SINGAPORE: To some, Tay Lai Hock is a “hippie” who’s misleading the youth; to others, he is just one Singaporean who is promoting the philosophy of living in harmony with nature.
Tay is founder of the Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), a non-profit group that aims to reconnect city dwellers with the earth. The group’s 26,000sqm Kampung Kampus site in Khatib is designed as a low carbon footprint area featuring tropical sustainable architecture. Their idea is not only to enable people to be with nature, but also actively look after the space, get their hands dirty and in the process, learn how to take risks and be leaders – all while working as a team with a 21st century kampong spirit.
Previously a highly paid IT executive, the SilkAir crash in 1997 prompted Tay to have a rethink of what he was doing with his life. He later quit his job, backpacked around the world, and then started GUI.
Debates over land use in Singapore and the loss of rustic spaces are issues which resonate with him. He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about this, values in an ideal society, and what it means to put your money where your mouth is. But first, he took on what it meant to be called a “hippie”.
Tay Lai Hock: Well, I always say that if I'm a hippie, then I'm a hippie who promotes free love, free play, free spirit, but I don't talk about free drugs or free sex, things like these. What I'm trying to do is help Singaporeans free their minds.
So often, we hear people say that they are very stifled. They're very caught up with all the day-to-day running around and making a living that they have forgotten how to live. What's wrong with what I'm trying to do? I'm not against anything. I'm just not doing what the mainstream thinks everybody should be doing.
So I'm just providing an alternative platform for Singaporeans. So naturally, the government officials when they started to try and understand what I'm trying to do, they asked me about it. Of course, the more progressive ones, the more open-minded ones will think that I'm doing good. But there are people who said I’m misleading youth. That one really hurts me.
Bharati Jagdish: Are you at liberty to say who said this about you?
Tay: No, I don't think I should.
Bharati: But it was a government official?
Tay: Of course. I had more than one government official telling me this.
Bharati: Why do you think they think this of you?
Tay: I don't know. I was shocked, I was like "Why are you saying this? What have I done? What did I do wrong?" Fortunately, that was about three years ago. I was really upset that day. Why do they think I’m poisoning the minds of the young? What have I done wrong?
CREATING A CULTURE OF RISK-TAKING AND CREATIVITY
Bharati: To what extent do you think this is because in Singapore, we have a culture of focusing on certain things - academic success, material success, but what you're trying to do is quite different?
Tay: We all know that we're chasing the five Cs right? You’ve probably heard that I backpacked around the world for four years. And in the last year, the last few months of my travels, I was sitting in the Sahara Desert, and I was looking back at Singapore and I said, "Okay Lai Hock, you haven't died yet, you did well in the last few years, so what are you going to do now?"
So I said, "I'm going back to Singapore."
At that time, our Government released the Remaking Singapore blueprint. Two things caught my attention. The first thing was, we want to teach Singaporeans how to take risks. I thought, "Wow, how do you create that, how to do that when the whole environment doesn’t even promote risk-taking?” Of course compared to back then in the early 2000s, I think Singapore is doing better now.
If you read the press, if you interview our local institutions, they are promoting a lot of entrepreneurship. The Government is putting in a lot of money to promote all kinds of things. But in my opinion, a lot of people are only taking risks because there’s a lot of money being put into them.
The second thing they said was, “We want to teach Singaporeans how to be more creative." But our definition of creativity is narrow. For people like me, I will never be classified as a creative person.
Bharati: Why not?
Tay: You must be an artist, you must be this, you must be that.
Bharati: Yeah, that's the conventional definition of “creative”.
Tay: But my four years of travelling around the world living as a backpacker in so many countries made me have this confidence. I said, "I am a creative person. I'm living creatively." Now creativity need not be confined to just an art skill, but if you're able to live creatively, and that's where you need to be that free spirit. You need to be able to freely conceive things and adapt along the way, and change if you need to change. And -
Bharati: Solve problems.
