Why did Singapore decide to invest resources in building a world-class zoo in 1969? After all, this was barely a few years after independence from Malaysia, when much of the rhetoric centered on phrases like “national survival.”
It seems odd, in hindsight, that a zoo should have been given priority over so many other more pressing agendas like over-population, unemployment, housing shortages etc.
Was the idea for a zoo a bureaucratic whim or was it an integral part of a more sophisticated and long-term development strategy?
The story of Singapore is one and the same as the story of man’s quest to control nature.
As late as the 1930s, Singapore was a place where “tigers still killed an average of one native a day; voracious ants ate their way through a man’s library in a week; mildew turned a man’s clothes green in a couple of days.”1
And the heat! “You have tried to sleep, but you give it up as hopeless and come out, heavy and drowsy, on to your veranda. It is hot, airless, stifling. Your mind is restless, but to no purpose.”2
Even today, the battle must still be fought. The gigantic trees lining the city’s boulevards must be trimmed on a regular basis, or they threaten the safety of the drivers below.
Given its environment, the challenge for Singapore in the post-independence years was how to signal to the world that though the British had left, civilization had not left this torpid wilderness?
The answer was simple: it was imperative to demonstrate to the world that the republic could control the wilderness.
The signaling would start from the very first point of contact between (Western) visitors and the island: the airport. Lee Kuan Yew gave instructions to his gardeners, “When the first plane lands, I want people to look at planted vegetation, not rank vegetation.”
The zoo, as an iconic representation of the human capacity for order and control, was an integral part of this strategy. After all, zoos enshrine the boundaries between humans and animals: the rational, scientific man on this side and the wild beast on the other.3 And then the boundaries between the animals themselves: the Felis on this side and the Panthera on that side, and so on, the whole exercise one big mapping project, man remaking nature as he sees it.
But it wasn’t enough just to build a zoo—it had to conform to the very highest standards. Zoos with underfed and miserable animals were a common site through the less developed world and were synonymous with barbaric, traditional cultures. To be acceptable, the zoo had to demonstrate benevolence to its creatures, just as the European colonizers had demonstrated (or said they had) to their native subjects.4 Only then could the zoo be a symbol of an enlightened civilization.
In the years after opening its doors to the world, the Singapore Zoo went on to achieve many world firsts, including creating the world’s first night safari. Every subsequent addition was a matter of national importance. As if to confirm this, the zoo and its exhibits often played host to foreign dignitaries.
The founders’ dream was realized: Singapore had become a tropical centre of excellence and the zoo was the jewel in the crown.