Speech by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, at the Launch of the Wallace and Ali Statue, titled "Celebrating Our Heritage and Biodiversity", on 30 August 2019.
Prof Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS
Prof Peter Ng, Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum
Prof Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large
Mr George Yeo, Senior Adviser to Kuok Group & Kerry Logistics Network
Prof Leo Tan, Director (Special Projects) of NUS Faculty of Science
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am pleased to join all of you today at the launch of the statue of British naturalist, biologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, and his trusted assistant Ali.
This year, we commemorate Singapore’s Bicentennial. We are not just marking 200 years of modern Singapore, but going back 700 years, to understand Singapore’s early history and reflect on our own place in the region. It is fitting that we also mark Alfred Russel Wallace and Ali, who made significant contributions in discovering, preserving, documenting and helping us to understand the natural history and biodiversity of our region, which includes Singapore.
Wallace was not just the co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution, but an explorer with a very strong connection to Singapore. His deep interest in natural history brought him to Southeast Asia, where he used Singapore as his base to collect large numbers of plant and animal material and record our region’s natural history. Wallace described Ali as “the faithful companion of almost all [his] journeyings among the islands of the far East”. Ali helped to handle and process many specimens which were instrumental to the development of Wallace’s ideas on evolution. Some historians believe that many of Wallace’s specimens were in fact collected by Ali.
I am happy that our community of scientists and biologists today continue to be inspired by Wallace and Ali, in particular their spirit of adventure, collaboration and environmentalism.
First, the spirit of adventure. Wallace’s passion for natural history led him to travel tens of thousands of kilometres all over the world, far away from his home in the UK in the days before air travel brought the world closer together. He first travelled to the Amazon for his research in 1848, only to be shipwrecked on his way home four years later. He lost almost everything that he had worked on, save for a few notes and pencil sketches. However, he remained undeterred and set off for Southeast Asia, where he spent eight years collecting specimens. Today, we are all relieved that our scientists and biologists are subject to much less hardship compared to Wallace. However, conducting scientific expeditions and field research still remains a challenging task, often requiring extended periods of time away from the comforts of home and exposure to unknown and exotic risks in the outdoors. I commend all our scientists and biologists for your hard work, passion for our region’s natural history, and dedication to sharing your knowledge. Thanks to the many generations of such adventurous persons over many years, we have a treasure trove of more than 1 million specimens at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, making it one of the largest natural history collections in Southeast Asia.
Second, the spirit of collaboration. Wallace and Ali were from very different worlds. But their shared passion for discovery and collection bridged the divide and cemented their collaboration. Today, the love for natural history continues to bridge the distances – between universities, museums and biologists across continents. I am glad to see many ongoing collaborations between the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and other key institutions in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. More than 90% of the museum’s specimens are used for research by academics, students and scientists from Singapore and around the world. Through such collaboration, we can add to our collective knowledge of natural history, how it has shaped our world today, and how we can conserve our environment for our future generations.
Third, the spirit of environmentalism. Wallace’s interest in natural history made him one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity in the 19th century. In his essays, he warned about the dangers of deforestation and soil erosion, and criticised the impact of European colonisation on the natural environment of its colonies. Wallace’s tales of caution have become more relevant than ever today. In PM Lee’s National Day Rally two weeks ago, he spoke about the impact of climate change, which is an existential issue for a low-lying island-nation like Singapore. The Government’s efforts are not enough. We need all our citizens, organisations, scientists and research community to work together and contribute ideas, so that we can better understand climate change, contribute to global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to climate change to safeguard our island for years to come. In particular, PM Lee highlighted the importance for us to take action now to defend our coastlines against rising sea levels for the next 100 years.
Friends, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I also thank all the museum’s partners, collaborators, sponsors and donors who have made all this possible. Together, we can help to keep Wallace and Ali’s spirit of adventure, collaboration and environmentalism alive, and continue to celebrate, cherish and conserve our natural history heritage for our future generations.
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