Mr Joseph KH KOH

Science Alumni: Distinguished Alumni Award 2004

Ambassador, Naturalist, Singapore ‘Spiderman’

Mr Joseph Koh Kok Hong was born in Singapore on 31 December 1948. After graduating from the then University of Singapore with first class honours in zoology, Mr Koh joined the Singapore Civil Service in 1972. For a man trained as a scientist, Mr Koh has since evolved substantially, becoming a senior mandarin in the civil service but keeping his zoological roots through his continued exploits in spider biology.

Mr Koh has worked in various capacities in the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His portfolios have been very varied, from administrator to foreign affairs analyses, national security as well as MINDEF and national intelligence. His repertoire of professional skills, including the unusual knack of being highly observant and diplomatic, has meant that he has served in many sensitive positions in his years of public service. Some important (and more public) milestones: he was appointed as the Minister-counsellor in the Singapore Embassy in Washington D.C. between 1993 and 1994. He was subsequently appointed Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1995. In 1996, he assumed the important post of Singapore’s Trade Representative in Taipei in July 1996, a post he held until September 2002. In November 2002, Mr Joseph K H Koh became Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia, a post he retains.

He has authored a highly acclaimed book on Singapore spiders and has also written several scientific papers on these animals. In the arachnological (spider) community, Mr Koh is a highly respected member, whose views on spider science is regularly sought, and is one whom the scientific community here and internationally has the highest regard. Moreover, his love for nature has been transmitted to all the ministry staff he has worked with. One of them, Ms Ria Tan, who is now a Raffles Museum Honorary fellow, is now a strong advocate for nature conservation and nature protection, and helps the museum run its various outreach and education programs. Many government officers Mr Koh has worked with over the years have become firm supporters of conservation and nature lovers as a result of his “pervasive” influence. Biodiversity has greatly benefited from his work.

The balance Mr Koh has struck between international diplomacy (his career) and his research on spiders (his passion) is testimonial to his broad based abilities. During his tenure in diplomacy, he has regularly maintained his strong links with the Department of Biological Sciences and the Raffles Museum, and has been instrumental in encouraging and strengthening the biodiversity research ties of NUS with other countries. NUS’ particularly strong biodiversity research links with Taiwan and Australia is testimonial to his influence. He has helped the museum obtain numerous contacts, books and material which is invaluable, using his diplomatic connections to facilitate. In addition, he has “bequeathed” his substantial holdings of spider specimens and literature to the museum when he retires, so that this natural heritage will be kept for future generations. Through all this, we have been most grateful for his generosity. He is a loyal alumnus through and through!

Overall, Mr Koh has a special blend of science and career success that must make NUS proud. He has managed to bridge academia and the real world in a way few have been able to accomplish.