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, the 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.

Sir Roland Braddell's Tribute

“The Singapore animal trade was started in 1880 by…Haji Marip…but our best-known collectors are Mr. Herbert de Souza, who has his collection at the East Coast Road, and Mr. W.L.S. Basapa, the proprietor of the Singapore Zoo at Ponggol, a truly delightful place that has the full approval of the local animal authorities. Here you will see a magnificent collection of birds, amongst which the crown pigeons are said to be the best in the world. The orang utans are really happy here and in a climate natural to them. They are playful little fellows and perfectly safe to handle, the friends of all the Singapore children who go to the Zoo.

“There is also a great tiger named Apay who came to the Zoo as a baby, and who, though he is now four years old, can still be led on a chain. If you go alone to his cage and talk gently to him he will roll on his back and purr like a cat. He has been used in several (motion) pictures made here recently, as have others of Mr. Basapa’s animals, particularly the orang utans, which are great favourites…

“…Mr. Basapa tells me that climatic conditions in Singapore are such that one of the best zoos in the world could be kept here; and it seems a great pity that his place is not taken over permanently and made into a really fine public show…

“…As it is, I think that the town owes much to Mr. Basapa’s very courageous lone effort in providing us with what is really a great attraction; and I hope that he is receiving all the support which he is entitled to expect. A trip to the Zoo is one of the things that no visitor should omit; it has a personality entirely its own, and is pitched in beautiful surroundings on the Straits of Johore.”

From The Lights of Singapore, 5th edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1940, pages124-125

A Pioneer Remembered

“In the 1930s, the young Dr Ong Swee Law (first Executive Chairman of the present Singapore Zoological Gardens) used to visit…the first collection to carry the name “Singapore Zoo”, run by animal-lover William Lawrence Soma Basapa. This zoo, established about 1925, was located at Ponggol Road at the end of Track 22, close to attractive views of the Straits of Johore.

“Among other things, Basapa kept orang utans, and a tame tiger named ‘Apay’ who at four years old could still be led around on a leash. His collection from time to time included non-Asian animals, such as the two chimpanzees housed there in the mid-1930s.

“Willis’ Singapore Guide of 1936 advertised Basapa’s zoo as a major attraction featuring over 200 wild animals and 2,000 birds. Admission cost 40 cents and an open-air ‘refreshment room’ offered tea, biscuits and lemonade ‘at a very low price’.”

From Ilsa Sharp’s The First 21 Years – The Singapore Zoological Gardens Story, 1994, page 23