The Friday Interview, Straits Times, 4th August 2000

Nature conservation's new champion

Charity worker and fund-raiser. Arts patron. Historic-building advocate. Now add nature's champion. Dr Geh Min, the first woman president of the Nature Society of Singapore, tells LYDIA LIM why a country without nature is like someone without a soul

ELEGANT eye surgeon Geh Min bears the weight of many causes on her slender shoulders.

You could say that this granddaughter of the late philanthropist Lee Kong Chian has enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Indeed, she is able to indulge her love affair with music by travelling as far as Verona to seek out the best in Italian opera. She has time for piano lessons, which she has decided to resume at age 50. And it is with some reluctance that she leaves the keyboard where she has been practising to sit down for this interview, in her home at Cornwall Gardens.

But her family background has also imbued her with a sense of duty that makes her take on tasks that many others are unwilling or unable to carry out. It was from her mother's side of the family that she learned the importance of community service, she says. Her mother is champion charity fund-raiser Lee Seok Tin, daughter of the famous tycoon and philanthropist.

Over the years, Dr Geh, a former student of Methodist Girls' School and Anglo Chinese Junior College, has done her part to support charities and promote the arts. For more than a decade, she has been on the board of Save the Children Singapore, the Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Ladies League. A medical graduate of the National University of Singapore, she is also a member of the research sub-committee for the Preservation of Monuments Board.

All these responsibilities and more come on top of her full-time job as consultant eye surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, where she and her husband, heart surgeon Tong Ming Chuan, have their clinic. She is also a visiting consultant at the National Eye Centre and the National University Hospital.

Two months ago, she took on yet another post when she was elected the first woman president of the Nature Society of Singapore.

And she did so under rather trying circumstances. A non-government organisation with close to 2,000 members, the society has been an outspoken advocate of nature conservation. Last year, some of its members took umbrage at a proposal by the National Parks Board to provide recreational activities, such as boating and fishing, in the bird sanctuary at Sungei Buloh.

They started an e-mail appeal urging nature lovers to write to or call NParks to voice their objections, thus driving a wedge between the society and the government body that has been its partner in various conservation projects. After the incident, the former president, Associate Professor Khoo Hong Woo, stepped down. In June, Dr Geh agreed gamely to take up where he left off.

Since then, she has been busy reading up on issues that the society is concerned with, such as the revised Green Plan, and replying to the dozens of pieces of e-mail she receives each day. She has also prepared assiduously for this interview, her first with the media as the society's president. Leaving nothing to chance, the first thing she does is to lay out, on her spotless white couch, sheets of handwritten notes which she refers to constantly.

On the Sungei Buloh incident, she will only say, diplomatically: ""It was an unfortunate misunderstanding which I hope will not be repeated.''

What she is happy to talk at length about is her love of nature. Her father, banker Geh Ik Cheong, exposed her from a young age to the natural world by taking her along when he went deep-sea fishing and jungle walking. In her high voice and very proper English accent, she recalls that her father used to know ""a lot of old British colonial people from the forestry department''.

But it was her 18-year-old daughter Wenfei who re-kindled her love for ecology six years ago. ""I came back to nature because my daughter developed a passionate interest in it, after we took her on safari in Africa,'' she says. These days, mother and daughter spend many a weekend bird-watching at Sungei Buloh.

Dr Geh says that the new-found interest has done wonders for her only child, a student at Hwa Chong Junior College, who plans a career in the life sciences. ""I think it has instilled in her a sense of discipline and made her a lot more confident.''

What she finds ""shocking'' is that many school children are learning about nature, not by looking at what is around them, but by watching the Discovery Channel. ""So they can identify bald eagles, which, of course, are not found anywhere in this area, but they know nothing about our own species and they think that sunbirds are hummingbirds,'' she says.

One of her aims as president is to employ a full-time educational officer so that the Nature Society will be able to increase its outreach to schools. Exposure to nature will teach students to become better thinkers, she says with certainty. ""I have come to realise that whether it's creativity in the sciences or the arts, you finally have to get back to nature as the bottomline.''


Q&A: "Losing nature worse than book burning"

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