Nature Condensed III: Confidence & Complications

At the polar bear enclosure in the Singapore Zoo, 26 December 1990 was supposed to have been a routine day.  Sheba, the first resident polar bear of the Singapore Zoo, had last been seen swimming nonchalantly in the enclosure’s pool the day before. Aside from the stereotypical behaviour characteristic of polar bears confined in small spaces, there was nothing to suggest that anything peculiar had happened to Sheba. Making their morning rounds, Sheba’s keepers were thus astonished to discover another polar bear in the enclosure with the three other full-grown adults. [1]

One day after Christmas, Sheba had given birth to a small cub weighing about 0.5kg.

Inuka, as the cub was later named, was the first polar bear to be born in the tropics.

In the decade after his birth, Inuka grew rapidly. At the age of two, he was eating 10kg of beef, horse meat and cooked rice with olive oil daily.[2] He weighed about 450kg by the year 2000.[3] After the Zoo’s previous successes in breeding other animals, Inuka came to symbolize the confidence and expertise of the Singapore Zoological Gardens at breeding and managing its animals.

inuka baby
Inuka the cub in 1991. Picture taken from

The birth of the young cub represented a public relations success for the Zoo. It allowed the institution to present itself as a good custodian of its wards, moreover one whose natural habitat differed so significantly from Singapore’s tropical climate.

If, the Zoo reasoned, they were capable of breeding animals in captivity, then they must clearly be “doing something right”. This was assumption that would be publicly challenged in subsequent years.[4]

Paralleling the much-wider Singaporean society of this period, the Zoo displayed a growing confidence in its ability to make an impact on the global scene.

Singapore in the 1990s

After the phenomenal economic growth of the 1980s, Singapore entered the 1990s with a renewed sense of self-confidence.

Politically, for the PAP-dominated government, opposition had been decisively quashed. The conduct of Operation Spectrum in 1987 had negated an alleged “Marxist conspiracy”, and reasserted the need for the state’s strong, authoritarian rule. J.B. Jeyaretnam, independent Singapore’s first Opposition Member of Parliament, had also been barred from contesting the 1988 and 1991 general elections, giving the PAP government virtually complete autonomy to pass national policies and laws unchallenged. Against this backdrop of PAP dominance, the transition of political leadership from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong as Prime Minister in 1990 occurred smoothly. This was thus a period of increased political stability for the Singaporean state.

Economically, Singapore remained on the ascendant, after decades of sustained growth. From a GDP per capita of US$500 at independence in 1965, this figure had soared to US$13,000 by 1990.[5]

The effects of this economic prosperity and political confidence was also reflected in the development of the Singapore Zoo. The Night Safari opened in 1994, built with extensive government support and political backing. Proclaimed as the first of its kind in the world, it was well-received domestically and internationally, with visitor numbers greatly exceeding initial expectations.[6] Along with Inuka’s birth, the Night Safari’s opening not only indicated the Zoo administration’s growing confidence in planning and operating animal institutions, it also signalled Singapore’s increasing wealth and self-assurance as a nation-state.

There was, however, another dimension to the Zoo’s apparent accomplishments. With economic prosperity came the emergence of an increasingly educated, vocal citizenry, with access to new sources of information, and new ways to articulate their opinions. Politically unthreatened, economically stable, the government also became more amenable to dialogue with civil society. For example, environmentalist movements to create “less planned natural spaces” around Singapore resulted in a range of new state initiatives.[7] The National Parks Act (1990), a survey of all nature reserves in the 1990s, and the publication of the Singaporean Green Plan (1993), reflected an increasing awareness of environmental issues, and a growing willingness to act on these issues, both by the government and Singaporeans.[8]

These developments would also have repercussions on the Zoo. A report published in 2006 by the local animal welfare group, Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) on the condition of the Zoo’s polar bears ignited extensive public debate, and forced the Zoo to reconsider Inuka’s future in Singapore. Hence, just as the developments of the Singapore Zoo in previous chapters can be understood by reading them in a wider, deeper Singaporean context, the prosperity and perspectives of a self-assured Singaporean nation-state also inflected the confidence and complications the Zoo would experience in this period.

