New natural history museum coming to fruition, thanks to fortunate events

Destiny achieved: A journey of discovery
Peter K.L. Ng The Straits Times 25 Aug 12;

IT HAS been four years since the National University of Singapore (NUS) started on its odyssey to raise funds for a new natural history museum for Singapore. In 2014, the Raffles Museum of colonial vintage (and glory) will finally be reinstated as the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in the university.

It has been a very surreal voyage for me - and while the journey is far from over, a moment of reflection is perhaps timely. After all, I have just been part of one of the most remarkable chapters in the museum's long and illustrious history. This is a museum envisioned almost 190 years ago to show the people of Singapore how rich the region's biodiversity was. It saw that hope almost extinguished in the early 1970s, was given a reprieve towards the end of the millennium, and in two short years will have come full circle when it is resurrected.

The Greeks believed that the Fates decide the course of all human affairs. As a scientist and a cynic, I refuse to believe in the hand of Fate. How can I? The scientific method frowns on destiny as an explanation for human events. But logic aside, it is very hard for a person not to harbour a nagging suspicion that the three sisters of the Moerae have intervened somewhere, somehow.

Any objective person reviewing the history of the museum cannot help but be surprised by the number of "lucky breaks" it has had. That said, eloquent American politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) once commented: "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." The events that have led to the new museum bear testament to the truth of his words.

The idea for a museum was first planted by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823, but he did not manage to see his brainchild (he died in 1826). Formally established in 1874 as the Raffles Library and Museum, it became a powerhouse of zoological research until independence. It survived a crippling war from 1940 to 1945, coming out "miraculously" unscathed.

In 1970, when the powers-to- be ordered the zoological collections to be ditched in the name of economic pragmatism, a small band of heroes and heroines led by the late Roland Sharma at the then University of Singapore ignored executive orders and salvaged the hundreds of thousands of priceless specimens.

They took custody of them despite the lack of resources, until such time when the world saw the light. They held the line even though capitulation would have been easier. The world changed - as it always does - and the collections became part of NUS when it moved to Kent Ridge in the mid-1980s. The museum became the "reinvented" Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in 1998 when the university wanted more research and education out of it, and added a tiny public gallery to cater for the public. And when Singapore's Renaissance man, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, discovered that this century-old collection was still intact in early 2005, he cajoled the university authorities into seeing if it could form the basis of a natural history museum for the country.

This was when I got tossed into the deep end. When the dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor Lee Soo Ying, asked me to helm the museum in 1998, I leapt at the chance. My mission was simple - raise its research profile. Having used the museum's collections for over a decade, it was something I could not say no to. When Tommy threw the challenge at NUS in 2005, the then dean of science, Professor Tan Eng Chye (he is provost today), acted decisively.

In late 2005, with funding from NUS and American entrepreneur Frank Levinson, five staff visited successful American museums to understand what it takes to make a natural history museum work. Three "must-haves" arose from this trip: good corporate governance; a good endowment plan; and dinosaurs! So much for the theory. While NUS is a well-governed establishment, it certainly had no endowment and no dinosaurs. A new natural history museum? No way.

Fast forward to Museum Day 2009. With forward planning and good press support, we were inundated with visitors - thousands of people crowding into a 200 sq m gallery sited behind a small building deep in the bowels of NUS. The visitors growled - tough to find, hard to get to, gallery too small, too little displayed - complaints galore. But there was one common denominator - they all loved the place and echoed Tommy's hope: Bring back Singapore's natural history museum!

The press picked it up and took up the call. Then the Fates took over. Enter an anonymous donor who read about the museum, put $10 million on the table in December 2009 to get the vision going. Enter a new university president, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who realised the museum's potential and set aside prime land at NUS for the project. But Chorh Chuan was a realist - he knew we needed more money to build a museum.

Enter the return of a "prodigal son", Professor Leo Tan, who had just retired as director of the National Institute of Education and rejoined NUS as its director of special projects - just as we embarked on fund raising. A man with an amazing network of like-minded people after three decades of public service, Leo had raised funds for all manner of national projects. But this was one he particularly savoured - he was a student when he saw his professors save the collections in 1970. To resurrect the museum would close the circle.

Enter senior government officers who mulled over how to help - and some very influential men did help in ways that cannot be formally documented. The Singapore Totalisator Board chipped in with $10 million, and thousands of smaller donors and members of the public added $1 million.

Next came the Lee Foundation, which has a long history of supporting local endeavours; it saw the museum's collection as a national treasure that belonged to the people and should never have been given up in the first place. It made up the difference needed to make the dream a reality - $25 million. Leo was true to his pedigree. In a short six months, he and his band of "merry men and women" raised the additional $36 million needed to build a new museum.

I watched in amazement as a surprised Chorh Chuan happily gave the go-ahead for the new museum. Mind you, this was accomplished in the aftermath of the 2009 financial meltdown! As this was mainly donated money, the Government provided matching funds to the university - the museum now has an endowment.

Early last year, three dinosaurs were offered to the museum. The sellers wanted a good home for these scientifically valuable specimens and were prepared to accept less money if all three could be kept together. We agreed.

Over the next few months, I again watched in amazement as Leo and his team raised the necessary $8 million to acquire and set up exhibits centred on the dinosaurs. In the span of 11/2 "crazy" years, NUS had fulfilled all three requirements envisioned in 2005 for a good museum - governance, endowment and dinosaurs.

As a witness to these developments, all I can say is that I was dumbfounded by the series of events, all unconnected, but yet had to line up in almost perfect symmetry for things to have happened the way they did. That it happened at all defies logic. Just as amazing was what a "few good men (and women)" accomplished in a short time. The efforts of Leo and his team are unprecedented. To have raised such large sums of money in 18 months from so many people and organisations has almost no parallels in Asia; certainly none in Singapore. Until this exercise, philanthropy had been a powerful tool for charitable causes, the arts or medicine, but never for science on this scale. They had finally put the means on the table for a new natural history museum to be built for Singapore. There is now no turning back. The Fates have spoken.

The writer is director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS.

By Invitation features leading writers and thinkers from Singapore and the region.