On yet another glaringly hot day, next to a simple shelter with a semi-spherical, straw-thatched roof, Cai Bingyu is hauling away used coffee grounds and cornhusks for composting.
Cai – tanned, young, and floppy-fringed – is one of the many who make up Ground-Up Initiative. A “volunteer-driven non-profit community”, GUI aims to connect its participants to the land. Since 2009, this land has referred to the cosy 500 square metres patch that is the Sustainable Living Kampung, GUI’s headquarters, at Yishun’s Bottle Tree Park. Located between fishing ponds and a model car-racing track, this Kampung seeks to foster “social and environmental consciousness”.
Ostensibly, GUI seems to be one more green organisation preaching the ‘save the earth’ message. Some might even call its visitors, who sometimes come to farm, hippies. But GUI bears visiting for its construction of a new type of kampong: not relaxed but industrious, not isolated but well-connected, and rather than sleepy, successful. In the key performance indicator sense, GUI has attracted 19,969 participants in 2011, making it something of a case study in rejuvenating that populist but amorphous thing called “kampong spirit”.
A history of doing
Coffee in hand, GUI founder Tay Lai Hock, is already multitasking on a Sunday morning. A picture of casualness with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and loose pants, the 48-year-old greets the volunteers and checks on work at the vermicomposting (composting with worms) shed before arranging for visitors’ tours.
One would imagine that such an urban farm would consist of bohemian types. Yet, Tay and his twenty-persons core team are constantly on the go. It is Tay himself who holds the team together with his persuasive, charismatic leadership. I myself was surprised that I was convinced to help out as a volunteer for one of their events.
Tay started out doing menial work at the age of nine. He eventually made it to a management position at an MNC before quitting, in 1999, to backpack around the world for four years. “I feel that the biggest problems in Singapore today are denial, indifference and inertia,” Tay says. “People have the power to change things, but they just don’t do it.” Using the example of littering – “foreign workers pick up our trash, so we just don’t care” – Tay pinpoints a general lackadaisical nature in Singaporeans today, which he feels is due to the disconnect between people and the land. “It is the ‘everything is good, why change’ mentality. People don’t really live anymore.”
While its current message is green, GUI started off as a humanitarian cause. After conducting missions in 2007 around flooded regions in Malaysia, including Johor’s Endau Rompin, Tay decided to establish GUI in 2008. Through a mutual agreement, GUI has since enjoyed free rent and occasional equipment and labour sponsorships through Planar One & Associates, the master tenant of Bottle Tree Park.
Currently, GUI’s mainstay events revolve around education. Balik Kampung, a farming experience, gives participants a chance to till, plant and weed crops for half a day. Kampung Cakap (which this magazine has participated in), a public sharing session conducted once every few months, sees a mix of artists, musicians, activists and engineers sharing ideas. The Sustainable Living Lab, housed in the Kampung, also allows homegrown innovators to collaborate on producing innovations to serve small communities. Its latest invention is the iBam, eco- and pocket-friendly audio speakers made from bamboo.
Profits from these events, if any, go back into maintenance of the kampong, as well as daily allowances for some of the core team members. GUI is also fund-raising to potentially build Singapore’s fifth university. Rather loftily named the Singapore Open University of Life (SOUL), Tay sees its ultimate goal as “building souls for our country”, an alternative to “just teaching children to be one-dimensional.” GUI’s role, he says, is in helping Singaporeans “relearn how to be a person” or in Mandarin, “xue xi zuo ren”.
Tay has spoken about how he views GUI as a “mainstream” initiative. To make this “the norm”, GUI has partnered with the National Institute of Education and Civil Service College to offer staff leadership retreats. Recently, it has also played host to visits from Ministers of Parliament like Tan Chuan-Jin and K. Shanmugam.
The search for land
In GUI’s rustic meeting hall, Tay asks for lunch and soon, there is rice and vegetarian dishes in tingkats (tiffin carriers) on the table. It doesn’t seem much, but there is surprisingly enough for all the volunteers. In the lunchtime lull, an elderly couple, Jack Russell in tow, pops by to greet Tay, while three dancers come in for their weekly practice by the lake patio. A French artist strolls in with her family and shares ideas of possible collaborations with Tay. The other volunteers talk about Bali’s Green School, lamenting how it has become another capitalistic venture, before moving on to sharing tips on building tree houses.
It is apparent that there is a strong sense of community at GUI: a dense, inter-linked network of friends and acquaintances. It is Tay’s push for empowerment and a DIY spirit among the volunteers that keeps drawing this community back.
Huang Yin Xiao, a student from Guangzhou, started helping out a year ago after joining a Balik Kampung session. “I was weeding and changkul-ing (hoeing), and I didn’t realise how much I would like it.” Soon, she was coordinating GUI’s Earth Day event and became a core volunteer soon after. “I used to help out with a global NGO here, but young volunteers like us couldn’t contribute ideas. At GUI, no one will laugh at your ideas, they give me opportunities to learn and do.”
It can be said that GUI’s SL Kampung and Balik Kampung, Heritage Kampung, and Kampung Cakap events are efforts to reclaim the lost space of the kampong. Elsewhere, architect Tay Kheng Soon’s Kampung Temasek, an eco-school, has sprung up in Johor. Over at Yio Chu Kang, Kampong Buangkok sparked off a craze for Singapore’s last village and continues to exist today, even as ministers speak about the need to keep the “kampung spirit alive for [a] stronger community”.
In his paper “That Imagined Space”, sociologist Chua Beng Huat writes, “The popular nostalgia for the kampung, particularly for those who had never lived in one, is rooted in [the] common-place criticism of the stressful life dictated and disciplined by the logic of capital.” To Chua, the “invocation of the abstracted ‘relaxed’ social life of the kampung is not about the desire to go back to the reality of the kampung with all its material disadvantages. Instead…[it] is indicative of the desire to ‘rest’, to be content with one’s lot after having strived for long and ardous years, instead of striving for just that little bit more.”
The irony GUI faces – to work hard in order to rest more – pales in comparison to a larger double bind it finds itself in: Singapore law dictates that the government can buy land at any time, even if it is privately owned, for a price. In October, Planar One & Associates’ lease on Bottle Tree Park will expire and their appeal to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to extend its lease has been rejected. Without land, it is unclear how GUI will be able to teach Singaporeans of their relationship to the earth.
The search for land is concomitant with the underlying nostalgia for the literal greener pastures and knitted social community of the past. The attraction of using one’s hands to work on one’s own land is an undeniable symbol of resistance to anomie, even alienation. But as recently as this year, urban farms like the Clementi Farm along Clementi Avenue 4 and 6, which was there since the late ‘70s, was asked by the SLA to clear out.
‘Overnight’ from Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches, also collected in Coast, traces the movement for some not from kampongs to high-rise apartments, but to camp sites by the beach. “No reminiscence of the kampong is complete without the memory of eviction,” Aflian writes, “a rooster crowing at dusk, a roof collapsing under rain, and the ember of a mosquito coil fading from orange, to grey, to a delicate pellet of dust.”
Unless state endorsement and land is granted, it seems, new kampongs will be going the way of the old – to the dust of the Internet and someone’s distant, byte-sized memory.
Words Danielle Hong
Images Courtesy of the National Art Gallery, Singapore
This article was amended on 14 June 2012.