Tay: Solve problems and not be just "uhh." So when I came back, I really wanted to do all these kinds of things. And of course it was five years later that I decided that I will start my own organisation.
Bharati: In your opinion, why do we lack a culture of risk-taking and creativity?
Tay: It's recognised that we have a good government. And the people do look up to them. It's either we're too comfortable or everything has been too convenient. The other thing is the lesser emphasis on character building; everything is always about results. Also, the majority of our population is Chinese. Chinese traditionally have Confucian ethics. So maybe it's in the Chinese blood to always to be a little bit more driven to study, right?
Bharati: Nothing wrong with studying.
Tay: Nothing wrong with studies, but traditionally studying means rote learning.
Bharati: It's about how you study isn't it?
Tay: Yeah, but I think our Education Ministry is one of the most progressive ministries. Almost every year, they will come up with new policies. But I think if you talk to any teachers enough, everybody is jaded. There's a disconnect somewhere, and that's the truth. I'm sure we all know that.
Bharati: What do you think needs to happen to bridge this disconnect?
Tay: I remember one Minister for Education who said that we must treat our students as clients. With this American philosophy of customer is king, suddenly a lot of parents started to behave like kings and started going to schools and making demands, and so I did tell the last Minister, who’s now the Minister for Finance -
Bharati: Mr Heng Swee Keat.
Tay: Yeah, I did tell him that; I'm glad that one day in the press it was reported that he said no to this. And I feel that we need to have a fine balance. So I'm not entirely sure that these are the reasons, but I think that our teachers are already under stress. And then they have added stress to deal with ugly parents. I’ve met some outstanding teachers, and they're trying their best to do this, implement teaching to encourage creativity, for example.
But I think it has come to the point where a lot of them just do it for the sake of doing it. There are many things affecting our system here. The whole world is facing this – prevalent technology and the internet, but the things that anchor us as human beings are eroding.
I know our country is trying to bring back Character and Citizenship Education, but this is after 20 years of cutting that away. That’s why I'm trying to do what I'm doing, to first focus on you as a person, as a character, and asking you to understand your place on earth and in this world, and as a living person.
BUILDING CHARACTER BY CONNECTING WITH OUR ENVIRONMENT
Bharati: And you think one way of doing that is to actually do that through the ground. Literally.
Tay: Yes. I think we would all agree that our environment shapes us. A few years ago, one school Vice Principal from a top school came to see me and said, "Our students have issues. When they see wildlife and other creatures like butterflies, they scream and shout because they are not comfortable with nature.” So I went down to the school two months later, took a walk. It’s a beautiful school, designed by a top architect. But it was “PAP” green.
Bharati: “PAP” green?
Tay: Prim and Proper. So when everything is very prim and proper, what do you think your students will become? Prim and proper.
Bharati: You’re referring to our manicured parks.
Tay: Yes. Nothing wrong with Gardens by the Bay, nothing wrong with Botanic Gardens, but we need a little bit more rustic space. And we took away a lot of rustic space. Our authorities say you can go to our neighbouring countries and see all this, but we know we need this here.
Bharati: Why do we need it? Make a case for it. Because a lot of people out there think we don't need it.
Tay: There are statistics, philosophers and doctors who have said it. Rustic environments are nurturing. And I've seen it with my own eyes, having lived overseas for a while. I've seen the difference between people who are a little bit more rugged, and the way they react to things.
When I started my organisation eight years ago, on the surface, it seems to get people back to the ground, to touch the soil, get their hands dirty, grow your own food, do some craft on your own. If you look more deeply, it’s about getting people to take care of the space. I told my team, “I want you to dirty your hands, I want you to build your space. When you build the space, you have a sense of ownership. I want you to take care of the toilets.”
If I have a chance, I want to influence people who will be eventually be top leaders, CEOs, government people. People who will be in charge of policies that influence people's lives. They should be people who understand the ground, understand the people and influence others to take ownership too. You can't try to make changes with the same old people who have been educated in the same old system. You think that will work?
