Nature Condensed I: The Singapore Zoo Opens

In the early hours of 7 March 1973, a three-year old panther, slipped through the bars of its locked enclosure in the Singapore Zoological Gardens, beginning an eleven-month exile in the forests of the Seletar Reservoir. The escape captivated the imagination of a young nation on the eve of the zoo’s opening.[1]


How did the Singapore Zoo come to be? How did it come to pass that a panther could not only escape the confines of a newly-built institution, and then become a semi-permanent resident in the semi-permanent forests of Singapore for a grand total of eleven months?

There are many answers to that question, depending on who you ask, where you want to start, and how you want to approach the question.

Today, I want to tell you a story, which started with a young boy, and his runaway imagination.

It then continued later, with a runaway panther.

(Then a runaway hippopotamus too.)

Boyhood Memories

It all started with a young boy.

The Chairman of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Ong Swee Law, had been a scout in his boyhood days. His experiences with animals at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney then had left a lasting impression on him.[1]

In 1967, when the PUB began to consider how it could better utilize the space in Singapore’s reservoirs for public use, Ong revisited his lifelong fascination with zoos. A lunch discussion with the Australian High Commissioner in January 1968 convinced Ong of the possibility of opening such an institution, just beside the Seletar Reservoir.[2] Under Ong’s leadership, a twelve-person steering committee, selected from a volunteer pool of sixty PUB officers, was established to explore the concept.[3]

The Zoo, however, was planned by PUB officers who knew nothing professionally about running such institutions – simply because no one had worked in a local zoo in any capacity before. As it turned out, this would have more serious implications later for the zoo.

How to Build a Zoo?

To compensate for this deficiency, PUB officials went around the world seeking the opinions of experts.

This was puzzling, given that Singapore itself had had a long history of people who kept and exhibited exotic wildlife. No record exists of such local correspondences.

Instead, the advice of zoo design experts and zoo directors from institutions as diverse as Colombo, Munich, Berlin and Delhi was sought. PUB officials moreover made visits to foreign zoos in cities ranging from San Diego, London, Frankfurt, Colombo and Basel, as a means of compiling more information on zoos.[6] [An early example of the Singaporean state turning to foreign talent? Perhaps…]

Minister for Law, E.W. Barker finally announced the results of this “in-depth study” to Parliament in December 1968. The study detailed the possibility of a “wildlife sanctuary and zoo” at the Mandai-Seletar area, which would function as an educational and recreational facility for Singaporeans.[7]

The Zoo was envisioned as a place for “the family to enjoy themselves”; a “welcome change” for Singaporeans who sought “relief from the…pace of modern living”. [8]

Against the backdrop of a Singapore that was perceived to be industrialising at a dizzying rate, the state was creating more spaces for Singaporeans to relax.

Opponents: “WATER” & “Smelly”

While a zoo by a reservoir sounds like an uninspiring idea today, it was not without its opponents more than 30 years ago. Its most vocal opponent in the late 1960s was Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was “obsessed” with Singapore’s water supply in the 1960s. [11]  Lee expressed strong reservations about placing a producer of large amounts of animal waste next to a freshwater reservoir. He was also particularly concerned with the smells that animals would produce.[12]

Third from left: One of the Singapore Zoo’s most vocal opponents, who was concerned about a smelly zoo.

According to Ong Swee Law, the proposal was passed only with the support of Goh Keng Swee and E.W. Barker. [13]

Goh Keng Swee received the initial proposal for the zoo in June 1969, and expressed how he was “very much impressed” with the concept. He was prepared to consider “very favourably” underwriting the establishment of a zoo. A full report was finally submitted to the Singapore government in September 1969, recommending the establishment of a Zoological Gardens in Singapore.

The report proposed that a Zoo be built to serve the educational and recreational needs of Singaporeans, as well as contributing to the tourist attractions in the country.[14] The state approved the scheme in principle a month later, forming at the same time a public company that was authorised to design, construct and manage the new institution.

General Inexperience

Ong was appointed as the Chairman of the Gardens, and the PUB chief water engineer and acting general manager, Khong Kit Soon, as the zoo’s director. Lyn de Alwis, the Director of the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo, was appointed as consultant-director in 1969.[15] It’s important to realize that none of these men had any experience designing or building a zoo. 

Although de Alwis, as a Zoo Director was experienced in managing and maintaining a zoo, he had never designed a zoo before. A local firm, Chan Kui Chuan Architects and Planners, which similarly had had no prior experience in building zoos, was engaged to build it.[16]

This extensive inexperience would have wider national implications in 1973, just months before the Zoo’s opening.

“Teething Problems”

Despite their best efforts, the relative inexperience of the new Zoo’s designers would result in a series of sensational animal escapes in 1973 and 1974.