Confidence I: Inuka, the Public Relations Darling

Inuka’s birth ushered in a period of growing confidence for the Zoo, which was further boosted later in 1994 by the successful opening of the Night Safari.

Inuka’s birth in the tropics was interpreted as an “endorsement” of the Zoo’s “careful design” of its polar bear enclosure.[9] The birth of a wild animal in captivity against its will was thus conflated with a success in animal husbandry. According to this logic, only animals who are comfortable enough in captivity will breed. In the absence of any elaborate rebuttal from the public (until 1996), the Zoo continually promoted Inuka as a symbol of its sterling stewardship over its animals.[10]

Following his birth, the Zoo continually deployed Inuka in public relations campaigns. A nationwide naming contest for the cub garnered 10,500 entries, with the moniker ‘Inuka’, meaning “silent stalker” in the Inuit language, eventually selected.[11]

A “Guess the weight of Inuka” context was launched the following year, to mark the cub’s birthday. The contest drew a “staggering” 13,935 responses from the public.[12] Subsequently, Inuka’s birthday celebrations were regularly covered in the press, and were used by the zoo to sustain and further promote its profile. Inuka’s second birthday was celebrated with a newspaper article that detailed how the juvenile bear “stood and clapped” for invited guests.[13] 300 guests later attended the bear’s tenth birthday celebration in 2000. For spending ten years in his enclosure, the large, intelligent apex predator was rewarded with a “birthday gift” of fruits, vegetables and salmon hidden inside two blocks of ice.[14]Inuka was hence widely and consistently celebrated by the confident Zoo as an icon of its successful breeding programmes.

Confidence II: The Night Safari

Four years after the birth of the first polar bear in the tropics, the Zoo was ready for another “first”. Built at a cost of $60 million, the Night Safari was opened officially on 26 May 1995 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, as the first open-concept night zoo in the world.[15] Like the Singapore Zoo, it featured animals in naturalistic enclosures, with concealed safety barriers. Although the local press described it as an “idea mooted by PM Goh when he visited the zoo at night in March 1987”, the notion had long ago been conceived by one of the Zoo’s consultants, Lynn de Alwis.[16]

Instead, an expensive, separate project more than one-and-a-half times larger than the Zoo was proposed. The state’s willingness to pursue this undertaking despite the great financial burden reflected the government’s confidence and the economic prosperity of the country. In 1991, after two years of extended rumination, the Singapore government approved $65 million for the project. Even accounting for inflation, this was significantly more than the $9 million it had approved in 1973 for the Singapore Zoo’s construction.

The Safari’s construction took about three years for the forty-hectare site. The “night zoo” opened with a collection featuring 1,200 nocturnal animals from 100 species of animals, animals “never before seen in Singapore”, such as the one-horned rhinoceros from India.[18]

The Safari was wildly popular. An initial forecast of 180,000 visitors per year was exceeded fourfold, with 760,000 visitors flocking there in its first year alone. More electric trams had to be ordered simply to cope with the overwhelming demand.[20] The Safari was thus widely trumpeted as a success, both in visitor numbers and the tourism awards it would win. For example, it won the STPB Leisure Attraction of the Year award for five consecutive years, from 1996 to 2000.[21]


Just as Ah Meng had merely been one aspect of the Zoo’s earlier period of change and connections, however, the triumphant narratives of Inuka and the Night Safari represented only one facet of this chapter in the Singapore Zoo’s history. The darker, more problematic dimensions of this era would emerge with growing public unease at the physical and mental state of the Zoo’s polar bears.

In April 1978, two bears, each weighing about 159kg, were purchased from an animal dealer in Frankfurt. For $15,000, the male-female pair were flown in on a Singapore Airlines flight, transported to the Zoo, and then housed in a specially constructed, air-conditioned quarantine enclosure. The arctic animals were recorded as being “healthy and highly active” on the flight. Zookeepers were thus shocked to find the male bear dead in its den the next morning, less than twelve hours after its arrival. [24]

The death of such a potentially charismatic carnivore did little to dent the zoo’s confidence and enthusiasm for polar bears. Nanook, an eleven-month old cub from Manitoba, Canada, was presented to the Singapore Zoo by the Canadian government in August 1978, just four months after the demise of the first bear.[26] Nanook and Sheba’s union ultimately bore fruit in the form of Inuka’s birth in 1990, which came in the wake of two earlier miscarriages.

