Amid the modern pursuit of material gain, non-profit community Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) aims to redefine Singaporeans’ idea of success – with its Kampung Kampus, which combines eco-consciousness with mental well-being.

“At GUI, we work to reconnect man with nature,” said Koo Hui Ying, the organisation’s Kampung Connector.

“Our workshops also help offer a new perspective on life. We hope it helps Singaporeans be more open-minded, and to redefine success. We also work to promote a culture of kindness and graciousness,” said the ex-hospitality student who used to work for Jurong Bird Park.

Koo was introduced to GUI by a friend and began volunteering there. When she graduated six years ago, she began working for them full-time – a decision she hasn’t regretted since.

Koo said: “Overall, the Kampung Kampus teaches people how to live sustainably – not just for the environment but also for one’s own spiritual health, because that promotes one’s emotional and mental well-being too. ”

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Koo Hui Ying with GUI’s first community garden, called Sustainable Urban Farm (SuRF). Image Source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

But GUI is more than just an environmental group. Beyond sustainability, GUI also pushes for Singaporeans to focus on other metrics of success.

Instead of focusing on the 5Cs – career, condo, club, credit card and car – commonly equated with the Singapore Dream, Koo said: “Here at GUI, we hope to push Singaporeans to live a 5G life and to cultivate a 5G society: one that’s gracious, green, giving, grounded and grateful.”

GUI walks the talk

Even at noon on a swelteringly hot day, their office stayed pleasantly cool,despite having no air-conditioning and with just one fan turned on.

GUI’s office was built to stay passively cooled throughout the day. Its tall structure meant hot air rises, and then escapes via thin window slits.

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Koo also shared that their office building was the only one built by hired construction workers and not GUI’s own staff and volunteers. They did, however, decorate the facade by hand with discarded glass bottles, which glittered in the sunlight.

It is with such thoughtfulness and creativity that GUI nurtures a conscious community with hearts, minds and hands focused on a humane and sustainable future.

“Singapore is a ‘throwaway’ nation,” said Koo. Indeed, Pulau Semakau, Singapore’s only landfill, is being filled faster than experts predicted. Current estimates project the island will be completely filled up by 2035.

In the spirit of resourcefulness and frugality, GUI made it a point to use as much salvaged or donated furniture as possible. The sturdy wooden desks were salvaged from another office’s ‘discard pile’, and their air-conditioning units were donated. Today, 80 per cent of the Kampung is made from repurposed materials.

An initiative to enrich Singaporeans spiritually

GUI was founded in 2008 by the late Tay Lai Hock.

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A painting of GUI’s late founder, Tay Lai Hock. Image Source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

After reading about a fatal plane crash, Tay, then a sales and marketing man whose job required him to fly often, was prompted to rethink his life.

“If I had been on that plane, what would be the greatest regret of my life? Was time on my side?” Tay said in an interview with People of Singapore.

So, in the early 2000s, he quit his job and annual six-figure salary, sold everything he owned, save for the flat his parents resided in, and went travelling, pondering on what it meant to live creatively and happily.

Six continents, countless adventures, and many years later, he found the answer: by having a “connection with the earth”.

Koo said: “Lai Hock experienced many life-changing moments during his travels.
But the one defining thing he learned was that, people need to be rooted. We need to be connected to the earth.”

According to Koo, Tay would quote Tolstoy, who said: “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”

“During his travels, Lai Hock realised that while Singapore isn’t suffering from extreme poverty the way some other, poorer nations do, we suffer from a different kind of poverty – one where we are spiritually poor.”

He felt that, as a result, many Singaporeans were risk-averse and not creative.

In an attempt to fix this, Tay started GUI when he returned to Singapore.

Since 2008, GUI has welcomed over 20,000 volunteers and runs about 100 programmes yearly, aiming to foster a connection with the land through experiential and nature-led learning.

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Image Source: Facebook / Rogan Yeoh Fotografi

“Overall, GUI promotes a connection to nature, a connection to people around you, and a connection to yourself,” Koo said.

Late founder’s legacy of thoughtfulness

This connection was exemplified in an incident that happened as she spoke to The Pride: Koo’s colleague led a sobbing child and her family into the office.

When Koo learned that the little girl had been stung by a bee, she sprang into action, whipping out appropriate creams and snacks, and chatting to and coaxing the child, who stopped sobbing within a minute.

Said Koo: “Many of the activities we do at GUI, like carpentry, cooking and farming, can be done on any premises. What makes GUI so special is the community that we have built.

“There is a saying that diversity can lead to division. So instead of focusing on our differences, we encourage people to meet others of different ages and perspectives, and learn more about each other. In turn, we’ll see how similar we really are,” she added.

For Koo, it is the people who make the organisation special. She said: “The community at GUI today is amazing. Everyone is positive, cheerful and warm. Everyone looks out for one another.”

In that way, Tay’s legacy – of kindness and thoughtfulness – lives on in the message he imparted to GUI staff and volunteers. So while GUI may have lost its founder, it hasn’t lost his teachings.

Hope amid an uncertain future

However, GUI’s time may soon be up. The beloved social enterprise may be forced to close down or move premises in 2020.

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Image Source: Ground-Up Initiative

The group, which is in debt, has worked hard over the past year to halve their six-figure debt. But even so, Koo confessed that their future isn’t certain.

Also, the land GUI sits on has been rezoned for residential purposes. So with their lease expiring in April 2020, it might soon be time to bid farewell to the late Tay’s life’s work at the current space.

But while their days on the current piece of land may be numbered, Koo remains hopeful.

“Finding meaning is a conscious effort, and no effort is ever wasted,” she said. “I hope GUI will still continue to reinvent itself despite all the uncertainties, so that we can look toward a future in this 21st Century where we continue to cultivate inner landscapes and craft thriving communities for a flourishing world.”