Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum’s Oral History Project

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Kathy Poh – Wee Yeow Chin

The Lee Kong Chian Naturel History Museum runs an Oral History Project whose aim is to capture stories of people who have close connection with the museum and the Zoological Research Collection. In June 2022, Kathy Poh from the museum visited me to audio-record my stories on how I became involved with the local natural-history activities. The audio-recordings and transcripts will be archived by the museum in collaboration with the National University of Singapore’s libraries for research and publication purposes. Access to the materials need the permission of the museum.

Below is the summary of my story, highlighting only the interesting aspects:

What sparked my interest in nature: A biology teacher at Raffles Institution sparked my interest in botany. A Botany Honours project at the National University of Singapore that required me to survey the fern flora of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve got me interested in field work.

Working life:  An academic career was out of the question. We were told in no uncertain terms by our lecturer Dr. Anne Johnson, that if she was to leave her job with the university, her replacement would be recruited from the United Kingdom. My first job was as an agronomist with the Malayan Pineapple Industry Board in Johore, Malaysia. Within a short while I took charge of the research in pineapple. The work was interesting and we were eager to publish our findings. The non-scientific members of the Board of Directors were unsupportive, being afraid that our findings would be “stolen” by foreign pineapple growers. The Johor State Agricultural Officer, the only technical member of the Board, failed to provide support. To him publications only benefitted the authors of the paper. But we persevered and finally got permission to publish. Eventually I registered with the National University of Singapore to do a part-time PhD program on pineapple flowering under the supervision of Prof. AN Rao. I was awarded the degree in 1976.

Finally, an academic career: With a PhD I succeeded in obtaining a post of lecturer in the Department of Botany to teach cryptogamic botany or non-flowering plants. Singapore had then gained its independence. I remained with the university until my retirement at age 60 years. It was at the university that I got involved with the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) as the Hon. Secretary for the next 12 years.

Part of the article on nature areas in Singapore – The Straits Times of 9th August 1982.

Nature Society: Activities were mainly educational – giving talks on nature, conducting nature walks and contributing to the local literature on nature. Ilsa Sharp helped initiate my first ever account on the local nature spots in Singapore that was published in The Straits Times of 9th August 1982. This was followed by the Singapore Science Centre’s series of guide booklets on plants, animals and their habitats and other books.

Select Singapore Science Centre’s guide booklets on local plants and their habitats.

Nature advocacy and the Conservation Committee: Richard Hale’s success in persuading government to conserve a piece of mangrove that became the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve helped thrust the nature society into the role of nature advocacy. A Conservation Committee consisting of birdwatchers was formed that subsequently lobbied government to conserve any and every piece of area with plentiful birds – from grassland to grove of trees to graveyards. With absolutely no knowledge of nature conservation, the last straw was lobbying for two ponds that developed in a recently reclaimed land at Marina South. Even after the Minister’s veiled insult, the committed continued lobbying for areas from grassland to graveyards, always without success.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (courtesy of Wang Luan Keng).

Minister of National Development’s reply to the request to conserve two ponds that developed after Marina South was reclaimed.

From Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) to Nature Society (Singapore): In 1990, on the advice of the newly appointed Patron Prof. Tommy Koh, the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) was re-registered as Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS. As the then Chairman was on sabbatical and I was the Ag. Chairman, I ended up being elected Founding President of the newly formed NSS. I stepped down as President after five years as I strongly believed staying too long would not allow the society to progress.

The proposed golf course at Lower Peirce Reservoir.

Proposed golf course at Lower Peirce Reservoir: During my tenure as Founding President of the newly formed society, there was a proposal to build a 36-hole golf course in a protected water catchment forest. As we had a so-called Conservation Committee, I directed Ho Hua Chew who was then the Chairman, to deal with the problem. He flatly refused and until today continue to deny ever being asked. I had no choice but to take charge. This forest was more than a 100 years old unlike all the patches of young vegetation that the Conservation Committee had clamored for preservation that could easily be replicated.

Video of White-breasted Laughingthrush indulging in anting (Courtesy of Dr Leong Tzi Ming).

Bird Ecology Study Group: In 2005 I became aware that members of the Bird Group were only good at bird identification. They were totally ignorant of bird behaviour. When a non-biologist encountered a myna using ants to rid its feathers of ectoparasites, known as anting, no birdwatchers had any idea what it was doing. It took 17 years before birdwatchers were made aware of this phenomenon. This triggered the formation of the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG) to make birdwatchers aware that they need to observe bird behaviour when out in the field looking at birds.

Police report on insulting Muslim members of the Bird Group: In August 2011 the Bird Group persuaded Lim Kim Seng, a Muslim convert to make a police report when BESG made a reference to the group as not being the top dog with the formation of the BESG. I was summoned to the police station to respond to the accusation. I was told that this was just a formality, as the accuser probably did not understand English. I complained to our Patron Prof. Tommy Koh who directed me to Dr Shawn Lum who was and is still the President of the Nature Society (Singapore) to solve the matter. Shawn told me that being an American Citizen from Hawaii, he knew nothing about dogs being haram to Muslims and as such he would have nothing to do with the matter. So much with having an American citizen to lead a Singapore NGO. However, at the Executive Committee meeting, Tony O’Dempsey, also a Muslim convert, lashed out at the Bird Group for hijacking his religion for such an absurd accusation. Ho Hua Chew formally apologised on behalf of his group. I was thinking of informing the press of the incident but was dissuaded from doing so as it may have negative repercussion for the society.

NSS’s loss-LKCNHM’s gain:

Because of the continuous bickering with the Bird Group, culminating in a police report, BESG cut its links with the Nature Society and got affiliated with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Some years earlier, the Bird Group annoyed a major donor in Lady YP McNeice with its obnoxious behaviour. Now history repeats itself and NSS lost another potential donor. But then NSS’s loss is LKCNHM’s gain.


YC Wee

4th August 2022











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2 Responses

  1. BESG

    Thank you very much Q! The problem with the Nature Society today is the weak leadership that has been around for the last 15 years. This allowed the Bird Group core of leaders to exert their control and their bullying behaviour. Recently the leaders of the Bird Group expelled a number of young enthusiastic birders that outshone them. Unfortunately the President was too WEAK to resolve the problem so the expelled birders formed their own group. Now who is the loser?

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