A (Dino) Bone To Pick

Leo Tan, professor of biology at the National University of Singapore, was instrumental to the opening of Singapore’s first natural history museum.

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AsianScientist (May 25, 2016) – Leo Tan, professor of biology at the National University of Singapore (NUS), runs his hands over the grey stone slabs of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum’s exterior, designed to resemble aeons-old geological strata.

Inside, a cavernous central well shows off three towering diplodocid dinosaur fossils, skeletons of the long, slender, short-legged “daschunds” of the giant dinosaur world, and some of the longest creatures to ever walk the earth. Meanwhile, lining the halls are glass cases of iridescent birds, glossy shells, and even stuffed squirrels and sun bears.

For 70-year-old Professor Tan, the museum, which opened in 2015, has been a dream four decades in the making. As a schoolboy at St Joseph’s Institution, which was then on Bras Basah Road, he remembers wandering across the street after school to visit the Raffles Museum, with its spectacular whale skeleton dangling from the ceiling.

But in 1960 the museum’s identity changed. It was renamed the National Museum and its focus correspondingly shifted towards the arts and history. Its bird and animal specimens, no longer wanted, were shunted off to NUS and “moved around like nomads” for nearly two decades. The whale skeleton was sent to Malaysia’s Muzium Negara.

A very long game

Professor Tan developed a love for animals while he was growing up near Mount Faber, surrounded by greenery.

“Nature came into the house, whether it was a snake, a rat, or a centipede,” he says.

But in university, his professors dissuaded him from pursuing a doctorate.

“First of all, the University of Singapore was then not highly regarded even though it was the only [English-medium] university here,” he says.

Moreover, lingering colonial mindsets meant it was relatively harder for Asians to gain employment in academia.

Nevertheless, he persisted, obtaining a PhD in marine biology by studying the biology and ecology of mussels. Inspired, he then hoped to become a mussel farmer, but the entrepreneur he worked with could not obtain a loan.

“The EDB [Economic Development Board of Singapore] wrote a letter of support, but the banks were having none of it,” he grumbles. “They said, your collateral is useless; your mussel farm can fall into the sea at any time.”

So in 1973, he became a senior tutor at the university instead—the very job his professors had told him to shun.

In 1986, as a senior biology lecturer and director of the Singapore Science Centre, he learned that Lim Pin, the university’s vice-chancellor, had given the collection some room in the new NUS science library building. His former student Peter Ng resurrected the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, arguing that zoology research would be a fillip to the university’s reputation.

Hence the collection moved to the new Raffles Museum of Natural History with Professor Ng as its director. It consisted mostly of cramped back-room shelves smelling of formaldehyde and alcohol, accessible only to researchers, and a tiny display space, smaller than two HDB flats, for visitors. In 2009, a surprising thing happened. On International Museum Day, when the museum held an open house, 3,000 people visited, more than in the whole of the past year.

Professor Tan and Professor Ng felt the time was right to lobby for a larger natural history museum. But there were significant bureaucratic and financial hurdles to overcome.

Against the tide

Thankfully, by then, Professor Tan had accumulated decades of experience in wearing down bureaucracy by slow-drip persuasion.

While conducting research for his PhD, Professor Tan did whatever was asked of him by Tham Ah Kow, the retired fisheries officer who supervised him, even though Professor Tan knew some of the “tough cookie’s” suggestions would not work. On the side, he did what he believed in.

“It was double the work, but it’s your PhD,” he says. “You want to get it at almost any cost. I found very early that it didn’t pay to fight the bureaucracy. You skirt the issue, you go round the problem. It takes a longer time but it pays off.”

As a young lecturer, Professor Tan observed reclamation projects claiming his field sites such as Tanah Merah and Tanjong Gul. He argued that Singapore’s natural shores, such as Labrador, ought to be preserved. For that transgression he was called up by a very senior civil servant who called him “a stooge of the colonialists”.

