Long interview: Man of science and dreams

Long interview: Man of science and dreams
Professor Leo Tan with a stuffed tiger which will be part of the exhibits at the new Natural History Museum opening at the end of the year.

Pushing 70, Professor Leo Tan has seen most of his dreams come true. Some were his own, others were thrust upon him.

He wanted to be the first Singaporean to graduate with a marine biology PhD from Singapore. And he did, against the odds. He spent 40 years fighting for the preservation of Labrador Park - Singapore's only rocky coast - and succeeded. It was gazetted as a nature reserve in 2002. He spent the last six years canvassing for our very own natural history museum. It is slated to open by the end of this year at the National University of Singapore's new University Town.

Along the way, he breathed life into the sleepy Singapore Science Centre, overhauled the teaching of science in schools, infected a generation of teachers at the National Institute of Education with his love of learning, and, as chairman of National Parks Board, championed Gardens by the Bay.

His former student, Professor Peter Ng, 54, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS, says: "His is a world dominated by a very simple philosophy. Just do it if it is right. Never mind if it is difficult."

Never mind that he may be just a footnote in history. For the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Prof Tan bears no official title, not even as patron or adviser, though he is widely hailed as its visionary.

As a schoolboy at St Joseph's Institution, then in Bras Basah Road, he often visited the nearby Raffles Museum in Stamford Road, with its large natural history collection of mammal, bird and amphibian specimens. It was housed at the National Museum of Singapore until 1970, when the collection of animals and artefacts was thrown out to focus exhibits on art and ethnography.

Then a marine biology doctorate student, Prof Tan remembers making this solemn promise to himself: "If I could, one day, I'd like to restore the old Raffles Museum."

The prized collection languished without a permanent home and in poor condition for years. But he never forgot it. He visited the dust-lined specimens in random storerooms through the years until, in 1998, part of the collection found a home at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, a research and teaching museum at NUS.

Not content with that, Prof Tan returned to the NUS faculty in 2008, after 26 years away, continuing his charge that Singapore's oldest natural history collection had not been "returned to the people of Singapore" for public viewing.

He pushed through his idea for a natural history museum through sheer strength of will, by getting permission from NUS to raise funds. He and his team were given the near impossible target to raise $35 million in the aftermath of the 2009 financial meltdown. But he rationalised: "If I've done some near impossible things in the past, why not try?" Within six months, he helped raise $46 million from an anonymous donor, foundations and individuals.

Then three dinosaurs were offered to the museum, and he raised another $10 million for that and other exhibition costs. Now he is focused on trying to double the endowment fund to $100 million, from its current $50 million, to ensure the museum can sustain itself beyond the first three years.

He's hard at work making sure the museum's impact extends far beyond its walls. From next month, it will have a teaching lab and run courses for biology and other students at NUS. When it opens, it will have a volunteer outreach crew doing guided walks and leading discussions on how to have a sustainable Singapore, what its priorities and values are, what is worth preserving and how to create room for all.

He wants people to go out pondering: "I am a Homo sapien living on this planet. Would I be that 500-million-year-old species that is still alive, or would I be like the other animals that have come and gone?"

What he wants is to start "a chain of thinking". "If people go out asking, 'How did that happen?', that is the success of a museum," Prof Tan enthuses, his face lit up with possibilities.

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