Professor Tommy Koh's Speech at Official Opening of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

April 18, 2015

1.    Mr President, D.P.M Teo Chee Hean, Pro-Chancellors Po’ad Mattar and Ngiam Tong Dow, Mr Wong Ngit Liong, NUS Trustees, Prof Tan Chorh Chuan, Prof Tan Eng Chye, Prof Shen Zuowei, Prof Leo Tan, Prof Peter Ng, Dr Lee Seng Tee, former CJ Dr Yong Pung How, Dr Della Lee, Mr Mok Wei Wei and his team from W Architect, Ms Laura Miotto and Ms Fiona Ng and their team from GSM, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.  I want to tell Wei Wei and his team that they have lived up to our expectations.  I want also to tell the designers from GSM that they have done a very good job.


2.    This is a very happy occasion.  I wish, however, to begin on a slightly sombre note by referring to our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. One lesson we should learn from Mr Lee is to love nature and to aspire to live in harmony in nature.  Because of his vision, we have one of the greenest cities in the world and a city which is rich in biodiversity.  In recent years, the horn bill bird, the otter and the wild boar, which have been working abroad have returned to our shores.


3.    Eleven years ago, in 2004, I was the Chairman of the Natural Heritage Board.  After visiting the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, I wrote to the then NUS President, Prof Shih Choon Fong, and requested the University to consider building a natural history museum in order to display its priceless collections of fauna and flora.  I am very grateful to President Tan Chorh Chuan and his predecessor, Prof Shih Choon Fong, for responding positively to my proposal.  However, the proposal would not have taken off if not for the indefatigable efforts of Professor Leo Tan and Professor Peter Ng.  Let us give Leo and Peter and the members of their team a big round of applause.


4.    Mr President, Singapore lies at the heart of Southeast Asia.  Our region has one of the richest biodiversities in the world.  It is only right that Singapore should build Southeast Asia’s first world class museum of natural history.

5.    My vision for the museum is that it will attract many visitors, especially students and young people.  The museum will share with them its message of loving nature and conserving nature.  We should work with the various stakeholders to ensure the survival of the endangered species of fauna and flora of Southeast Asia, including the 5 charismatic animals, namely, the tiger, elephant, rhino, orang utan and the sea turtle.  I would also like to ring the alarm bell on another threatened animal, the pangolin.  Some misguided people are eating this animal to the brink of extinction.  It is, however, just as important to conserve the non-charismatic species, such as Peter’s crabs and my banded-leaf monkey, because all living things are connected to one another in the web of life.


6.     The museum will also be a centre of teaching, research and intellectual discourse. My hope is that, one day, this museum will gain the same stature and excellence as the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  My children grew up in New York.  My wife and I had taken them many times to visit this great Museum.  I hope that we will establish links between this museum and other great museums of natural history in the world.


7.    We are celebrating this year, the 50th Anniversary of Singapore’s independence.  I consider this museum as a gift by NUS to the people of Singapore.  It is another jewel in our cultural crown.  I wish the museum great success.  I also wish Dr Kevin Tan’s interesting book, of Whales and Dinosaurs – The Story of Singapore’s Natural History Museum, great success.


8.    Thank you very much.


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The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.