Our focus is on the 5 Gs – Gracious, Green, Giving, Grounded, Grateful. Now, I'm glad to say that our Government is bringing back cleaning toilets.
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
Bharati: In the schools? Cleaning classrooms and common areas, actually. But some parents are upset that their kids have to do this.
Tay: Yes I know. So I think the top people, ministers, must demonstrate this themselves consistently. Not once in a while for photo opportunities.
Bharati: So they need to clean their offices and the toilets in their offices?
Tay: Yes. I heard from enough parents who told me that when the Government said that every school is a good school, they felt that the ministers themselves should then send their kids to neighbourhood schools. Why don’t they? This is what’s causing the disconnect. What I’m trying to say is put your money where your mouth is.
Bharati: You’ve also said that we need to change our definition of success. But as you mentioned earlier, a lot of people are in a comfortable position and they want to maintain this instead of changing it.
Tay: Yes, I have met people who say "I don't know what you're doing, but I need my air con, I need my comfort."
Bharati: And they work hard for this comfort.
Tay: That's right. So that's their definition of success. Nothing wrong with that. I’m just trying to provide an alternative to those who feel it’s getting too much. To help them incorporate some of the philosophies I’ve learnt from others about healthy eating and living and building character, connecting with the land, connecting with people of the community. So I put my money where my mouth is, by doing it myself.
Bharati: But you gave up your job to do this and while you make some money through school programmes, etc., you’ve said yourself that making a living can be challenging at times. It’s natural for people to worry – “If I give up my job to take a risk, what will I live on?” The high-cost environment is a reality.
Tay: Yeah, I hear that all the time. Every now and then, people write about me and readers will respond, “I'm so afraid; I cannot be like this guy." But I always tell people "You don't have to be like me, you just have to do it bit by bit."
Bharati: So in other words you can still have the comforts of your life, do you job, but make room for something more than that?
Tay: Yes, I’d like to think that it is possible, to infuse this into urban life as well.
Bharati: People have responsibilities though. Financial responsibilities. You've experienced what life with money is like. A lot of people have not. Or, they have to do it because they have families to look after. You're not married, nor have children.
Tay: Okay. Bharati do you know, today my CPF is only around hundred thousand. I probably cannot retire comfortably in Singapore. I don't have huge savings. But I’m happy with little. I know many people who have earned a lot of money, and still want to earn a lot of money, because they want to buy the latest phone, they want to buy the latest gadget, they keep changing things, they only want to eat nicer things. And then when all these material things cannot stimulate their senses, they go and buy a yacht. Or they imagine their kids need all these things, then they will be happy.
DEALING WITH HARSH REALITIES
Bharati: At this point I understand, and you told me this off-air earlier, that you are S$300,000 in debt. Some may look at you and go, “I don’t want a life like that. Where is the peace in being in debt?”
Tay: The thing is, in 2014 we signed a lease for our place, and of course we fought very hard for it. 26,000sqm of space. I told the Government I will find money to build this whole campus. I do not want to be a charity. I always tell people, I want our young to know what resilience is and we’re practising it. We will never stop doing things just because we don't have money and resources. Instead, we will become more creative in the process. It goes back to the first two things I talked about - risk-taking and creativity.
I'm now trying to rebuild the whole space. A big pond. There were six ponds, we refilled them and rezoned it to create a very nice, different habitat with integrated farming, and many other things. I choose to make these investments. I'm not here to say you must be like me, right? If you are listening to me now, I’m not saying you should go out and give up your job. I’m just saying get more equilibrium, balance in your life.
Bharati: We’ll talk more about how you managed to get such a space in land-scarce Singapore later. But you're in debt now and you talked about balance. Some might say your life isn’t very balanced; it’s all about this and it’s caused you to be in debt.
Tay: And I'm okay.
Tay: You know, two weeks ago, I went to a social enterprise summit. Two hundred and fifty people from eight countries came down to Singapore and I was invited. I didn't speak. But some of the overseas speakers who are already operating a social enterprise, said, “We don't want free money because free money makes us lazy.” I was intrigued.
