Animals of the Everyday: Encounters and Experiences in 1930 Singapore

On the morning of 7 October 1930, three Chinese women rubber tappers working on “Puloe Tekong” were badly mauled by a “wild beast”, which was either a bear, or an “unusually large” black panther. A European resident on the island later said that he had seen a panther swimming to the island from Johore several days before the attack.[1]


Sources of Singaporean History is a very weird Honours-level module in the NUS History Department. It’s designed to acquaint wannabe historians with sources of Singaporean History – where to find them, what these sources contain, how to read them and, most fun of all, how to use them creatively. To this end, we were tasked with writing a topic paper on a theme we selected for ourselves, and then write a short story about a particular year in Singapore history.

Every iteration of the module focused on a specific year. For us, it was 1930. You can read a small collection of these short stories here, written by the class. I had quite enjoyed rushing out a little sci-fi tale for this lovely class too, one night before the deadline.

Before we wrote our short stories, though, everyone went out to dig through the archives on a specific topic. You could do anything you wanted, provided there was enough to write about. You could talk about colonial prisons. Or transport. Or the Raffles Museum. Or the sanitation system (or lack thereof).

Me? Some time last year, I’d caught quite a serious case of environmental history and nature. Or rather, that strain went full-blown after I realised you could (and should) actually blend narrative with nature. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time. But i decided to write a topic paper about Animals in 1930 Singapore.

Why the blazes would you write about something like that? Who gives a fig about animals, much less animals in colonial Singapore? I could give you a few answers. But while I researched and wrote the paper, what struck me was that histories of Singapore have tended to portray the natural environment as incidental to understanding the Singaporean past. Relatively few works have actually examined the natural environment’s influence on colonial Singapore.[2]

Very simply, I was curious. I wanted to look at how animals came into the lives of people living in Singapore in 1930.[3] Animals, however, did not manifest themselves only in the form of frightening attacks on rubber plantation workers. Whether as products or producers, they also appeared in the diets of Singaporean society, and were thus a means of livelihood for fishermen, rice planters and farmers. Exotic animals were also traded and displayed extensively in Singapore. However, the countless interactions between human and non-human actors inevitably resulted in tension, leading at times to cruelty, injury, and even death. By exploring facets of ordinary lives through colonial sources and newspapers, I discovered that animals were an everyday reality encountered and experienced by Singaporeans in 1930.


Edible Animals

Singaporeans experienced animals most immediately and regularly through their stomachs. By 1930, meat was being consumed in consistent enough amounts and categories that statistics could actually be generated about what kinds of meat were being eaten, and how much they cost on average. If you dig through the newspapers of the period, as well as colonial documents (including the Blue Book of Statistics, colonial correspondences, and departmental reports), you can find some rather interesting things about two of the most widely consumed meats in 1930, pork and fish.


On average, pork cost between forty-seven to sixty-eight cents per kati. [1] The brain of a pig sold for five cents; the skull-skin fetched thirty-five cents.[2] Pigs were the largest category of livestock in Singapore, with 33,718 swine recorded. A further 135,250 pigs were also imported in 1930, making them the largest category of livestock imports.[3]  However, the transport of pigs from farm to slaughterhouse was not a pleasant sight, and was described by observers as “revolting and pitiable”. Truckloads of pigs were driven through the streets of Singapore daily, on their way to the slaughter. These pigs were stacked so tightly that “their legs stick out from the trucks”, causing serious injuries which left them bleeding from various parts of their body. When conveyed by sampans from ships, many suffered “crushed and bleeding legs” from being crammed in so thoughtlessly.[4]

To cope with rising demand, new abattoirs opened in Singapore in May, alongside Ordinance No.135 (Municipal). This ordinance authorised the slaughterhouses in Pulau Saigon, Jalan Besar, and King George’s Avenue as the only places in the city allowed for the slaughter of animals intended for human food.[5] These measures were in part to better regulate the process of slaughtering pigs, confining the activity to only a few areas in the city. Pigs were still slaughtered by hand in 1930, usually by Chinese butchers. The animal was knifed while still conscious through the throat, then downward into the heart. This method caused heavy bleeding and (understandably) a lot of struggling by the pig.[6] An ostensibly more humane method was thus proposed and discussed in April 1930 in The Straits Times, albeit inconclusively.[7] The pig would first be rendered unconscious with a “humane pistol” before having its throat cut, circumventing the struggle encountered in the earlier method.[8] Owing to resistance from various quarters, this proposal was not implemented in 1930.