On 5 March 1973, two young sun-bears were found outside their apparently locked cages. It was later ascertained that the bears had forced their way out of a narrow gap in their cage. Although the animals were “tame and half-grown”, one of the bears was nonetheless shot dead fifty metres from its pen.[28] Shortly after, two jaguars momentarily climbed out of their enclosures, although the animals returned on their own volition within the same day.[29]

Twiggy – The Panther, not the Model

Perhaps the most spectacular animal escape happened two days later, on 7 March 1973. A gift from the Thai king, Twiggy the panther was on its way to another destination when it escaped due to “inadequate security”. [30] Although the animal’s cage had been locked, Twiggy was believed to have slipped through the bars of its enclosure.

Not this Twiggy

The panther escape galvanised the imagination of a Singaporean public, which by 1970 had largely begun to live in urban, built-up areas.

Volunteer game hunters, policemen and Reserve Unit troops were enlisted in an extensive search for the animal.[31] Citizens also organised themselves proactively to protect their neighbourhoods.

Resident groups, armed with shotguns, parangs, changkols and sticks, were formed in housing estates like Sembawang Hills, Mandai and Seletar – areas near where the big cat had escaped.[32]

Meanwhile, schoolchildren wrote to the press, urging the authorities not to kill the panther.[33] They also participated in essay competitions where prizes were awarded to the most creative compositions imagining how Twiggy had escaped.[34]

Twiggy: End of the Road Longkang

The hunt for Twiggy reached a dramatic climax on Friday, 2 February 1974, at an underground monsoon drain in Bukit Timah. The animal had been spotted alive two days earlier, prompting a frantic police effort to flush the panther from its hideout.

Flare guns were used (in vain) to “smoke it out”.[35]



After another two days of silence, it was concluded that Twiggy had died.

A hole was dug at the side of the drain where it had been trapped, and the canal was flooded with water to float the carcass out.

And after wandering the rainforests of Singapore for eleven months, Twiggy the panther – Twiggy, who had captivated the public’s imagination; Twiggy, whom schoolchildren had written about and whose parents had fretted over – Twiggy the fugitive panther – was unceremoniously flushed out of her final hiding place, and carted away by an excavator.[36]

twiggy dead.jpg
In death, the panther which captured the imagination of a young nation was pitifully small.  From the National Archives of Singapore. 

Emotional Responses

Twiggy’s death provoked many emotional responses from the public.[37]  Even the normally restrained Singaporean press characterised the use of kerosene petrol and smoke flares by the police as a “botched” over-reaction that had led to an “unhappy ending” for an animal that had “harmed no one” in its eleven-month sojourn through Singaporean jungles.[38]

But the escapes of the sun bear and Twiggy were only the beginning of a series of similar incidents the Singapore Zoo faced in its initial years.

Further Escapes

On 14 January 1974, a month before Twiggy met her untimely demise, Congo the Nile hippopotamus clambered out of its enclosure, broke through a timber stockade, and plodded into the green, placid waters of the Seletar Reservoir. [39] The massive creature remained obstinately in the reservoir for a total of forty-eight days.

How do you lure a gigantic hippo back into the Zoo?

It sounds crazy, but if it works, it’s not really that crazy: Congo the Nile Hipoo was finally enticed into a crate with an offering of bananas.[40]

A cow eland also followed in Congo’s wake, jumping over its 2.4-metre high enclosure fence; the animal returned to its enclosure by itself eleven days later.[42] On the morning of 6 February 1974, a tiger also nearly escaped from its enclosure, climbing an eighteen-foot chain link fence. It was eventually lured back with offerings of meat.[43]

This series of escapes thus represented the relative inexperience of the Zoo’s administration. Thereafter, the Zoo pledged to exercise more vigilance in its daily operations. New security measures were put in place following an exhaustive study on security.

These additional security measures cost the Zoo $100,000, but they seem to have paid off. [44] The zoo witnessed far fewer animal escapes after the dramatic episodes of 1973 and 1974.

There would be no major animal escapes until December 1978, when a large, 1.5m long ghavial broke out from its stockade and fled into a monsoon drain after a torrential downpour weakened the walls of its enclosure.[45]

The Singapore Zoo Opens


On 28 June 1973, the Singapore Zoological Gardens was finally opened to the public. Admission fees were $2 for adults, and $1 for children, with a fifty-cent camera charge.[48]

By this time the zoo had a sizable collection of three hundred animals, which included orangutans, panthers, tigers, lions, and deer. It was the material culmination of efforts that had begun in 1968 – or even earlier, if you want to trace it to a young boy’s dreams.[49]

Although it was not connected to an imperial system of science and power, unlike the zoo at the Botanic Gardens, the Singapore Zoo was nonetheless able to leverage on networks of expertise and exotic animals from all over the world.

Unlike its predecessors, the Zoo also received far more systematic and determined support from a state leadership influenced by visions of a “Garden City”, as well as concerns with the increasing urbanisation of the country.

