Youth in Singapore are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society

A few people were sharing this eye-catching headline “Youth here lack idealism” on Facebook this morning- it was an article by Professor Kishore Mabhubani. I had a quick read and I reminded myself of a quote I recently have grown to like a lot “We are the sum of all the people we ever met” (Thanks Dirk Wittenborn) and I figured I would write a short personal anecdote too but in the lines of “Youth in Singapore are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society” (Thanks Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan for your comments on the speech; “She will learn that the fervency of the wish to change the world, does not change the world. To do so you have to work by and thereby subvert, the world’s rules.” -I’m learning how to go about it, and I am glad many others are too).

My general understanding:
+ Idealism: utopianism, wishful thinking, always striving for a better world
+ Pragmatism: reasonable and logical, within the boundaries of policies.

What I want to highlight in this personal anecdote is Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) and the youth behind it. Of course, there are others driving it too, but they do not fall in the “youth” category as defined in Singapore, ages between 15 to 35 years old.

Ground-Up Initiative (GUI)

At the SURF garden.

At the SURF Garden of Ground-Up Initiative. Photo Credit: Nor Lastrina Hamid

I volunteered regularly with GUI from 2012 to 2014 in their weekly Balik Kampung program doing activities such as farming, cooking and housekeeping, and even joined their education arm WOW Kampung as a facilitator for a while, helping to nurture purposeful individuals of all ages. I visited GUI less than five times in 2015 and this year I have told myself to make GUI one of the 3 groups I choose to focus on, the other two being SYCA and #LepakInSG.

Back to GUI. When I share about GUI to people briefly, I always end up telling them it is an environmental NGO, but truth be told, it is something more than that. Here is the long description on Facebook:

Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) [pronounced Gee-U-Aye]《聚友爱》is a volunteer-driven non-profit community that values connecting with the land for the many things it teaches us.

Since April 2009, we have been shaping a Sustainable Living Kampung in Bottle Tree Park, Yishun, Singapore. The SL Kampung encourages projects and challenges that cultivate environmental awareness, a hands-on culture, leadership, personal responsibility and teamwork. Doing things together has nurtured a community that cares about humanity and the Earth.

And GUI achieves this through its various programs and products. Aside from what I mentioned, GUI, Balik Kampung and WOW Kampung, there are various ways for one to be engaged in this whole “connecting with the land, be environmental, build your personal character and learning to love your community.” I am selecting here three more to share:

  • Farmily the farming arm of Ground-Up Initiative striving to be the leading model for Sustainable Urban Agriculture.
  • Kampung Play a program which promotes family and community life through the building of or playing of hand-crafted games.
  • Kampung Cakap a series of informal talks and conversations with all sorts of people in a kampung setting when one can share and recharge their souls.

Now, why am I bringing up an NPO and their various programs in this topic of “Youth in Singapore are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society” ?

The Challenge

Volunteers helping to build the Kampung Kampus. Photo Credit: Ground-Up Initiative

From 2009 to 2014, GUI occupied a 1500 sq m farming plot at the former Bottle Tree Park in Khatib. (Thank you to the Bottle Tree company for the rent-free base. Bottle Tree ran a rustic leisure park there from 2006 to August 2014 when its lease finally ended. The original lease was suppose to expire in 2012).  Lai Hock, founder of GUI, and together with the team had approached various individuals and agencies since 2012 to get a lease extension of their site, and GUI’s lease was extended a few times. Subsequently in November 2014 it was announced that, with the power of the community, GUI gets to stay for another 6 years; Chong Pang’s Citizen’s Consultative Committee is leasing the a 26 000 sq m of land from the government for community use, and agreed to sublet the space to GUI a a “five-figure rental”.

Which other organisation in Singapore, be it a private company or an NPO, has managed to convince the government to let them stay in a large land area which could have been commercialised? (Hey this is the land-constrained Singapore we are talking about. Look at my neighbourhood, I have 4 shopping malls all within 10 minutes walking distance). Which other organisation in Singapore, especially an NPO, has a five-figure rental cost to think about every month?

