Thursday, 7 June 2012

Grande dame of Botanic Gardens Lady Yuen-Peng McNeice dies

By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2012

SHE was the grande dame of the Singapore Botanic Gardens and a protector of animals and plants long before such causes became fashionable.

On Sunday, Lady Yuen-Peng McNeice died at home at age 94 and, as she wanted, was next to her garden, with birdsong in the air.

The wife of the late Sir Percy McNeice, Singapore's first president of the City Council, and sister of the late Loke Wan Tho, founder of Cathay Organisation, she was renowned in her own right for her work as a conservationist and philanthropist.

She won a Public Service Medal in 2005 for her work for the environment, including donating an entire collection of plants bought in the United States to the Botanic Gardens.

She also donated several sculptures to the Botanic Gardens and sponsored the publication of 3,000 books commemorating its 150th anniversary in 2009.

She is survived by two children and four grandchildren, and left a legacy of scholarships, plants and animals named after her. These include a crab in the French Loyalty Islands and an orchid in Papua New Guinea - testament to her wide-reaching work.

Born in Malaysia to Mr Loke Yew, the richest Malaysian of his day, and Mrs Loke Cheng Kim, the eldest daughter of tin mine owners, she made her home here after she married Sir Percy.

They met in Kuala Lumpur just before World War II through her mother, who was involved in community work.

He was the Secretary of Chinese Affairs for Malaya and Singapore, and fluent in Cantonese. Although he was 16 years her senior, she was smitten.

'He had that Irish charm, you know, that Irish blarney,' she said in a 2007 interview with the National Archives of Singapore, referring to his gift of the gab.

They married after the war ended and she entertained officials, opened fairs and attended functions on Sundays with her husband.

But her heart was in her volunteer work at centres set up to feed the poor after the war and at the Family Planning Association of Singapore, forerunner of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association.

She described her work with the women who came to the association as 'eye-opening', as they were often treated like 'breeding machines' by their husbands.

Later, after Sir Percy retired - he died in 1998 of a brain haemorrhage, she would give her voice to those with even less autonomy: plants and animals.

Environmentalists said Lady McNeice was unstinting in her advocacy, even in her private life.

'When we went to the hawker centre, she would collect the used chopsticks to recycle as stakes in her garden,' said Madam Ohn Set, 65, who used to work with Lady McNeice at the Botanic Gardens.

Friends said she would make jams and jellies each year and sell them to raise funds for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Each jar would be capped by paper printed with photographs of her two dogs.

Said Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society: 'She took up the cause for the environment and animals long before it was fashionable.'

Her wake at Singapore Casket in Lavender yesterday was marked by a giant orchid display from the National Parks Board.

Friends from the Photographic Society of Singapore, where she was an honorary patron, and Mr Mah Bow Tan, former minister for the environment, paid their respects.

Lady McNeice's daughter Shelagh, 59, a teacher based in Britain, said at the wake that her mother's one regret in life was not going to university to study botany.

When she was young, Lady McNeice would press flowers in books to preserve them.

She remained a cheerleader for flora and fauna to the end, sponsoring roses for the upcoming Gardens by the Bay.

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