Other Singapore Stories

What does the history of a Zoological Garden have to do with the history of a Garden City?

Over the course of the past months and weeks, several of my friends have been asking to read excerpts of the Honours Thesis which I have written. While I am deeply flattered by the attention, I cannot help but wonder on some level if my friends are just being polite, or I have done an overly good job of over-selling what is really a boringly long 15,000 word paper. While I have come to love digging up little tidbits and morsels of the past, in the same way a fisherman may trawl through the great oceans in search of the weird and wonderful (and occasionally, to feed himself), I also appreciate that it is not everyone’s cup of storm in a tea. History is boring, so many people declare, all you do is memorise dates. I can appreciate the sentiment. After all, i don’t understand differential equations nor the complexities of political theory either. Why should anyone care about the past?

And yet: I believe that good things must be shared, especially if it’s something which gets me excited. Is it vain of me? Perhaps. Arrogantly or otherwise, i believe a little bit of all the things that make us come alive, can also help to make the worlds around us come alive. And so, in the earlier mood of why I had started this blog in the first place nearly a year ago, let me tell you a little of what I think, based on what I have found. You can decide if it’s boring, or if it’s worth reading on. What follows is a short summary of my abstract, scrubbed off academic jargon as much as possible.

[A caveat: This isn’t the abstract I submitted, but merely one which has been cut up and modified for better clarity.]

The ‘argument’ is simple: to study how the Singapore Zoo has changed over the years is to get a glimpse into how Singapore itself  has changed over the years.

Nature Condensed: A History of the Singapore Zoological Gardens argues that a historical analysis of the Singapore Zoo can give us an insight into how independent Singapore has changed over the decades, since the Zoo opened in 1973.

Just as reading the architectural, political, social or even natural landscapes of the past can help us to better understand a country, I posit that studying the Zoo can offer us a different point of entry into understanding the Singaporean past.  No, not the Great Thoughts of MM Lee Kuan Yew, or the “Plays” of some Singaporean Lion. No, not the “epic struggle” against some “communists”. I am not interested in stale, shrill, long-lost battles pitting one subjectivity against another (“Lim Chin Siong was a communist! No, he wasn’t! He ate durians! Freedom! Liberty!” ad nauseum).

I want to look at other things, other personalities, other actors, which, as a result of this illusory smokescreen “battle” over the political past of Singapore, have been obscured. Not many people have spoken about the squatters who were forced out of their kampungs. Not many people have spoken about the boatmen of the Singapore River, whose trade has vanished. Nobody has written about the story of the Rain Tree, brought here from Central America a century ago by colonial powers, under whose shade we walk daily. Nobody has written much about the shopkeepers in the quiet neighbourhoods, fading fast with the languages they speak.  

Nor have historians in Singapore really examined the exotic, strange animals which have come to live on this small, sunny island on the tip of the Malayan Peninsula.

How did a polar bear end up more than 10,000km from its natural habitat? What do you do when a Nile Hippopotamus waddles out of its enclosure, sturdy and stubborn as a living tank, and decides to swim in the Seletar Reservoir for forty days?

My study begins with an examination of how the Zoo was first conceived in the historical and national context of a young nation-state coming to terms with its newfound independence. Of all the thousands of urgent things a young nation-state needed to do after it was hurled out of Malaysia, why did we start thinking of having a national zoo just three years after Independence?  

Then, as the Zoo became more established, the dramatic changes and international connections it fashioned also paralleled the nation’s growing emphasis on global markets and multi-national corporations. Changi Airport opened in 1981, and became an accessible gateway for the thousands of tourists which started streaming into Singapore. The zoo adjusted its marketing strategies to attract this increased  flood of international visitors. Ah Meng the Orangutan escaped up a tree at MacRitchie reservoir, and refused to come down for three days, asserting her newly-minted diva status. Four gorillas, the pride and joy of the Singapore Zoo, died abruptly within two years of being imported into the institution, felled by the unlikeliest of killers: a soil bacteria endemic to the region. 

Finally, as the Zoo (and Singapore) entered the last decade of the twentieth century (the 1990s), the opening of the Night Safari and the birth of the first polar bear in the tropics heralded an era of unparalleled confidence. It was the decade of Asian arrogance, of Asian values and national narratives, as Singaporean identities coalesced on the back of economic prosperity and political stability. However, there were also complications for the Zoo, as it confronted growing pressure from an increasingly affluent, vocal and educated Singaporean citizenry. Nearly twenty years after the Zoo first started exhibiting polar bears (1978), the first open signs of disquiet began to manifest themselves, as Singaporeans began to probe, then actively lobby for better animal welfare for polar bears – these intelligent, massive creatures, holed into a relatively small enclosure. These efforts in themselves also reflected a Singaporean society which had grown more globally aware, and activist in its outlook.

So – there is nothing really controversial about this little academic exercise I have written. It’s just an alternative angle to consider, because I am patently bored of the continual squabbles that lock our local understandings of history into a very narrow, unimaginative corner.

Look around you! Everything around you has a past! What we wear, how we say things, the types of computers we use, the values we hold – they all have a historical background to them!

And why is that important? It probably isn’t. But perhaps it also is, because it gives us a deeper understanding of where we come from, how we got here. If nothing, it gives us a little more protection from those who would try to hoodwink us by manipulating the past. It gives us new ways to think about ourselves, and our societies.

My work thus suggests that the changes and complications that attended the Singapore Zoo since its inauguration in 1973 mirror the history of independent Singapore. In doing so, I hope it gives you another (not necessarily superior, simply another) road to approach the foreign country that is the past, because there are many Singapore stories out there still. Not just about men crying on TV, or the intellectual brilliance of a Finance Minister, or the crafty intelligence of some “Communist”.

No – let me tell you about other things, for a bit. About fugitive panthers and stubborn hippopotami, lured back into its enclosure with bananas. About polar bears who turn green, and orangutans whose favourite beverage is coffee.

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