Other reads

Being idealistic in a pragmatic society

Artist's Impression of Kampung Kampus. Image Credit: Ground-Up Initiative

Artist’s Impression of Kampung Kampus. Image Credit: Ground-Up Initiative

Given the land competition in Singapore, how did GUI, an NPO which is seemingly a “hippie” organisation managed to convince government agencies to give them a chance, to let them stay in a bigger space for another 5 years now. GUI also announced it will be building (and is building) a Kampung Kampus, a community learning campus,  that will focus on nurturing leaders through craftsmanship, urban farming, design thinking, and heritage and the arts. The campus is expected to cost more than $6 million and is to be constructed in about two years. How do you deal with convincing people to contribute millions of dollars to a learning campus (or an organisation which does tremendous work) which future becomes uncertain again in 2020?

My reflection on this is that everything has been made possible and will be made possible, simply because of the youth of Ground-Up Initiative who are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society.

Youth of Ground-Up Initiative

The community of GUI is large. The community here refers to the staff, core volunteer team, the regular Balik Kampung team, the volunteers involved in the various projeckts, the people involved in the education arm or the farming arm and the people who attended the programmes. The community of engaged people is like none other I have seen in other NGOs and NPOs in Singapore. I have chosen to highlight four youth whom I have had the opportunity to work with over the years.

Tai Xu Hong. Photo Credit: Tai Xu Hong, Ground-Up Initiative

Name: Tai Xu Hong
Bachelor of Engineering (Environmental) Honours with Minor in Technopreneurship
What this person is doing at GUI:
Was working at a water technology company before moving to GUI in 2010 and has since focused on being the Lead Trainer at WOW Kampung developing its business development, sales and marketing.

Muhd. Ibnur Rashad. Photo Credit: Muhd. Ibnur Rashad, Ground-Up Initiative

Name: Muhd. Ibnur Rashad
Bachelor of Engineering (Engineering Science with Nanotechnology). Also has a Minor in Technopreneurship, Management Science and Engineering
What this person is doing at GUI: 
Had a short stint with a mobile payment provider in Silicon Valley before deciding to return to Singapore. Co-founded Sustainable Living Lab in 2011 (when it was still the technology arm of GUI) and is the Co-inventor of iBam (bamboo speakers allowing you to amplify audio without electricity), and then decided to focus on being a Kampung Scientist at GUI.

Cai Bingyu. Photo Credit: Cai Bingyu, Huiying Ng

Name: Cai Bingyu
Master of Architecture
What this person is doing at GUI: 
Was working at a a private architecture firm before deciding to switch to be the Kampung Architect at GUI in 2011. Using his skills to build things, Bing is also the Lead for Kampung Play. Also at WOW, Bing does its Programmes and Operations as well. Bing has played a major role in the design of the Kampung Kampus.

Koo Hui Ying. Photo Credit: Koo Hui Ying, Farah H Sanwari

Name: Koo Hui Ying
Bachelor of Communication
What this person is doing at GUI: 
Hui Ying was an intern at SL2 and volunteering with GUI. Upon graduation in 2014, she became the Kampung Connector at GUI, managing the community and relationships. With WOW, she does facilitation as well.

Youth in Singapore are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society

So there. Idealism is a value that is subjected to one’s interpretation.

I am glad in my time volunteering with GUI, I have met youth such as Xu Hong, Bingyu, Ibnur and Hui Ying, who have went through that “traditional path” of finishing degrees in Engineering and Communication, and still chose to be idealistic in working with an organisation in Singapore which mission includes “fostering social and environmental awareness” and being a “centre to inspire a re-think of the interaction between the urban dweller and their environment” <- things which I consider non-mainstream in Singapore, and idealistic in choosing to contribute and stay with an organisation which future has been uncertain since 2012 and being “crazy” to not go for jobs in the private sector which has better financial rewards.

There are great dreamers who are striving to make Singapore a better place. Perhaps we need to meet more people and highlight these kind of stories more next time.


Contribute to the Kampung Kampus through Cheque or Bank Transfer

1. For CHEQUE: If you would like to make a cheque donation to GUI, cheque should be crossed and made payable to “Ground-Up Initiative (GUI)“.

You could pass the cheque by HAND at the Kampung Kampus, 91 Lorong Chencharu, Singapore 769201, OR

2. For BANK TRANSFER: Transfer your cash to “Ground-Up Initiative (GUI)” via DBS Current Account 107-902-545-5.

For further enquiries, please email


One thought on “Youth in Singapore are learning how to be idealistic in a pragmatic society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s