In general, fish were significantly cheaper compared to other meats, partly due to their widespread availability from rivers and the sea. Bawal puteh (pomfret), prawns, threadfins and herrings were available to consumers at more affordable prices than pork, beef or poultry.[9] Whether consumed fresh, dried or salted, fish turned up with “unfailing regularity” in the diets of Singaporeans.[10] Colonial records described only thirteen categories of “meat” in total, ranging from beef, pork, mutton to poultry. In contrast, there were nineteen different types of fish recorded in the marketplace. Of these nineteen classes of fish, nine were described as dried or salted, attesting also to the variety of ways in which it could be consumed.[11] The belacan fish-paste, so integral to Malay diets, was also derived from small fishes or shrimp.[12] Even fish of the poorest quality was not wasted; it was often steam-dried to make nutritious cattle and chicken feed.[13]

Along with the widespread consumption of fish, the fishing industry in Singapore was also growing. By 1930, there were 1,423 fishing boats in Singapore, employing a total of 3,858 people. There were 285 offshore kelongs around Singapore, and the larger part of locally caught fish derived from this source.[14] In 1930 approximately 11,090 tons of fish worth $3,890,233 was caught.[15] Even to colonial observers, the skills of Malay fishermen who netted these fish were “unsurpassed”. Their fishing nets, traps and techniques were highly sophisticated, matched only by their extensive knowledge of the habits and haunts of their quarry.[16] However, the bulk of fishermen were illiterate, and were hit hard by the Depression, as they depended on advances by Chinese towkays to buy new fishing equipment. Unemployed Chinese rubber tappers and rickshaw pullers also started fishing as a result of the flagging economy, although their methods were confined to shellfish-collecting and prawn-fishing – methods which required minimal cost and equipment.[17]


Agricultural Animals

Aside from meat, animals were also employed for other purposes. For example, the Malayan buffalo was used by Malays to plough their padi fields in preparation for rice planting. Malay owners tended to let their animals roam about the countryside, which increased their likelihood of catching diseases or eating less nutritious food. In contrast, Chinese-owned buffaloes (which were used for hauling timber from cleared jungle areas) had a reputation for being more resistant to diseases like rinderpest, due to the high quality of care they received. To keep these animals strong enough to haul heavy logs, Chinese owners tended to confine their buffaloes to pens, and feed them consistently with better quality food.[18]


Cattle were also involved in milk production, although like pigs, they were poorly treated. Local dairies were reportedly filthy.[19] There were no drainage systems in the brick or wooden cattle sheds housing the animals, so dung accumulated under the floor boards of these rudimentary sheds. Lacking drainage, these sheds were rarely cleaned. Animals at these farms were also bathed only fortnightly, against the recommended frequency of bathing cows every two days.[20] The animals at these farms had unwholesome diets, being “poorly fed” on pineapple skins, which were freely available, given the burgeoning pineapple industry in Singapore.[21] Although pineapple skins increased milk production in cows, it also thinned the milk produced, and affected the taste. The cows were also fed on cheap, “worm-eaten” kachang.[22] The cattle used for milk production were thus often inadequately fed and housed.


Exotic Animals

As producers and products, animals hence helped to fill the stomachs and pockets of many in Singapore. There were, however, trades that dealt with rarer creatures. The capture and display of animals is a practice which has persisted for centuries; in Singapore this age-old tradition had turned into a thriving industry by 1930. As a global trade nexus where commercial and transport networks converged, Singapore attracted wildlife trappers and buyers intent on trafficking animals from around the region. For example, orang-utans illegally caught in Borneo and Sumatra were being smuggled to Europe and North America via Singapore at an alarming rate.[23] Ordinance No. 88 (Wild Animals and Birds) was finally amended in August to prohibit the importation of orang-utans into Singapore without a proper licence.[24]  Sir Percival Phillips’ further remarked that one could easily have bought a “crocodile or the black panther at a fair price” in Singapore. Consignments of animals from this region were shipped to “Europe or the Americas” quite regularly.[25] Even in the poor economic climate of 1930, an elephant could be purchased for $600, a tiger for just $200.[26]


