It was the 19th of May 2015 when I interviewed Tay Lai Hock at Ground Up Initiative (GUI), the community farm he founded in Singapore in 2008. I remember being very impressed, overwhelmed even, by the incredible work he was doing. School children were walking in and out, participating in a workshop where they were making bricks to construct a new building; volunteers were shoveling away, preparing the soil for veggies; and he himself was actively fundraising to acquire more land to grow even more food. Amidst all of this structured chaos, he made time to see me – a slightly naive and uninformed yet curious woman from Amsterdam, eager to learn and absorb every word he said. And I did. And more importantly, we became friends. He always knew where to get the coldest beer in the whole of Singapore and he would take me there in his funny-looking messy little van.
A few days ago he passed away. I couldn’t believe it and feel so far away – I am so far away. Luckily when we first met in 2015 I made notes of our conversation. Reading them again, I realized he actually spoke about the Ground Up Initiative “after I’m gone.” As a way of honoring him and reminding us of those words, I’d like to share them and celebrate the incredible work he did. Just imagine this setting: a very sweaty and wide-eyed Yasmine and a very smily yet busy Lai Hock at a plastic table in the shade at GUI with an untouched chicken-dish in between us – which he later took with him. No food waste!
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LH: It all started 7 years ago now, on Earth Day. I wanted to tackle issues in our society and increase awareness of our disconnection to the land. People don’t touch the soil anymore – we are living in increasing urbanized areas in Asia. There are some eco-villages but they mainly attract very escapist people. Also: I wanted to create something in my own country. I had been traveling so much in my life and I wanted to bring something back to Singapore.
YO: How would you describe what you do?
LH: A lot of people now know about Ground Up Initiative. It’s not just an urban farming program and it’s not just a pre-school program – it’s both of these things. One of the biggest challenges is to find a clear description because it depends on what you want to do here at GUI. Nowadays you have to be one thing. And we aren’t just one thing, we are many things and do many things. Another challenge is that I don’t want to be a guru; I just want young people to come here and feel free. But what happens is that they copy what you say. GUI is like an Android, or a system with different apps: All the different apps are ways to make a person responsible, to give them a conscience. Farm their heart. They can try all the different apps here. There are so many different things and it’s not just about me. But how do you translate these values without it becoming a religion? How can you create a platform? The essence of my thinking needs to remain when I’m gone.
YO: What other challenges do you face on the farm?
The third challenge is funding and maintaining such a big space. I’m not a charity and I want to remain independent. I used to have a very short lease for the land. I lost it after 6 years and I really had to fight to keep the land. Then I got a lease for another 6 years. Luckily, I have a good relationship with the government. Over the years, I have gained a lot of respect; people know me and know I’m doing real work. We have a lot of good connections now. But it remains challenging.
YO: How did you manage to set this up in the first place?
LH: I got the first 100m2 for free and didn’t have to pay any utility bills. In return, I would make the space look nicer and be a good neighbor. We organized a few events and made sure there was no littering. Five thousand people got to know the space. Then we received some funding from the National Art Council Singapore as we are also doing a lot of art projects, including murals. We included music events, drama workshops, everything to do with arts and plants. All things to do with the right side of your right brain. Things to do with your soul: stories, singing, dance, play games. Just fun stuff. There’s constantly stuff happening; the space is in constant use. Now after 7 years, people know that I’m serious and increasingly hosting huge numbers of people.
YO: How do we become more sustainable as a society?
LH: People think it’s policy and technology but really… it’s culture. A sustainable future requires a 21st century kampong culture. Technology can’t replace the impact of a culture in which people are brought up learning sustainable behaviors. If we can teach people to behave in a different way, we can really impact humanity. I also reconditioned myself to be here this way. People shouldn’t take things for granted.
YO:There are so many entry points, what’s your focus?
My focus is on building leaders because leadership matters. Without it, nothing happens after you leave. It’s about doing and harnessing relationships. You need to learn how to fail in a position where you’re still safe. As long as we have enough leaders we can do it. Then we have the potential to keep on growing enormously. My second priority is building quarters where people can stay at GUI. The more (international) people come here, the more serious the government takes us. Decommissioned solar panels have been donated to GUI and we are running programs for fundraising. Sometimes we can charge money for the programs and I’m constantly trying to increase the salaries of the people helping me. Financial sustainability is important. It’s an inclusive work environment here, we take care of each other. Individualism started in the West with capitalism and pop-culture. Singapore has followed that example. I suggest we focus on the HEARTware, the kampung spirit, gotong royong and community innovation.
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Dear Lai Hock, I’m so sad I will never see you again and share an ice-cold beer with you. You will be terribly missed but not forgotten in Singapore, Amsterdam and far beyond. RIP.
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.