The first signs of public disquiet with the Zoo’s treatment of its polar bears can be traced to 1996. In a letter written to The Straits Times, Diana R. Lord pointed out the fallacy of “breeding success = well-being of an animal“. The failure to address the mental needs of animals often resulted in abnormal stress symptoms. Lethargy, and repetitive actions such as head-shaking and aimless pacing characterized this disorder.

Scathingly, Lord questioned if exhibiting an animal which was not native to Singapore’s natural climate was “a mere gimmick to flatter mankind’s vanity”.[28]

A Polar Bear turns Green

Yet while the boredom of bears could ostensibly be addressed by “diversionary therapy” to keep them occupied, a green polar bear was much harder to brush off.[30]


The “greening” of captive polar bears due to the presence of algae in their enclosure pools had been observed since 1979 in zoos worldwide.[31] The phenomenon, however, was not reported in local polar bears until 2004, when The New Paper reported that Inuka had turned a startling shade of green. [32]

The Zoo attributed the sight to algae growing on his fur as a result of Singapore’s warm, humid tropical climate. Sidestepping the deeper, ethical issue of whether tropical zoos should even display polar bears, it asserted that the algal growth “does not affect the bear’s health in any way”.[33]

Growing Unease

Growing clamours for the welfare of Inuka reached a crescendo in 2006, with the publication of an extensive report by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), a local animal welfare group founded in 2001.[35] The 2006 report, which received significant press and public scrutiny, forced the Zoo to take more substantial steps for the welfare of the bears.

[You can read an updated, streamlined version of the findings here too]

The result of a four-month “undercover operation”, the 105-page report offered disquieting details about the physical and psychological state of Inuka and his mother, Sheba. Amongst many details, the bears were shown to be exhibiting signs of severe heat stress such as continually panting and lying in a spread-eagled position to try to lose heat. A bit like this:

Inuka, circa April 2017, long after the controversy about this giant had died down. Many have talked about how they formed “precious memories” with this animal by “coming on weekends” to see the animal behind thick glass. I’m not sure what Inuka feels about these “precious memories” and the “connection” that was supposed to have been formed by people who pay to gawk at him when they run out of things to do in their daily lives, “on weekends”.

The bears were moreover housed in open-air enclosures with only limited protection from intense mid-afternoon sunlight, which even locals try their best to avoid. The severe heat stress observed in the animals was further compounded by the green “algal infestation” and their repetitive, stereotypic behaviours.[36]

In a letter to the press, Louis Ng, President and Executive Director of ACRES, echoing Lord’s argument (made a decade ago) further pointed out that breeding was a poor indication of animal comfort, since animals could still breed “even in the most appalling conditions”.[37]

The Zoo’s Response

Faced with a growing public outcry, as well as a comprehensive report from zoologists and animal welfare experts, the Zoo had little option but to respond. In September 2006, it announced that it would no longer import animals from the Arctic.[38] Later in December, officials agreed to transfer Inuka to a temperate zoo after his mother died, a decision which the zoo had apparently made two years prior, as the zoo transitioned to a ‘rainforest’ theme. The mother-son pair were very close, and it was felt that separating them would cause too much unnecessary distress.[39]

Although Inuka’s eventual relocation to a cooler climate would likely have improved his mental and physical condition, some Singaporeans were nevertheless dismayed at this turn of events. The Straits Times reported that Inuka’s 2006 birthday celebration was “clouded by a sense of sorrow”, with many Singaporeans “saddened” by the impending move.

A zoo-goer even opined that the bear’s departure would be a “difficult” experience for his family.[40] A couple later wrote to the press detailing “why Inuka should stay”, and hoped the Zoo was not “bowing to pressure from animal rights groups”.[41]

Thus, in addition to the activist efforts of ACRES, the varied emotional responses of Singaporeans to Inuka’s fate further underscored the increasingly vocal, involved and participatory nature of Singaporeans.

