Valuable butterfly collection for museum

Tycoon acquires most complete set of species found in region

A valuable collection of butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore has been bought and donated to Singapore's new natural history museum.

The Fleming collection - acquired by Malaysian tycoon Tan Teong Hean - represents the most complete picture of these beautiful insects that lived and continue to live in this region.

When the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum opens next year, visitors will be able to see these butterflies, although not all 8,000 specimens representing 1,031 species will be displayed all at once.

Mr Tan, 69, chairman of private equity firm Southern Capital Group and a butterfly lover himself, had long been acquainted with Scotsman W. A. Fleming and his son Angus, who had been collecting these butterflies from 1961 to 1978.

When the senior Fleming died that year, his wife took the collection to Britain. She has been the guardian of this coveted collection but, with her years numbered, decided that it should go back to where it belonged.

"We wanted to keep it as a collection and not split it up," said Mr Angus Fleming, 59, who was born in Kuala Lumpur and now works in the construction industry in Darwin, Australia.

He had brought the collection from Britain to Singapore by hand last week.

His father had come to Malaya in 1937 to work as a planter for a London-based rubber company in Selangor.

Mr Tan has started an endowment fund to buy the collection at an undisclosed sum and also for the museum to hire a full-time curator to look after the butterflies.

Mr Khew Sin Khoon, 54, an honorary curator at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, which will soon become the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, said the collection is important as the specimens are properly organised and accurately identified.

It has also been validated by other butterfly experts and corresponds to Mr W. A. Fleming's book, Butterflies Of West Malaysia And Singapore.

"It represents about 95 per cent of butterflies in West Malaysia and Singapore," said Mr Khew, who is also president and chief executive of architectural firm CPG Corporation.

"It is an important reference for collectors and future students of butterflies who are keen to learn how to identify their collected specimens."

Some of the more rare specimens include the Yellow Rajah, Mangrove Tree Nymph, Green Dragontail, Rajah Brooke's Birdwing and Jewel Nawab.

For the donor, the collection also has a larger significance.

"The key driver for me was that this is ecological heritage you can't have any more," said Mr Tan.

About 15 per cent of the butterflies in the collection can no longer be found.

"My wish is to get future generations interested in butterflies," said Mr Tan, who was the former chief executive of Southern Bank.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.