Pioneer of nature conservation efforts in Singapore dies at 72

Dr Leong Chee Chiew, the former NParks commissioner of parks and recreation, led efforts that transformed Singapore into a "City in Nature". - ST File

SINGAPORE: The nature community in Singapore on Thursday (June 13) mourned the loss of one of its pioneers, former commissioner of parks and recreation Leong Chee Chiew, 72, who died the day before from cancer.

Appointed as the National Parks Board’s (NParks) deputy executive director in 1990, Dr Leong became deputy chief executive officer after its merger with the Parks and Recreation Department in 1996.

He assumed the role of NParks’ commissioner of parks and recreation in 2006, serving for 18 years until January 2024.

He had stepped down as deputy chief executive officer in August 2020.

A conservationist at heart – he graduated from the University of Malaya with a PhD in plant physiology in 1983 – he most notably led efforts that transformed Singapore from a “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden” to a “City in Nature”.

His achievements, including helping to secure Unesco World Heritage status for the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2015 and leading the OneMillionTrees movement that was launched in 2020, earned him several National Day Awards.

Paying tribute, former Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) president Shawn Lum said: “I liken Dr Leong to Bruce Wayne in the Bat Cave, picking up the Bat Phone and calling allies in his quest to do what was right for nature and for people in Singapore.”

The NSS and NParks collaborated on several initiatives, including the conservation of the Chek Jawa mudflats on Pulau Ubin.

“If I saw Dr Leong (calling me), sometimes long after office hours, I knew that my favourite protector of nature was ready for action,” Dr Lum added.

Under Dr Leong’s charge, a City in Nature was created with more than 7,800ha of green spaces and 380km of park connectors and trails linking Singapore’s core habitats to one another.

On his Facebook page on June 12, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee wrote that Dr Leong, having served on Singapore’s various conservation boards since 1983, “helped build up a community of nature stewards, and volunteerism bloomed under his watch”.

“Dr Leong was instrumental in our efforts to conserve nature areas to allow our biodiversity to flourish, among many other conservation and greening efforts,” he noted. “The willingness to engage and listen to the voices of different stakeholders and arrive at a solution will also be one of his greatest legacies.”

Apart from Dr Leong’s contributions, his warm mentorship is fondly remembered.

Dr Adrian Loo, NParks’ former group director of wildlife management, described him as a respected father figure and role model.

He said: “We all felt like we worked as a close-knit family... He was tireless, steadfast and unwavering in his commitment to conservation of our biodiversity and in greening Singapore. It saddens us deeply to have lost a wise counsellor and a caring boss, but his legacy will live on.”

In his Facebook post, Mr Lee also expressed his condolences to Dr Leong’s family, highlighting his “quiet stewardship, dedication and valuable contributions to building a City in Nature for all Singaporeans to enjoy”.

Dr Leong is survived by his wife, three children, a son-in-law and two grandchildren. - The Straits Times/ANN

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