More significantly, this period was marked by “teething problems” for the Zoo, as its inexperienced staff learnt to run, manage and operate the institution. Animal escapes like Twiggy and Congo, and subsequent efforts to recapture them, thus underscored the limits of the young Zoo’s abilities.


Sources Cited

[1]“Panther: Zoo to hold inquiry’, The Straits Times [hereafter, ST], 11 Mar 1973.

[1] Sharp, 21 Years, p.4.

[2] Ibid., p.5.

[3] “The Men Behind the Project”, ST, 27 Jun 1973

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quek confessed that apart from the poultry they consumed and the domestic pets they consumed, no one on the steering committee knew much about animals. Sharp, 21 Years, pp.6-13.

[6]Sharp, 21 Years, p.5.

[7]“Singapore plans a wild life sanctuary and zoo”, ST, 14 Dec 1968.

[8]“Five Years for Idea to Come to Fruition”, ST, 27 Jun 1973.

[9]“Sociologists have a point, says Dr. Goh”, ST, 27 Jun 1973.

[10]“Mandai Zoo will be one of world’s best: Expert”, ST, 19 Oct 1972

[11]Lee Kuan Yew. “Speech at the Zoo’s 20th Anniversary Dinner, June 19 1993,” cited in Sharp, 21 Years, p.161.

[12] Ibid.

[13]It was also Goh, and not Lee, who took administrative responsibility for the project, and inaugurated the opening of the Zoo in June 1973. Sharp, The First 21 Years, p.12; “Five Years for Idea to Come to Fruition”, ST, 27 June 1973.

[14] The Seletar Zoological Gardens Sub-Committee, Proposal for the Development of the Seletar Zoological Gardens, (Singapore, 1969), p.3., cited in Graetz, “Architectural Design”, p.3.

[15] J.Y.M Pillay, cited in Sharp, 21 Years, p.12.; “De Alwis – man who planned the Mandai Zoo”, ST, 8 Jul 1973.

[16]“The men behind the project”, ST, 29 Jan 1973

[17]Sharp, 21 Years, p.32.

[18]“Keeping the water clean for $1.7 million”, ST, 29 Jan 1973.

[19]“Don’t worry about reservoir, Dhana tells nature buffs”, ST, 7 Jun 1992.

[20]“SM: Zoo pollution was main worry”, ST, 20 Jun 1993.

[21] Foreign Govts agree to help the Zoo”, ST, 22 Jun 1971

[22]“Mandai Zoo will be one of world’s best: Expert”, ST, 19 Oct 1972.

[23] Sharp, 21 Years, p.21.

[24] “Spore Zoological Gardens to be opened in mid-June”, ST, 30 Apr 1973.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Sharp, 21 Years, p.31.

[28] Ibid., p.28.

[29] “Panther: Zoo to hold inquiry”, ST, 11 Mar 1973; Sharp, The First 21 Years, p.29.

[30] “Panther escape: Officials Resign”, New Nation, 10 May 1973

[31] Along with zoo staff and policemen, three Reserve Unit troops of about 150 men were deployed in the search, in addition to local volunteer game hunters. “Panther: Zoo to hold inquiry”, ST, 11 Mar 1973; “Panther: Eight Hunters join in Effort”, ST, 13 Mar 1973

[32]“Safety at the Zoo”, ST, 9 Mar 1973.

[33]“Don’t Kill the Panther, Capture it Alive”, ST, 14 Mar 1973.

[34]“Panther Probe”, ST, 13 May 1973.

[35] “Panther found dead in its hideout”, ST, 2 Feb 1974.

[36] “Unhappy Ending”, ST, 3 Feb 1974


[38] “Staying Open”, ST, 7 Feb 1974; “Lucky Panther”, ST, 4 Jul 1975.; “Panther that harmed no one”, ST, 5 Feb 1974.

[39]“Search on for Hippo missing from Zoo”, ST, 15 Jan 1974.

[40] Bernard Ming-Deh Harrison, Oral history interview, Accession No.003217, Reel/Disc 4, (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 6 Mar 2008).

[41]“Zoo seeks mate for Congo”, ST, 11 Apr 1974.

[42] Staying Open”, ST, 7 Feb 1974

[43]“The tiger had apparently been frightened by the noise of a grass-cutting machine operated by a gardener near its enclosure. Sharp, 21 Years, p.31.

[44] Sharp, The First 21 Years, p.32.

[45] “Ghavial escapes from Mandai Zoo”, ST, 10 Dec 1978

[46]“Escapes from Zoo a ‘teething’ problem”, ST, 21 Feb 1974.

[47]“The major flaws in security of the Zoo”, ST, 25 Feb 1974.; “Overseas Expert invited to study security as Zoo”, ST, 8 Feb 1974.

[48] “Zoo Expenses”, ST, 28 Jun 1973

[49]“Feeding animals at zoo strictly forbidden”, ST, 16 Jun 1973


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