A giver, naturally: Interview with Geh Min

Eye surgeon Geh Min is a passionate nature-lover who believes in giving back to society
clarissa oon Straits Times 2 Apr 12;

Outspoken and diplomatic are adjectives that have been used to describe civil society veteran Geh Min, whose passion for nature conservation is as striking as her ramrod-straight carriage and sharp features reminiscent of a Modigliani painting.

Ask the 62-year-old, a practising eye surgeon, how she reconciles speaking her mind with being tactful, and she replies with a tinkling laugh that she sees no contradiction between the two.

These seemingly paradoxical qualities have stood her in good stead as a former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and immediate past president of the Nature Society. She is known for not mincing her words under the bright lights of the parliamentary chamber or behind closed doors, yet is able to build bridges between government agencies and environmental groups.

As then president of the society, she helped to save the ecologically rich Chek Jawa mudflats on offshore island Pulau Ubin from proposed government reclamation 11 years ago. She continues to be active in green causes such as ongoing discussions to conserve the Rail Corridor, the former Malaysian railway land home to many native plants, animals and birds.

A lifelong nature-lover who remains nostalgic for the more rustic Singapore of her childhood 'where there were drains where you could catch frogs and tadpoles and spiders', the granddaughter of the late philanthropist Lee Kong Chian tells you in her crisp, dulcet tones that for her, calling a spade a spade does not mean being judgmental.

'I'm straightforward in that what I say is what I mean, but I try to say it nicely, in a non-accusatory way, and try to maintain a non-judgmental frame of mind. I always remember this saying, 'If everyone thinks alike, then no one is thinking.''

Early 20th-century American military commander George S. Patton reportedly said that.

For Dr Geh, 'it's important to have a diversity of views and opinions. My main intention is to try and work together to find common ground'.

Thus, on the one hand, she has always been critical of those who think developing manicured parks is the same thing as protecting nature. In an essay published two years ago in Management Of Success: Singapore Revisited, a collection of commentary pieces on Singapore, she called the garden city 'a highly engineered and managed showcase for good governance superimposed on Singaporeans who had no role other than as passive spectators and recipients'.

She continues to believe in the need for a 'robust civil society', which to her is not just a small group of activists but also society at large, taking ownership and responsibility for the environment.

Yet she has also made an effort to understand challenges faced by policy- makers and grassroots leaders. As Nature Society president from 2000 to 2008, she was also part of a land-use focus group convened by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), and chaired an environmental committee at the Southwest Community Development Council.

As Nominated MP from 2004 to 2006, she spoke on a wide range of environmental issues, from wildlife protection to developing alternative energy sources, as well as the need to strengthen civil society. Today, she sits on the boards of several environmental groups and agencies, including Birdlife International and the strategic issues division of the National Climate Change Secretariat.

Dr Geh's track record as a greenie spills over into her personal life. She drives a pale green hybrid car - a Prius which guzzles less petrol by also running on electricity. To cut carbon emissions, she makes minimal use of air-conditioning in her two-storey bungalow off Holland Road, where this interview is held.

A modest-sized back garden - teeming with trees, ferns, birds, squirrels and, she has counted, 'seven species of frogs' - rounds out her home.

She lives there with her husband, heart surgeon Tong Ming Chuan, who is in his 60s. Their only daughter, Wenfei, has also been bitten by the nature bug. Now in her late 20s, she is doing a PhD in evolutionary biology at Harvard Univer- sity.

Statuesque, accomplished and very eloquent, Dr Geh comes off as intimidating at first blush. But as you sit sipping green tea with her on straw tatami mats in a wood-panelled lounge overlooking the garden, she reveals a disarming self-awareness and wit that soon puts listeners at ease.

Thumbing through a few photographs of her younger self that you have requested, she quips: 'When I look at photos of myself from 30 years ago, I look at that girl and think, 'What was her problem?' '

Later, talking about the heartening results of two national surveys in the early 2000s showing a growing environmental consciousness among Singaporeans, she adds: 'But Singaporeans are very good at giving the right answers to surveys, whether they act on it is another matter.

'In that sense, Chek Jawa was really a total surprise.' She is referring to the 2001 outpouring of public support for the protection of the nature area, which led the Government to reverse its decision to reclaim it for long-term military use.

With over a decade of lobbying experience behind her, she says that contrary to what younger activists think, the Government has become a lot more responsive to civil society. 'Before, those who listened were the exceptions. I feel now that civil servants and ministers are making a big effort to listen more.'

Nonetheless, beyond fine examples of consultation such as the Rail Corridor, she thinks that there could be a 'far more integrated and extensive network of consultation' and more trust and respect between Government and civil society. Here, she cites the recent campaign by heritage and nature groups, including the Nature Society, against the Government's decision to clear part of Bukit Brown Cemetery to build a road.