Confidence, Complications and Citizens

Although the Zoo would later reverse its decision to send Inuka to a temperate zoo on the recommendation of its Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee, the prolonged, public discussions about Inuka’s future revealed an increasingly educated, organized, vocal and active core of Singaporeans willing to act on their opinions.[42]

It is perhaps no coincidence that the most strident, robust and persistent lobbying for the better treatment of local polar bears occurred late in the twentieth century, even though polar bears had been exhibited by the Singapore Zoo since 1978. Highly educated, and with increased access to global information streams, Singaporeans were now capable of mustering sophisticated, robust arguments and bringing public pressure to bear, even on large institutions like the Zoo.

Full Circle

In a sense, the Zoo had thus come full circle. It had achieved one of its original objectives of raising awareness amongst the Singaporean public about the natural world.[43]

In 2007, Singaporeans no longer mistook “young piglings” for “big rats”, as Goh Keng Swee famously remarked, citing the experiences of young national servicemen who had gone to the countryside for military training.[44]

Instead, they were now actively lobbying for the better treatment of a large, intelligent polar bear living uncomfortably in a cramped, humid tropical enclosure.


Nature Condensed

One way to understand the Zoo is a space in which nature is condensed. As the zoo historian Nigel Rothfels succinctly observes:

“the better nature of the zoo makes real nature seem dull in comparison. The nature of the zoo suggests that there should be an animal – or better yet many animals – in every scene and that all one has to do is look hard enough.”

This is what the Singapore Zoo has likewise sought to do with its dazzling array of animals from various parts of the world. Since its inception in 1973, the Zoo has housed animals like Nile hippopotami [bred in the Washington Zoo], Sumatran orangutans [raised in some instances by local Chinese families] and Arctic polar bears [as gifts from the Canadian government. or bought from German traders].

The Night Safari’s opening in 1994 compounded this verisimilitude, featuring animals from diverse geographical zones like equatorial Africa and Burmese hillsides – all within the confines of a forty-hectare space.

But there is also another dimension which the Singapore Zoo has also condensed -because the story of the Zoo is also, in part, the story of Singapore, the independent nation-state.

By studying the stories of some animals which were brought under the Zoo’s care, I have sought to show that there’s more to Singapore’s past than big men and big battles. The escape of Twiggy the panther in 1973 embodied the inexperience of Zoo staff, while Ah Meng the orangutan represented Singapore’s successful connections to international audiences and zoos.

Finally, confidence and complications arising from Inuka the polar bear’s captivity symbolised a nation-state that had come into its own: aware of its place in the world, but also increasingly conscious of global issues extending beyond the confines of the nation-state.

Through the unlikely stories of fugitive panthers, celebrity orangutans and green polar bears, the history of the Singapore Zoo can thus be read as a microcosm of the wider historical narratives about the Singaporean past.

The Singapore Story is not merely one of great men (in white) and big battles; nor only of rickshaw coolies, karayuki-san or lightermen. Inscribed into this rich past are also the narratives of panthers, orangutans, and polar bears – and the institution which contained and condensed them into a garden by the Upper Seletar Reservoir.



References and Sources Cited

[1] Ilsa Sharp, The First 21 years: The Singapore Zoological Gardens Story, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1994.

[2] “The Zoo celebrates as Inuka turns two”, ST, 27 Dec 1992.

[3]“Parting will be such sweet sorrow”, ST, 31 Dec 2006.

[4]  Sharp, 21 Years, p.35; “Breeding is no indicator”, TODAY, 9 Sep 2006.

[5] “Department Of Statistics Singapore,” Statistics Singapore – Real Economic Growth, Accessed March 23, 2017,

[6] “Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1994, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1995), p.10.

[7] Barnard and Heng, “City in a Garden”, Nature Contained, p.302.

