Tay Lai Hock on Ground-up Initiative for Sustainable Living in Singapore

Story and Photos by Abigail Kor

Singapore, 1 August 2010. Most Singaporeans would baulk at the idea of giving up a high-paying job in the corporate world to become a humanitarian and environmental advocate.

Tay Lai Hock of Ground-up Initiative.

However, 11 years ago, Mr Tay Lai Hock decided to eschew his lucrative marketing career to backpack in 35 countries around the world. The decision to embark on his 4-year-long backpacking stint came after a period of intense soul-searching where he was “searching for a deeper meaning in life.”

“The final impetus to leave the corporate world came during the December 1997 Silk Air Crash,” recounted Lai Hock during an interview in Bottle Tree Park. “My current job at that point of time required me to fly every week. This prompted me to think deeply about life and take a break from the rat race to be a globetrotter.”

While his travels broadened his perspectives and opened his eyes to the diverse cultures and people around the world, it also highlighted to him the “close-minded” mentality of his fellow Singaporeans. He was particularly impacted by the hospitality of a 21-year-old American-Italian lady he met on a 3 hour bus ride in Greece. After chatting to each other during the journey, the lady invited Lai Hock over to her place in Naples and introduced him to the country during his stay.

“I felt that her openness and sense of pride for her country is something that is lacking among the youth in Singapore,” Lai Hock remarked.

Volunteers grow herbs and vegetables at Bottle Tree Park, Yishun.

It was also during his travels that Lai Hock witnessed firsthand the varying ways in which people treated the Earth. In areas such as South America and the Middle East, Lai Hock saw how people had “no qualms about polluting the environment.” Conversely, he managed to learn organic farming and sustainable living concepts in Spain through an organisation called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

All these experiences culminated in him becoming devoted to humanitarian and environmental causes. Upon his return to Singapore, Lai Hock started spearheading initiatives to create sustainable positive change to the community.

Among various initiatives, Lai Hock founded and presided over the Ground Up Initiative (GUI), a non-profit organisation which aims to promote environmental-friendly and sustainable living practices by encouraging more people to get in touch with the land.

GUI was officially registered on 22 April 2008, Earth Day, as a small group of people bound together by the mission of encouraging others to live larger, more holistic lives. The organisation, which currently operates in Bottle Tree Park, offers a variety of workshops and courses on sustainable living. People can sign up for pottery and drumming lessons, learn how to make compost, or even learn how to concoct an organic cleaning solution from vegetable waste.

Never too young to be a greenie.

Its Sustainable Urban Farms (SURF) initiative, which aims to inspire urban dwellers to reconnect with nature through the process of growing their own herbs and vegetables in a patch of land in Bottle Tree Park, has seen an increase in popularity.

According to Lai Hock, the crops grown by the volunteers are mainly edible and ornamental plants that can be harvested and used in their own homes. As such, this gives volunteers a tangible reward after weeks of toil. It is also a means of allowing them to understand the hard work that goes into cultivating their greens, something that if often taken for granted. Additionally, it is also hoped that this initiative will allow Singapore to take a small step towards having a degree of self-suffiency for its food sources.

Lai Hock also proudly announced that only organic farming practices are employed in SURF. Weeds are painstakingly removed by hand, without the addition of harmful chemicals. The crops flourish on natural compost, which is manufactured from organic waste in two large compost bins located on the compound. Looking ahead, Lai Hock hopes to further improve farming technologies by introducing more complex agricultural methods which are energy-efficient and safe for the environment.

“People are starting to warm up to something that’s different from their daily routine ,” said Lai Hock. “ What draws them to come back is not just the fun of seeing their crops grow, but the kampong spirit that thrives in the GUI community.”

When Gaia Discovery visited the Bottle Tree patch in June, there were close to 25 volunteers of varying ages attending to the plot of land, all of which had only kind words to offer about SURF.

36-year-old Mr Low, who has been coming to do gardening work weekly for the past six months, also brought his two sons , aged 11 and 9 years, along. He came to know of GUI through his colleagues.

“I feel that Singapore is too urbanized so it is good to go back to nature once in a while. GUI is a good platform to learn about organic farming in a hands-on manner. It also helps me de-stress as I feel very energized when I come here.”

41-year-old Mei, who was busy weeding when Gaia Discovery approached her, said, “ I like coming back as I enjoy hard work. After working in an office, you become quite detached from nature and the real world. Gardening lets you see results and is a good learning process.”

To find out more about GUI, visit website http://www.groundupinitiative.org. GUI is organising a carnival on sustainable living and how to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% with eco ways and solutions. This is taking place on 10.10.2010 at the Bottle Tree Park, Yishun, Singapore, and invites NGOs to participate in this, and all members of the public to visit. Open from morning to evening.

Read another article on the same by ONESingapore

For enquiries, contact info AT groundupinitiative.org

The writer can be reached by abigail DOT kor AT gmail DOT com