The highly publicised trip by the London Zoological Society to improve its Malayan collection illustrates how efficient and extensive this industry was. In April 1930, the London Zoo dispatched “one of the ablest keepers in its employ”, Keeper Lanworn, to take charge of a large collection of reptiles in Singapore, and “anything else he can lay his hands on”.[27] The collection itself was donated by Mr A. St. Alban Smith, a prominent rubber plantation owner. With the contributions of other donors, the final tally of Lanworn’s expedition amounted to a staggering ninety-nine crates of animals, shipped to the London Zoo aboard the steamer Eumaeus.[28] Inside these crates were hundreds of poisonous snakes, two orang-utans, two tigers, amongst other animals, attesting to the disquieting vitality of the exotic wildlife trade in Singapore.[29]

A corollary to this flourishing trade in wildlife were spaces in which animals were displayed to paying visitors. In 1930, the most well-known example of such a space was the Ponggol Zoo at 10 Mile Ponggol Road, owned by William Basapah.[30] The Zoo was established on ten acres of mangrove swampland. There were tigers and sun bears from Malaya, llamas and gnus from South America, rare birds from New Guinea, wallabies and cassowaries from Australia, lions from Africa, and seals from California.[31]  Although only recently established, and still in the midst of receiving animal exhibits, the Zoo was already popular with locals by March 1930.[32] It saw a “large number of visitors”, particularly during the weekends, with admission costing one Straits Dollar.[33]


Abused Animals

Given the countless interactions between humans and non-human, some level of tension was inevitable. In some cases, such tension resulted in cruelty to the animal. For instance, a cattle owner, Sarju Ram, was charged with cruelty to his animals through neglect. Ram, a North Indian owner of fifty buffaloes at 21 MacPherson Road, was sentenced to six weeks’ rigorous imprisonment after letting one of his cows “die in agony without any medical aid”. The cow had been in such pain from illness that it sustained wounds from rolling on the ground in discomfort.[34] Later in the year, Abdul Rahman, the owner of a travelling menagerie, was fined $25 for “cruelly exposing” his animals to inclement weather. His premises at Race Course Road kept animals like tigers, birds and monkeys in cages which were unshielded from the elements. The animals were found “soaking wet” and “shivering with cold” when visited by inspectors.[35]

Cruelty to animals extended beyond simple neglect. Sometimes, the malice was deliberate, as an “OBSERVER” noted. Cattle in transit from ship to slaughterhouse were driven through the streets of Singapore during the most congested hours of the day. “Half mad with fear”, they were beaten with sticks, shouted at, their tails twisted “to breaking point” to goad them to their final destinations.[36] The town centre was also a space where residents encountered animals, often to the misfortune of the latter. “Wild birds” which congregated at St. Andrew’s Cathedral were attacked by boys from nearby slums armed with catapults. Moreover, the drains next to the Cathedral were a frequent dumping ground for unwanted kittens and puppies. In dry weather, these hapless animals struggled to get out of the drains until they died from exhaustion; in wet weather the drains quickly filled with water, drowning them.[37]

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was not indifferent to such instances of cruelty. Established in 1927, the organisation held regular committee meetings to discuss numerous initiatives for the better treatment of animals. Their meeting minutes reflected an acute awareness of specific animal treatment issues. Informational pamphlets were printed, and committees produced reports to the Government on topics like the placement of drinking troughs in the city for bullocks.[38]  The Society tirelessly lobbied for the more humane treatment of animals, and their efforts culminated in the Ordinance for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1930.[39] The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, passed on 12th September 1930, prosecuted anyone accused of causing “unnecessary suffering” to animals. Anyone found guilty of cruelty to animals was liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred dollars, or six months’ jail.[40]


In October 1930, Ong Kim Hong shot dead what was purportedly the last tiger of Singapore.[41]


While this may have signalled the “end of an environmental era” in Singaporean history for one of its most charismatic animals, it by no means terminated interactions between humans and animals in Singapore.[42]  The efforts and very existence of the SPCA underscored the prevalence of animals in the daily lives of Singaporeans. Firstly, it showed that animals were still so widespread that humans could act cruelly against them; next, that there were individuals who cared enough for these wretched creatures to organise and act for them. “Animals” were thus not only ferocious beasts in remote jungles. Taken as a whole, animals shaped the diets, occupations, behaviours and networks which undergirded the Singaporean society of 1930. These beasts were therefore not just creatures of the imagination. Here, they emerge as animals of the everyday, encountered and experienced by Singaporeans in their daily lives.

