!" was what Dean Ng, a first-time participant in a Touchwood workshop, said to his mother after using a handsaw and electric drill to cut and join wood pieces for his toy car. Here, he is under the close guidance of Ms Alison Ang, a part-time worker at Touchwood, Ground-Up Initiative’s craft arm that holds ticketed workshops for all ages. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

GUI is a volunteer-driven organisation, with slightly more than a dozen full-time staff who lead the different initiatives and programmes. On a typical Saturday, there can be between 10 and 20 volunteers at Farmily.


The food is prepared by fellow volunteers using some ingredients from the farm. Food waste is collected for composting and participants wash their own plates and utensils (above). ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Ms Lim Sixian, 27, a manager in a public agency, volunteers about three times a month on Saturdays at Farmily. "It is hard to find a place like Kampung Kampus in Singapore," she said. "I like the space and the people here. When I enter the space, it feels open - you don't feel like there are walls and it feels breezy.


Volunteers at the urban farm clean their boots in the stream that runs through Kampung Kampus. Ms Lim Sixian (left), a manager in a public agency, says she enjoys being in touch with nature. She volunteers about three times a month on Saturdays at Farmily, the farming arm of Ground-Up Initiative. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

"This place gives me an alternative vision of what a community can look like," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'A taste of kampung life'. Print Edition | Subscribe