Professor Tan recalls the conversation: “They [the colonialists] have destroyed all their forests, all their trees, now they come into the developing world and tell you not to cut down your trees, in order to suppress you and keep you subservient all the time. You are playing into their hands.”

“Sir, you are probably right, but I believe in the cause not because Westerners told me to, but because this is my home.”

Professor Tan refused to be cowed.

“I was very polite, and I think he accepted it,” he says. “Are you prepared to get hammered for your beliefs or not? If you aren’t, don’t start any campaign—because you are a fraud or an opportunist.”

And when he became chairman of the National Parks Board in 1998, Professor Tan carried on the fight for natural shores. In 2002, thanks to calls from the public to preserve it, Singapore gazetted a ten-hectare stretch of the Labrador coast as a nature reserve. Today it is part of a 22-hectare park.

Another challenge came during Professor Tan’s tenure as director of the National Institute of Education (NIE), a post he assumed in 1994 after ten years as director of the Science Centre.

At the Science Centre, he had observed some teachers’ casual indifference towards their students—dumping them inside then heading to the canteen to wait.

Eager to motivate them, at NIE Professor Tan introduced a Caring Teacher Award. He also convinced the NIE staff—the trainers of teachers—to develop better people skills such as
collaborating with others in different fields; being good at research was not enough.

When Professor Tan first joined NIE, few people wanted to join the teaching profession.

“I interviewed five potential students and took in six,” he jokes.

A decade later, NIE was accepting just one out of every five applicants, and training 4,000 teachers a year, double what it had before he arrived. Professor Tan stepped down as director in 2006.

Meanwhile, in 2003 he championed the Gardens by the Bay project, fighting for an expensive piece of downtown real estate.

“We have to think about investment for the future, about a liveable Singapore, about recreation, about improving the quality of the air, the quality of life,” he says. “Why would I want to stay or invest in Singapore if there is nothing for me after I finish my work?”

The project, conceived to rival iconic city parks like New York’s Central Park, was approved in 2006.

These are all reasons why Professor Tan describes himself as a “political” scientist—though he trained as a scientist, he has spent the better part of his career as an administrator.

“Singapore is such a small country,” he says. “To keep the country running, some of us have to double up and do a few more things.”

What if he had remained in research?

“I’d still be a marine biologist,” he proposes. “I’d be enjoying my life, touring all the beautiful reefs and marine stations of the world.”

Today, he enjoys playing with his two-and-a-half-year-old grandson (“a Dragon baby, and behaving like one too”). He is married to an ophthalmologist, and they have two sons.

Building a heritage

Walking through the seven-storey, S$56m Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum today, with ten times the display capacity of the old Raffles Museum, Professor Tan talks about the five-year fundraising process, which he led as director of special projects at the NUS faculty of science.

After the unexpected response to the museum’s open house, Professor Ng and he sent out letters to alumni and others.

“For 700 letters we sent out, we got 400 responses and almost one million dollars,” he says. “The donations came from a cross-section of society—we had support from secretaries, from technicians.”

Altogether, they raised S$46m in six months from individuals, foundations, and anonymous donors who contributed multi-million dollar sums. A generous alumnus bought and donated an old but spectacular shell collection worth S$20,000, for instance.

“More important than saying ‘We are going to do it at any cost’, is persuading people to come along on the journey,” Professor Tan says.

Ultimately, the museum is for the people of Singapore, he adds.

Singapore needs a natural history museum, he believes, to remind people of its natural heritage and of humans’ place in the natural world. It also needs more science-trained leaders, and must continue to nurture its latent research sector.

With regards to Singapore’s overall scientific research establishment, Professor Tan believes that long-term investments are now starting to pay off with the emergence of breakthrough findings.

“It’s not a five-year problem; it’s a fifteen-year,” he says. “Halfway through, you cannot say, I don’t see any results, let’s cancel it and start on another Cinderella project. You have to see it through.”

Take it from a man who knows how to dream long term.

This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.

Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Cyril Ng.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.

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