Now, I can understand why, despite our Government throwing so much money to try to nurture entrepreneurs, the result is less than ideal. I’d like to believe that working for your own money would force us to become more enterprising, while we still want to do social good. I want us to be able to create a different kind of model so that the young don't see doing social stuff as having to sacrifice their money.
Bharati: But in doing this, you have sacrificed your financial security.
Tay: When these things happen, I quiet down - this is something I practised for a long time - I quiet down my heart, I take a walk. I don't talk to a lot of people. I just ask myself, “Lai Hock, why are you doing this? What is your reason for doing this? Is it for fame? Is it for money?”
I go back to my original intention, my purpose for doing it. I really believe Singapore deserves a space like what I'm trying to build. That the future generation will not take many things for granted. That they will look at nature, as not just something like manicured gardens. They will go there and have a place to look after, and a community, a real community, true community.
Bharati: But you still have to deal with the financial problems. How do you plan to get over this hump?
Tay: You must trust that the divine will come in. There will be some intervention. I happen to embrace every faith. I go around and I talk to people, and bit by bit, some light comes in. Some people come and sponsor some materials, maybe S$100,000 of material, and it helps reduce the cost. You’ve got to do it bit by bit.
DON’T BLAME THE GOVERNMENT
Bharati: I understand you believe we suffer from spiritual and emotional poverty. How much of this do you think has to do with the tone our Government set for many years; economic progress seemed to be the paramount concern?
Tay: I think the top should set the example, but I also believe, you first and foremost, must take responsibility for your own life. Take responsibility and ownership for your decision-making. Don't blame anybody. Don't blame the Government. Yes, of course, they might have sometimes say, “I fault the Government for this”. But you know what? I have a choice to decide that even though they have made this policy, I don't want to be a victim of their policies.
I have many people who told me, “Lai Hock, when I was in Australia, when I was in New Zealand, was in US, I talked to people on the street, they were all so nice. I came back to Singapore, and I said “hi” to people, but because nobody responded to me, I stopped being like that, and I have become who I am now.”
So, you blame the Government, you blame society. Yeah, go and blame everybody. But I hope more people will come together to create a holistic solution. It starts from young. So I have programmes running from kindergartens, to primary and secondary schools. We give them tips. For instance, when you get on the bus, greet the bus-driver. There are already enough conversations, written articles, grumblings from people that we need to have more graciousness, and that they are sick and fed up of this rat race. Why aren't we doing something about it then?
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that people should not blame the Government, they should take responsibility for their own decision-making, but you also implied that the Government does set the tone for a lot of issues in Singapore and needs to lead by example. To what extent do you think the Government needs to step back, and create the conditions for people to take ownership and to trust people to do so?
Tay: I'm all for the Government needing to step back a little, provided it's not caving in to pressure, unnecessary pressure. I look at some of the things people try to make the Government change, and I don’t agree. For example, some say the Government should be a bit more lenient on drug trafficking. That, I disagree. But yes, in other areas, the Government needs to really, not just relax and take a step back.
Bharati: In what aspects?
Tay: I think when it comes to maybe something that affects our daily life a lot. Estate management for instance. Honestly our HDB estates are not the cleanest. I’ve personally always felt that our citizens should step up a lot more, to learn how to take care of their own environment.
Bharati: So clean your own environment. I believe there is a No Cleaner Day in some estates, so that residents can step up to do the cleaning.
Tay: Yes, but it needs to be more than once a year or once a month. I feel that when you are really, really stepping up to look after your space, you will have that sense of ownership. The kampung spirit that we all talk so much about, will really come about, strongly.
TOO MUCH NATURE HAS BEEN LOST IN SINGAPORE
Bharati: Recently there have been debates over issues like the Cross Island Line, whether it should cut beneath the Central Catchment Nature Reserve or be built around it. What are your feelings when such possibilities are discussed in Singapore, considering you talked about the importance of nature and rustic areas in Singapore?
