Peter on Leo

He's the real father of the museum

"He is the man who has made it all possible.He made the museum what it is today as a world authority and a top, top outfit." - Crab expert Peter Ng(above, shown here in a 1993 file photo) on Professor Leo Tan
"He is the man who has made it all possible.He made the museum what it is today as a world authority and a top, top outfit." - Crab expert Peter Ng(above, shown here in a 1993 file photo) on Professor Leo Tan PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER, JONATHAN KHOO

"The real father of the museum," is how Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin describes Professor Leo Tan Wee Hin.

"It was his energy that revitalised it, grew it, saw the potential, made it a top research outfit, then did the massive fund raising necessary and then oversaw everything to make it what it will be soon," says Prof Ng.

The 55-year-old also considers the 70-year-old scientist a mentor. Without Prof Tan's encouragement, he might never have become what he is today: a renowned expert on the classification, conservation and ecology of freshwater crabs, as well as head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

They met when Prof Ng was a teenager in Raffles Institution (RI) doing an extra credit project on fiddler crabs for the school science fair. The expert he sought help from was Prof Tan, the first person to receive a marine biology degree from the University of Singapore (NUS) and who continued as a lecturer there.

Then in 1980, when Prof Ng was doing his first year of undergraduate studies at NUS, Prof Tan allowed him space in his laboratory to do research on lobsters. This was unheard of in those days: the custom was to let only graduate students use university resources for research. Asked why he made this exception, Prof Tan says he had spotted in the younger man a student he could not "let go", one with a love for natural history that deserved to be nurtured.

During this time, Prof Ng went on a research trip to Pulau Tioman, found a big crab and used Prof Tan's laboratory to study the animal's larvae.

"It was like falling off the edge of a cliff. I've never looked back," says Prof Ng, who is married to a teacher and has three sons aged 12 to 20.

He did his postgraduate studies at NUS while teaching in secondary schools to make a living. After completing his doctorate in 1990, he stayed on to teach at the university and, eight years later, was put in charge of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the precursor of the Lee Kong Chian museum.

His love of animals dates back to his childhood growing up in East Coast. His father, who died when he was only seven, indulged the older of two sons and his habit of keeping fighting fish or eels. Later, Prof Ng's mother was busy running the family printing business and did not have time to stop her son from bringing home pets.

These included climbing perch and snakehead fish found in drains. A favourite hunting ground was also Chinatown, where snapping turtles were commonly sold and where Prof Ng bought a civet cat for $10. "When I brought it home, my mother screamed at first, but she was too busy so she didn't scream too much," he recalls. "I kept it for a year or more before it ran off."

Employees at the family business also started bringing home live animals from their hunting expeditions in Johor to curry favour with the boss' son. The specimen Prof Ng remembers most fondly is a giant cream-coloured squirrel with huge teeth that his mother insisted on returning. "It loved eggs and bananas. It was an absolute beauty. I wish I'd taken photos. It's probably extinct now," he says. "To think I used to play with it as a kid. It brings home the message that extinction is not too far away."

A passionate advocate for natural history, Prof Ng and his team did not let the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research collection stagnate. They expanded it and continued to classify the flora and fauna of Singapore. From 2004, he began holding informal talks with various parties, including the National Parks Board and Singapore Science Centre, on the possibility of establishing a natural history museum, which came to fruition this April with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

"Museums are stuffy old places about the dead - these are perceptions that are not right. It's time to correct these perceptions," he says.

And this museum would not have existed without Dr Tan's effort, he adds. "He is the visionary and the powerhouse. I am just a crab scientist and administrator-cumpaperpusher."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2015, with the headline 'He's the real father of the museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe