Punggol Zoo

Punggol Zoo was Singapore’s first full-size public zoo and bird park, and the first to be known as the Singapore Zoo. It was established in 1928 by William Lawrence Soma Basapa (b. 1893–d. 1943) on Punggol Road to accommodate his growing private collection of animals and birds. During the pre-war period, the zoo was a major attraction that was frequented by both locals and foreigners. The zoo was forcibly closed down by the British authorities in 1942 in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Following the end of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), the zoo’s compound was used as a storage area for Japanese munitions. The land was eventually sold to a private investor in 1948.1

Beginnings and early years
Basapa was an Indian estate owner who was also an animal trader and avid collector of exotic pets. He was affectionately known as the “Animal Man” in Singapore society because of his interest in animals. In 1922, Basapa began amassing a menagerie of animals and birds in his family home at 549 Upper Serangoon Road. His home was a large abode occupying more than an acre (around 0.5 ha) of land located next to a private hospital, the Youngberg Memorial Hospital, which has since been demolished. The grounds were open to visitors, and as the crowds grew, a small entrance fee to the private zoo was charged.2

One famous visitor to Basapa’s private zoo was the legendary scientist Albert Einstein, who was in Singapore in 1922 to raise funds for a Hebrew University. Evidence of this visit is recorded in Einstein’s travel diaries, in which he recounted coming across “a wonderful zoological garden”.3

The increasing number of visitors as well as the noise and stench from the burgeoning collection of wild animals eventually led Basapa to purchase a 27-acre (11 ha) plot of seafront land in 1928 for the relocation of his wildlife collection. The new site was located on Punggol Road (at the 10 ¾-mile mark, the distance measured from the then General Post Office Building and now Fullerton Hotel4) overlooking the Straits of Johor.5

The transformation of the muddy tract of land in Punggol, overgrown with weeds, bushes and coconut palms, to a fully functioning zoo took a decade to complete.6

In June 1930, the zoo was granted a licence to sell beer and stout. It was then also known as the Singapore Zoo and, being the only zoo in Singapore at the time, was a major attraction frequented mainly by tourists on weekdays and large crowds over the weekends.7

In his book The Lights of Singapore (originally published in 1934), Roland Braddell applauded Basapa’s “very courageous lone effort” in providing the public with “a great attraction” and gave the zoo a ringing endorsement, saying that “[a] trip to the Zoo is one of the things that no visitor should omit”.8

Basapa was officially granted a licence to operate the zoo by the Singapore Rural Board in 1937.9 By 1938, the zoo had expanded considerably and required a daily maintenance cost of $35.10 Visitors to the zoo were charged an entrance fee of 40 cents, although students enjoyed discounts of up to 75 percent off the admission price.11

In November 1938, W. S. Ebden, chairman of the Singapore Rural Board, was reported to have complained about the “barbarous” treatment of an ape he saw at the zoo and the “appalling stench” coming from some of the animal cages. Ebden also raised objections to the size and ventilation of the cages, which he felt were too small for the large felines and did not allow them to receive any sunlight.12 Despite such criticisms, the board unanimously approved the renewal of the zoo’s licence in February 1940. One board member noted that the “place was satisfactory, the cages were of proper size and the animals in good condition”. No objections were put forth by the veterinary surgeon as well.13


The zoo was fairly well equipped by the standards of the time and included a power-generator, workers’ quarters and a bungalow with a sea view that was used by Basapa’s family during weekend visits. Hungry visitors could also adjourn to a refreshment room where tea, biscuits and lemonade were sold at affordable prices.14

Basapa was enterprising in his efforts to populate the zoo and create crowd-pleasing displays. He arranged cooperative animal exchange plans with zoos from other parts of the world, such as Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo from which a black leopard (referred to as a black panther by the local press) was imported in 1937. Basapa also brought in animals from countries like South Africa and America.15 According to Willis’ Singapore Guide of 1936, the zoo had over 200 animals and 2,000 birds in its collection at the time.16

One of the highlights of the zoo’s collection was a tiger named “Apay” who had come to the zoo as a baby and was later used in several motion pictures filmed in Singapore.17 Other interesting animals in the zoo’s collection included Phyllis the orangutan, the oldest inhabitant in the zoo; the human-like chimpanzees, one of whom could smoke a cigarette; pythons measuring up to 26 ft in length; and “spectacled” monkeys, named for the white rims around their eyes.18 In 1930, Basapa imported three seals from California – the first to do so in Singapore.19 A pair of polar bears arrived from Germany in 1937.20

