Inspiration to us all: He helps others 'put down roots'

Some saved lives, others fought to overcome personal difficulties yet found it in them to lend a helping hand. They are the kind of people The Straits Times is seeking to recognise with a new annual award, ST's Singaporean of the Year. The award, supported by UBS Singapore, will be given out at the end of this year. To give an indication of the kind of individuals and their inspiring actions we would like to celebrate, Olivia Ho caught up with some whom we had reported on last year. If you know of others like them who should be recognised, do e-mail us at

Mr Tay Lai Hock (left) founded his eco-community to create a "21st century kampung culture" here.
Mr Tay Lai Hock (left) founded his eco-community to create a "21st century kampung culture" here. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

For years, he wandered the earth, living off little more than what he carried on his back.

But today, his endeavour to get his fellow urbanites to put down roots in their own land keeps free spirit Tay Lai Hock, 52, firmly planted in Singapore.

He founded eco-community Ground-Up Initiative in 2008 to create a "21st century kampung culture" in the heart of cosmopolitan Singapore.

He helms a group of 40 to 50 active volunteers who cultivate a 26,000 sq m plot of land - about the size of three to four football fields - at the former Bottle Tree Park in Khatib. More than 35,000 people have passed through its gates, growing produce, honing skills such as woodwork, and practising sustainable living.

Mr Tay and his team do not live on site, but take turns maintaining it, leading volunteers and holding community programmes for schools and companies. These, as well as the sale of some of the farm's produce, drum up revenue. Said Mr Tay: "We are not profitable, but we get by."

The self-avowed "kampung chief" believes the environment will benefit from convincing Singaporeans to get their hands dirty - literally. "We live so high-rise our feet don't touch the ground," he said.

The former regional sales manager for a US software firm gave up a five-figure salary in 1999 to backpack around the world. Settling down in one place was far from his mind at the time. But when he ended up leading a series of flood relief missions in Malaysia in 2007, he realised he had amassed a group of volunteers with the potential to enact change. Months of living in New Zealand eco-villages showed him the blueprint of how to do so.

The transition has not been an easy one. His work means he can no longer travel for long periods of time. And the fight to keep the project going is a constantly uphill one, said Mr Tay, who is single. They almost lost their space recently, but managed to secure the new, bigger site in November for the next six years.

Mr Tay and his team now aim to raise $6 million to develop the land further into a "Kampung Kampus", starting with projects like a rice field. So far, they have raised more than $100,000 in cash and kind, in their latest effort by getting people to sponsor bricks.

Mr Tay admitted to doubts, especially when he comes up against volunteers who lack commitment, or visitors who litter. When he shared his misgivings on a volunteer WhatsApp group, however, a former volunteer sent him a message from the US, saying that she had just had an interview to study at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. If not for Mr Tay, the young woman said she would probably be sitting in an office instead.

"The seeds you sow take so long to see," said Mr Tay. "But it's moments like this that keep me going. I always tell people - farm your heart, and garden your soul. We're trying to create a utopia here."

What it should have been

Monday's report, "Inspiration to us all: He helps others 'put down roots' ", stated that Ground-Up Initiative had raised $5,000 so far in its fund-raising efforts for the "Kampung Kampus".

Ground-Up's founder Tay Lai Hock has since clarified that the cash amount raised currently stands at more than $50,000.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline Search for ST's Singaporean of the Year. Subscribe