W.L.S. Basapa: The “Animal Man”

William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943) was one of three trustees of the Estate of H. Somapah (deceased). The others were Somapah’s sons-in-law, G.V. Naidu and Ram Mohan Singh. They appear to have functioned strictly as trustees and, as such, maintained the estate without expanding it. Basapa’s strongest interest was in animals – trading in them, collecting a wide variety as pets, and, finally, establishing the first full-size public zoo and bird park.

According to local historian and journalist Eric Jennings, Basapa was affectionately known in Singapore society as the “Animal Man,” such was the extent of his involvement with wildlife. “He would express amused outrage at the sobriquet,” Jennings wrote in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, “but he never exactly protested.”

Few were likely to seriously upset Basapa: He was often accompanied by his personal pet – a full-grown Bengal tiger named “Apay” (see photo, W.L.S. Basapa and his pet).

Basapa achieved international renown as an animal trader and zoo owner, becoming one of the first Asians – and the first person from Singapore – to be inducted into the Zoological Society of Great Britain.

Two years after his wife Rukmani died, he married Alberta Maddox in April 1922. They had a son, Aldewyn, who was born the following year and died in 1966, and daughter, Dorothy, who lived from 1926 to the end of the century.

The Basapa home, still remembered by long-time Singapore residents for its size and grandeur, was at 549 Upper Serangoon Road, next to a (now demolished) private hospital named Youngberg Memorial Hospital. It stood on more than an acre of lush ground that Basapa used to house his growing menagerie of wild animals and birds. Thomas Augustine Basapa recalled that the number of visitors also grew, to the point where his father deemed it necessary to charge a small fee to enter the grounds.

“Then, at some point, it just got too much,” he added. “Too many animals and birds, too much noise, too many visitors, and too much odour. I think it might have been pressure from my step-mother that caused my father to buy a 27-acre plot by the sea at Punggol, build the zoo and bird park there, and relocate the wildlife from our home.”

The zoo and bird park were rudimentary by present-day standards but, in their time, they were remarkable. The development included power-generation, workers’ quarters, and a bungalow on the sea for the Basapa family’s weekends. The Singapore Zoo, as it was called, became a major attraction for local residents and visitors, winning acclaim from prominent people. It was generously mentioned in Sir Roland Braddell’s book, “The Lights of Singapore,” and in Ilsa Sharp’s “The First 21 Years” – a commemorative coffee-table tome celebrating the 21st anniversary of the present, government-built Singapore Zoological Gardens (see sidebars, Sir Roland Braddell’s Tribute, and A Pioneer Remembered.)

When the Japanese invasion of Singapore was imminent, British armed forces decided to occupy the Singapore Zoo land. They ordered Basapa to move his animals and birds elsewhere within 24 hours.

“He couldn’t find another location in that short time,” Thomas Augustine Basapa recalled, “so the British shot all the animals and reptiles and freed the birds. My father was heartbroken.”

Some of the animals were sent to a taxidermist and remain exhibits in a public museum in Singapore.

When the Japanese strode into Singapore, they took away the generator and steel cages and used the land to store ordnance. In 1948, five years after W.L.S. Basapa’s death, the trustees of his estate sold the land to a private investor.