Yuen Peng McNiece
Philanthropist and pioneering conservationist
Yuen Peng McNeice was a philanthropist and conservationist who championed the preservation of the environment and animal welfare long before such causes became fashionable. She was also a social worker and an accomplished horticulturist and wildlife photographer, and was the first Singaporean to become an associate of the Royal Photographic Society in the United Kingdom.
Born in 1917 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Yuen Peng was the youngest of three children of Loke Yew, the richest Malaysian of his time, and Lim Cheng Kim, the eldest daughter of tin mine owners. Her brother Wan Tho, who was a keen photographer and ornithologist, would later develop the family’s film business into the Cathay Organisation.
After World War II, Yuen Peng, her mother and brother moved to Singapore. In 1947 she married Percy McNeice, who was then head of the newly established Social Welfare Department and who in 1949 was a founding member of the Singapore Family Planning Association, forerunner of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association. Yuen Peng started volunteering at the centres that were being set up to feed and care for children, and also at a family planning clinic. When her husband was knighted in 1957, she took on the title of ‘Lady’.
She also served as president of the Girls’ Life Brigade, was on the committees of the Chinese Ladies Association and Girl Guides, and oversaw two charitable foundations named after her mother.
After her husband’s death in 1998, Yuen Peng turned to her longstanding interest in nature conservation and horticulture and animal protection. She funded the conservation, research and education efforts of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Malayan Nature Society, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore.
In 1994 she acquired and donated to the Singapore Botanic Gardens a unique collection of 20,000 bromeliads. She also donated several sculptures and sponsored the publication of two books about the Botanic Gardens.
Her support of nature and conservation efforts included being a pioneer member of The 1001: A Nature Trust established by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands; member of the National Parks Board; trustee of the Malaysian branch of the World Wildlife Fund; vice-president of the Singapore Gardening Society; and a life member of the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society of the United Kingdom
Yuen Peng and her husband had two children, daughter Shelagh and son Anthony Terence. Her daughter said that her mother’s one regret in life was not going to university to study botany. When she was a child, Yuen Peng would press flowers in books to preserve them.
An avid photographer, Yuen Peng was an honorary life member and patron of the Photographic Society of Singapore. In 1961, she held the first photography exhibition in Singapore to raise funds for charity. In later years, she held exhibitions and talks on nature conservation, environmental protection and biodiversity.
For her conservation work and patronage of nature and environmental organizations, Yuen Peng was awarded the Dutch Order of the Golden Ark in 1999, the Singapore Green Plan 2012 in 2004, and the Public Service Medal in 2005. She died in 2012 aged 94.
"The interesting thing for me is that I am involved with these charities that I support. I am not just handing out the money. I am interested in photography.
I am interested in horticulture and the environment.
So it’s more meaningful for me, to understand what is going on and what is needed."
On growing old:
"First and foremost, don’t think old. If you think that you are old and you can’t do this and that and the other, then you give up. You should just keep going, keep active. There’s so much to learn in life."