[8] “Singapore Statutes Online – 10 – National Parks Act 1990,” Singapore Statutes Online – 10 – National Parks Act 1990, Accessed Mar 12, 2017.; A. Moiz, The Singapore Green Plan: Action programmes, (Singapore: Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1993),;page=0;query=DocId%3A%220db73b76-ed4e-45e8-a63f-de23dbfe1128%22%20Status%3Apublished%20Depth%3A0;rec=1.; ‘Makings of a Green City’, ST, 7 Nov 1993.

[9] Sharp, 21 Years, p.90.

[10] “Chimps galore in Singapore”, ST, 25 Sep 1984. In a self-congratulatory mood, the Zoo had attributed the “minor population boom” it experienced in 1984 to the “wide spaces, good food, healthy living conditions” it provided for its wards.; Also see “My, look how much Inuka has grown!”, ST, 27 Jul 1991; ‘Born in the tropics”, ST, 22 Jan 1992.

[11]“Inuka wins the game of the name”, ST, 16 Jun 1991.

[12] The one-year old cub weighed 110kg by its first birthday. “As hungry as…a bear on its birthday!”, ST, 27 Dec 1991.

[13]“The Zoo celebrates as Inuka turns two”, ST, 27 Dec 1992.

[14]“10th birthday bash for Inuka”, ST, 18 Dec 2000.

[15]“Visitors can see 1,200 night animals under subtle lighting”, ST, 6 Jan 1993.

[16]Singh, Harrison, p.108.; Sharp, 21 Years, p.154.

[17] “Goh suggests extending zoo hours”, The Business Times, 16 March 1987.

[18] Bernard Harrison, “Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1994, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1995), p.10.

[19] Singh, Harrison, p.111.; “The World’s First Night Safari”, Annual Report 1994, p.11.

[20] As many as 7,000 people visited the Safari on Saturday nights in 1994. Singh, Harrison, p.115.

[21] “Night Safari Accreditation & Accolades.” Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Accessed March 02, 2017.

[22] “Polar Bears Come to Singapore”, ST, 12 Mar 1937.

[23] “Zoo News from Ponggol”, SFP, 25 May 1937.

[24]“Lonesome time for this bear without her mate”, ST, 16 Apr 1978

[25] Ibid.

[26]“Polar bear’s mate arrives at zoo”, ST, 23 Aug 1978.

[27] Sharp, 21 Years, p.98.; “Tribute to Nanook”, The New Paper [henceforth, TNP], 3 Jan 1996.

[28]“Keep only animals native to our climate”, ST, 4 Jan 1996.

[29] “Zoo’s polar bears rare exception to a sound rule”, ST, 8 Jan 1996.

[30]“Polar bear Nanook an instant hit in debut show”, ST, 25 Nov 1988.

[31] Phillip T Robinson., and Ralph A. Lewin, “The greening of polar bears in zoos”, Nature 278, 5703 (1979), pp.445-7.

[32]“Green and bear it, Inuka”, TNP, 24 Feb 2004.

[33] Ibid.

[34]“Seeing red over green bear”, TNP, 4 Mar 2004.

[35] Amy Corrigan and Louis Ng, “What’s a Polar Bear Doing in the Tropics?”, (Singapore: Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, 2006).

[36] Adapted to freezing weather, a polar bear becomes “severely heat stressed” at 21.1℃; Singapore’s average annual temperature was 27℃ in 2006. Corrigan and Ng, “Polar Bear”, pp.25-28.

[37]“Breeding is no indicator”, TODAY, 9 Sep 2006.

[38]“No more animals from the Arctic”, TODAY, 7 Sep 2006.

[39] “Inuka turns sweet 16”, ST, 27 Dec 2006.

[40] “Parting will be such sweet sorrow”, ST, 31 Dec 2006.

[41]“Why Inuka Should Stay”, ST, 13 Jan 2007.

[42]“Inuka the polar bear to stay on in sunny S’pore”, ST, 3 May 2007; “Inuka is not leaving after all”, ST, 3 Jul 2007.

[43]“Five years for idea to come to fruition”, ST, 27 Jun 1973.; “To contribute towards a broader education of the residents of Singapore…to stimulate interest in the science of animals”, Graetz, “Architectural Design”, p.3.

[44] Goh, “Speech”, 1973.



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