Tay: I feel sad. I want to say this honestly. To save six minutes, we're going to cut through things. What's the justification? Save six minutes of travel time? I think we’ve got to stop. This is where I stand by what I said. Our authorities have got to stop, and start leading by example.
If you say that we want to teach future generations that this is my country, it is worth defending, then we should start bringing back intrinsic values, emotional values, that cannot be defined and shouldn't be defined by economic status.
Bharati: But economic status is something worth defending as well.
Tay: True, I benefited.
Bharati: It's something that we are all proud of.
Tay: I benefited from it. My passport right now, Singapore passport, allows me to travel to so many countries.
Bharati: Yeah, so we've benefited from Singapore's economic status, why are you pooh-poohing it?
Tay: But where is the limit? Where is the limit to the growth? And it's precisely because of this growth at all costs that we are seeing this apathy. We are seeing this situation that Singaporeans are not hungry enough, or we're seeing this whole thing that the Government knows best. We need balance.
Bharati: People will be affected if the longer route for the CRL were chosen. People who live in homes that will be lost.
Tay: I have a lot of sympathy for them, don't get me wrong. Definitely. I think I remember the days when the MRT was starting to be built in Singapore, lots of people were affected. And in those days when people were affected, they were compensated much less. Hopefully these days our Government will compensate much better. Maybe that might ease the pain. I don't have an answer for that.
Bharati: But you feel that nature should take precedence?
Tay: Because we’ve already cut off so much nature in Singapore. It's unfortunate that we want a Cross Island Line; hopefully with good engineering capability and innovation, we can maybe build high enough so that it just passes over homes. Maybe we need to really exercise our imagination. Does it have to be a case of demolishing the homes or cutting under the nature reserve? Could it be something totally different?
Bharati: What do you think of the Kranji farms having to move – the authorities recently announced they will be given more time to move and their leases for the new sites will be longer, but initially, the authorities didn’t seem to understand that the leases needed to be longer.
Tay: And you know this is precisely the cause of many of our situations. They decide on things without really going down to the ground and listening. And this short-sightedness, that we have money so we can buy food from all over the world. Look at our population right now. Look at the kind of attitude that is imbued into all these people. These are the side effects that our country continues to regret. They forgot that all these things are inter-connected, our connection with the land, the country, the character of our people.
GETTING TO SG100
Bharati: Since we’re on the subject of land, how did you manage to convince the authorities to give up that land to you for your Kampung Kampus.
Tay: I think while we all like to say all of us can make a difference in our own, however small way, we also know that size matters, right? No big corporation, foundation, will do it. So it takes people like me who are silly enough to rally a group of also silly enough people who say, “Let's try to do it and hope maybe someone, someday, will say we have got it right.”
You must demonstrate to them what you're trying to do, what's your plan. We have enough shopping malls. How about giving Singaporeans a chance to see something different, to experience something different?
Then you must be like me, a bit more thick skinned and my heart's a little bit more steel and iron. I get bashed, never mind. Dented, never mind. I’m still standing there and still trying to talk. And then go and continue to find ways to knock on different doors of different agencies. We have talked to so many different people, tried to invite ministers to come. So five ministers came down. We presented the case to them, and then got many people to talk about us.
Bharati: You’ve said that our definition of success and happiness needs to change. In a nutshell, what’s your definition?
Tay: The fact that you mentioned that I have debt, and I'm still not stressed - I think that speaks a lot to my state of mind. I think having a good conversation, cooking my own simple meal - simple rice with some sprouts. Having the ability to know that you are able to do something with peace of mind, and enjoy every moment, in spite of difficulties. Yesterday, I went to Peirce Reservoir and saw a beautiful sunset. Singapore still has beautiful places like these. I sincerely feel that this country needs to see something much more different, and have a community which is really looking after the space, finding a way to finance the whole thing, and not relying on just handouts and things like that. Then, I think this spirit will enable this country to see the next 50 years, SG100.