Donations to the Raffles Museum
Upon the deaths of the animals at his private menagerie on Serangoon Road and at the Punggol Zoo, Basapa donated the carcasses to the Raffles Museum. Annual reports of the museum show that between 1924 and 1938, numerous species of dead animals and birds were donated to the museum on an almost yearly basis. The specimens donated included tapirs, panthers, gibbons, tigers, rusa deers, wild cats, orangutans, honey bears, anoas, elephants, monkeys, porcupines, a python, a jungle cat from Sumatra, a leopard, a Malayan peacock-pheasant and other “interesting” mammals and birds from the region. When the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (later renamed the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) inherited part of the Raffles Museum’s collections, over 80 specimens donated by Basapa were included among them.21

In the days leading up to the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942, British armed forces converged in the north of Singapore in preparation for the invasion and occupied the land on which the Punggol Zoo was sited. The British ordered Basapa to relocate his animals and birds within 24 hours. As this task was unachievable within such a short period of time, the British took matters into their own hands by shooting dead all animals and reptiles and releasing the birds. A few of the animals were sent to a taxidermist and later exhibited in a public museum. During the Japanese Occupation, the generator and steel cages were removed and the land converted into an ordnance storage and the site of a Japanese mess.22

Basapa passed away in 1943. Following the end of the Japanese Occupation, the cages and structures that had been left intact were flattened and the grounds levelled by bulldozers. The estate was enclosed by fences and became a depository for Japanese ammunition and explosives, which were subsequently picked up by lighters and disposed at sea. In 1948, the land was sold by the estate trustees to a private investor.23


Sharon Teng

1. “W. L. S. Basapa: The ‘Animal Man’,” Basapa Family, 2011; Nalina Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” BeMuse 6, no. 2 (July–September 2013): 62–63.
2. Basapa Family, “‘Animal Man’”; Kees Rookmaaker, “Two Former Zoological Gardens in Singapore,” International Zoo News 59, no. 5 (2012), 368–9.
3. Yuen Sin, “Our Forgotten Zoo,” New Paper, 15 July 2012, 18–19. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Melody Zaccheus, “In Singapore, All Roads Led to the General Post Office,” Straits Times, 22 June 2015, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Basapa Family, “‘Animal Man’”; IIsa Sharp, The First 21 Years: The Singapore Zoological Gardens Story (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1994), 23 (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 SHA); Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 62; “Licensing Board Meeting,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 25 June 1930, 408. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 60–64; “Scenes at Singapore’s Zoo,” Straits Times, 25 September 1938, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Beer and Stout at Local Zoo,” Straits Times, 21 June 1930, 17 (From NewspaperSG); “Licensing Board Meeting.”
8. Roland Braddell, The Lights of Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982), 123–5. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BRA-[HIS])
9. Sin, “Our Forgotten Zoo.” 
10. “Scenes at Singapore’s Zoo.” 
11. Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 63.
12. “‘Appalling Stench’ In Ponggol Zoo Cages,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 November 1938, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Rural Board and Ponggol Zoo,” Straits Times, 16 February 1940, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Basapa Family, “‘Animal Man’”; Sharp, First 21 Years, 23.
15. Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 62; “Singapore Imports a Black Panther,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 25 February 1937, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Sharp, First 21 Years, 23.
17. Braddell, Lights of Singapore, 124.
18. “Scenes at Singapore’s Zoo.” 
19. “Ponggol Zoo,” Straits Times, 17 March 1930, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Polar Bears in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 March 1937, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Rookmaaker, “Former Zoological Gardens in Singapore,” 368–72; David Ee, “Whampoa’s Descendant Donates Rare Whale Tusk,” Straits Times, 20 June 2014, 2–3 (From NewspaperSG); Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 63. 
22. Basapa Family, “‘Animal Man’”; Rookmaaker, “Former Zoological Gardens in Singapore,” 371; Gopal, “Finding Basapa,” 63. 
23. Basapa Family, “‘Animal Man’”; “S’pore Zoo Starts From Scratch,” Straits Times, 20 October 1946, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
A Forgotten Past – A Zoo at Punggol,” Remember Singapore (blog), 19 March 2012.

An Animal Cargo,” Straits Times, 13 March 1935, 11. (From NewspaperSG)

Animals Arriving Few By Few,” Straits Times, 9 November 1935, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Nick Yeo, “Discovering Punggol Zoo,” The Lion Raw (blog), 18 September 2013.  

‘Noah’s Ark’ Arrives in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 5 August 1935, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

N.S.W. Zoo Man Here,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 14 October 1936, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

The Singapore Zoological Gardens,” Malayan Saturday Post, 25 January 1930, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Untitled,” Straits Times, 16 October 1936, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 14 March 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.





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