National Day Awards: Leo Tan: Scientist, teacher and eternal optimist

Professor Leo Tan with a stuffed tiger at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Prof Tan and his former student, Professor Peter Ng, were instrumental in setting up Singapore's only natural history museum.
Professor Leo Tan with a stuffed tiger at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Prof Tan and his former student, Professor Peter Ng, were instrumental in setting up Singapore's only natural history museum.ST FILE PHOTO

Professor Leo Tan, 71, has dedicated his life to science and education. But what the marine biologist considers his greatest success is not the work he has done, but what his students have achieved.

This, said the the sprightly septuagenarian, makes him different from the "gongfu master who has to hold back the final secret of the art lest the disciple kills him to show who is the new master".

He said: "My philosophy is that unless my students are smarter and more successful than me, I have failed them and that I, too, have failed as an educator and scientist."

But Prof Tan, director of special projects at the science faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS), can count his own efforts among his achievements.

He is one of four people to receive the Meritorious Service Medal, one of the highest awards for a public servant, in this year's National Day Awards.

He said: "Let me say with humility that this honour, even if I am deserving of it, cannot be mine alone.

"In truth, it is to be shared with the innumerable colleagues who walked and continue to walk with me on a lifelong education and environment journey."

One of them is his former student, crab expert Peter Ng. Together, they were instrumental in setting up Singapore's first and only natural history museum, where Singaporeans can learn about creatures ranging from dinosaurs to dodos and komodo dragons.

But long before the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum opened its doors last year, Prof Tan, who is its adviser, was working hard to raise the profile of science here.

He began his career in 1973 as a marine biologist at NUS, then known as the University of Singapore, where he was the first Singaporean to graduate with a doctorate in marine biology.

In 1982, he was seconded to the Singapore Science Centre as its director, a position he held while concurrently teaching at the university. He left NUS in 1986 to be the centre's full-time director until 1991.

He moved to be foundation dean of the School of Science at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and was the institute's director from 1994 until 2007. He served as chairman of the National Parks Board from 1998 to 2007.

It was a sweet homecoming for the NUS alumnus when he returned to the university in 2008 as director of special projects.

The grandfather of four also views NIE's Associate Professor Shirley Lim, another of his former students, as one of his success stories.

"I started as a marine biologist studying crabs, molluscs and ecology, but have never reached the international stature Peter and Shirley have," said Prof Tan. "Their success is my greatest legacy."

Prof Ng, 56, describes his mentor as an eternal optimist who worked to turn dreams into reality, as he did with the natural history museum.

"Without his support, help and guidance over the years, it is hard to guess where I would be today.

"You see much further by standing on the shoulders of giants, and he is a giant. We can only endeavour to be like him and, perhaps, let others stand on our shoulders as well - for the next lap," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Scientist, teacher and eternal optimist'. Print Edition | Subscribe