Many pioneers of Singapore are buried at the wildlife-abundant cemetery. While the area has been zoned for long-term residential use, there was no timeline as to when redevelopment would begin.

Heritage and nature-lovers say they were caught off-guard when the Land Transport Authority and URA announced last September the building of a road cutting through the cemetery.

In a concession to these groups, one-third of the road will now be a bridge that could save some fauna and graves but will cost a lot more to build.

Still, the road will displace many reptiles, frogs and birds, says Dr Geh, who cites a recent Nature Society survey showing a third of Singapore's endangered plant and animal species can be found in the cemetery.

While 'the verdict is as good as could have been hoped for, given the short lead time for the NGOs', she thinks the Government should have consulted the different interest groups from the outset, before deciding to build the road to ease traffic congestion on nearby Lornie Road. NGOs are non-governmental organisations.

She explains: 'We now have a situation on land use which has to be rethought. In the past, the Government through the URA was the decider on land use and they've done it very efficiently and quite equitably.

'But now that we have reached a level of affluence and most of our infrastructure is in place, I think the Government could be more consultative on land use.'

On its part, 'civil society in general has to also be realistic and responsible in how it makes its demands and present their case'.

Such a proactively consultative approach by the Government, she says, would be 'educational for all parties as to what the other needs and demands are, and then you learn how to have a certain amount of give and take'.

The former president of one of Singapore's oldest NGOs knows what she is talking about, as the 58-year-old society has 'gone through all these different stages with the Government'.

In the 1980s, there was a lot of 'reactive protesting' each time a nature area was bulldozed but the society soon realised that was not working. So, from the late 1980s, it started drafting constructive proposals for nature conservation.

This paid off in several instances. For example, in 1988, after a proposal from the society, the Government designated Sungei Buloh as a bird sanctuary. It is now gazetted as a nature reserve.

It helped that there were enlightened policy-makers who listened, she says, such as the previous National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and the National Parks Board chief from 1996 to 2006, Dr Tan Wee Kiat. Both visited Chek Jawa back in 2001, before Mr Mah decided to preserve the beach.

Dr Tan, now chief executive officer of Gardens On The Bay, credits Dr Geh with 'a fine sense of diplomacy and grace'.

He adds: 'What made that period when our portfolios coincided so productive was that, while we might have served in occasionally opposing camps, our values and sentiments were in consonance.'

Current Nature Society president Shawn Lum says his predecessor's 'meticulous work and thorough research on every issue she raised helped extend the legitimacy of NGOs, in terms of their scientific and policy expertise, in the eyes of decision-makers'.

Dr Geh can trace her love for nature back to her childhood. The older of two siblings, she lived with her parents in her maternal grandfather Lee's bungalow off Chancery Lane. It had a big garden where she and her cousins would run wild.

Her father, banker Geh Ik Cheong, would take her deep-sea fishing and jungle walking. Her mother, Lee Seok Tin, is a retired teacher.

This early exposure 'just opened the door to this whole natural world where there are so many discoveries to be made, depending on what your interests are', says Dr Geh, enthusing about the sense of wonder that nature inspires.

An on-off member of the Nature Society since her days as a medical undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, she became more actively involved in the 1990s, when the hobby group acquired a lobbying arm. She decided to volunteer when she realised that the nature she had always taken for granted was 'no longer that invulnerable or omnipotent or omnipresent'.

In a sense, the tree-hugging activist owes a debt to her rubber tycoon grand- father, whom she once called - in a previous interview - 'the original recycling champion'.

She had described how he wore out his shirts until they had 'more holes than cloth', and waged a strict campaign against wasting electricity.

When you mention that, Dr Geh adds that her great-grandfather, rubber magnate Tan Kah Kee, was 'even more of a giver. He didn't believe in leaving the children a cent'. Giving back to society 'was something we grew up with', as a family.

So what would she do with her own money when she dies, you ask? The eye surgeon does not hesitate in her reply.

'Notwithstanding that I have a lot less money than my ancestors, I have made it quite evident to my daughter that I would leave it to society. And education and the environment would be very high up the list.'

Background story

'If I have to prepare for a talk or think over a problem, I find the best way is to go for a walk in a natural area such as Botanic Gardens. My other way of unwinding is listening to classical music. On walks, I have an iPod, but I keep the volume soft so I can still listen to nature. For that, I like Bach because he's both emotionally soothing and intellectually stimulating, and I find he fits in well with nature areas'

On how she unwinds

'Policy-makers should not regard civil society as a disruptive obstacle to efficient government. Civil society, too, must do its part and act as a responsible and constructive partner rather than seeing the Government as a complaints bureau. This partnership takes patience, commitment and goodwill to grow'

On the relationship between the Government and civil society

'I actually do mince my words a bit. My husband will tell you that, in private, I'm a lot worse. But I believe I'm not just speaking on my own behalf but for other Singaporeans. If I find I'm not, I would shut up'