Sources Cited

[1] “Panther or Bear?”, The Straits Times, 8 October 1930, p.12

[2] Timothy P. Barnard, Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), at present the only work on Singapore’s environmental histories.

[3] For the purposes of this paper, I leverage on the definition of “animals” used by the colonial law, as referring to “any bird, fish, reptile or insect, whether wild or tame”, CO 276, 12 May 1930, p.239.

[1] “Market Prices of Foodstuffs”, National Archives (Great Britain), Great Britain, Public Record Office, and Great Britain, Colonial Office, 1867, Straits Settlements miscellanea, 1867-1939: CO 277, Straits Settlements Miscellanea, 1930, p.82.

[2] “Abattoir Reform”, The Straits Times, 5 April 1930, p.10.

[3] “Veterinary Department Annual Report”, National Archives (Great Britain), Great Britain. Colonial Office, Great Britain, Public Record Office, and Straits Settlements, Legislative Council, 1855-1940, Straits Settlements sessional papers, 1930, CO 275, p.224.

[4] “Cruelty”, The Straits Times, 24 November 1930, page 18.

[5] Government Gazette No.301, National Archives (Great Britain), Malaya, British Military Administration, Great Britain.

Colonial Office, and Great Britain. Public Record Office, 1867, Straits Settlements government gazette, 1867-1942: CO 276, Straits Settlements Government Gazette, 1930, p.217.

[6] “Humane Killing in Pig Abattoirs”, The Straits Times, 27 March 1930, p.17.

[7] Ibid., Abattoir Reform”, The Straits Times, 12 April 1930, p.10.

[8] “Abattoir Reform”, The Straits Times, 12 April 1930, p.10.

[9] “Market Prices of Foodstuffs”, CO 277, p.82.

[10] “Fisheries Department, Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States”, CO 275/126, p.63.

[11] “Market Prices of Foodstuffs”, CO 277, p.82.

[12] “Note on the Operations of the Steam Trawler Tongkol and Sea Fishery Prospects in Malaya”, National Archives (Great Britain), and Great Britain. Colonial Office. 1838. Straits Settlements original correspondence: CO 273. Straits Settlements Original Correspondence. p.49

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Fisheries”, CO 277, p.325.

[15] Ibid., p.326.

[16] “Fisheries Department”, CO 275/126, p.64.

[17] Ibid., p.69.

[18] “The Ugly but Useful Buffalo”, The Straits Times, 25 February 1930, p.14.

[19] “Filth”, The Straits Times, 12 June 1930, p.17.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Review of the Affairs of the Colony of the Straits Settlements”, CO 275, p.287.

[22] “Filth”, The Straits Times, 12 June 1930, p.17.

[23] “Memorial concerning the Exportation of Orang Utans from the Netherlands Indies and the Importation and Transit at Singapore”, CO 273/565, p.592

[24] Government Gazette No. 83, CO 276, 22 August 1930.

[25] “Sir Percival Phillips goes to Punggol”, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 14 January 1930, p.18.

[26] “Reptiles Wanted!”, The Straits Times, 26 April 1930, p.10.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Malaya’s Handsome Gifts to the Zoo”, The Straits Times, 28 July 1930, p.15.

[29] “From Malaya to the “Zoo””, The Straits Times, 20 June 1930, p.20.

[30] “The Singapore Zoological Gardens”, The Malayan Saturday Post, 25 January 1930, p.8.

[31] Ibid.; “Sir Percival”, The Singapore Free Press, p.18; “Seals Imported for First Time In The Colony”, The Straits Times, 17 March 1930, p.12; “Singapore Zoo”, The Straits Times, 25 February 1930, p.10.

[32] “Seals Imported”, The Straits Times, 17 March 1930, p.12

[33] Ibid.

[34] “Indian sent to Prison”, The Straits Times, 29 May 1930, p.17.

[35] “Indian Menagerie Owner Fined”, The Straits Times, 27 November 1930, p.12.

[36] “Cruelty to Animals”, The Straits Times, 30 October 1929, p.17.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “S.P.C.A. Action”, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 3 April 1930, p.12.

[39] “S.P.C.A. Work”, The Straits Times, 8 September 1930, p.12.

[40] Government Gazette No.96, September 19, 1930, CO 276, p.12.

[41] “A Tiger Visits Singapore”, Malayan Saturday Post, 8 November 1930, p.38.

[42] Barnard, Nature Contained, p.80




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