Bali hi! 'Zoo Man' Bernard Harrison in paradise

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Bernard Harrison and his wife, Tina
Bernard Harrison and his wife, Tina

By PN Balji

Editor, The Independent Singapore

Bernard Harrison, who helped create the Night Safari and make the Singapore Zoo a prime tourist attraction, continues to do what he loves. Bernard Harrison and Friends, his company, builds zoos around the world.

But why did he leave the Singapore Zoo in 2002? What is lacking in Singapore? Singaporeans are good at innovation, but creativity is stifled by the education system and social structure, he says. What’s the difference? Harrison, the “Zoo Man”, as he calls himself, answers the questions in this two-part email interview.

In the first part, he explains why he now spends much of his time in Bali.

Bernard Harrison and his wife, Tina
Bernard Harrison and his wife, Tina

Q. You have set up home in Bali. Tell us about that. Why Bali? When did you go there?

A. Tina and I decided to rent a house long term in Bali about 5 years ago. We have not really set up home in Bali per se. We have a home in Singapore and also in Penang, but choose to spend much of our time in Bali. We have been spending more time here for the last year and enjoy an evergrowing circle of friends – locals and expats.  My daughter Sharda coined the term lowpats: localized expats.

Why Bali? It’s known as the Island of the Gods. You live in the constant presence of Agung, the 3,000m high active volcano that dominates my morning walk to the beach. You sit down for a coffee and there is Agung, poking his head through a mantle of clouds – dominating everything. The Hindu Balinese spend much time on the gods with offerings every morning. Best to appease this mighty volcano!

I love the pace of life here. As soon as you get off the plane from Singapore, you go into overdrive. Our home is in Sanur, which was a small fishing village and one of the first tourist areas to be developed. It’s managed to retain some sanity. It’s unlike the constant traffic jams, crowds, noise and partying of tourist urban sprawl of Greater Kuta which includes Legian, Semynak and Krobukaran.

Australian tourists – who use Bali as a their Asian playground — are prevalent in Greater Kuta although Chinese tourists are arriving in hordes now.

It’s substantially cheaper to live in Bali (house, car, domestic help, food) though alcohol is expensive. However, we have a few good wine labels made from Margaret River grapes but fermented and bottled in Bali that are reasonably priced (one has to get around the high tax on imported alcohol). There are also locally grown producers of reasonable wine on the island. Beer is, of course, fairly cheap….the ubiquitous Bintang.

Bernard Harrison and his daughter, Sharda
Bernard Harrison and his daughter, Sharda

Q. How does Bali compare to Singapore as a home?

A. Bali is a paradise. It’s got a great culture, the population is Hindu and there are many very interesting rituals and ceremonies. As it’s a tourist resort, you get the sophistication and range of restaurants if you want them and good supermarkets for imported goods.

Tourists stay in Bali for a week and hang out at resort hotels, along the beaches. That’s what you do. And surf. Singapore is also a tourist hub, hardly a beach resort, no matter what Sentosa tells you! I think 50 per cent of tourists to Singapore are coming for the casinos.

Q. Do you miss Singapore?

A. Yes, I do miss Singapore. It’s been home for 50 years of my life and where Sharda, my son Sean and stepson Christian live. However, I’m in and out often enough because my work involves a lot of travel and I choose to hub out of Singapore as opposed to Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur.

I also miss my constitutional bowl of fish ball noodle soup for breakfast and I miss my Rhodesian ridgeback Shumba. For a ruling understood only by Bali, dogs and cats are not allowed into Bali until they eradicate the current rabies epidemic on the island, which has been under eradication for the past five years.

Q If you were put into a time tunnel and pushed into the past, what would you do differently?

A. I don’t think I would do anything differently.

I totally enjoyed growing up in Malaysia, Australia and Singapore. I had lovely parents, had a ball at boarding school and university in the UK and landed the best job in the world which I kept for 29 years. I used to wake up every day and say, it’s great to be alive and going to work.

And ironically I left the Zoo and now have the very best job in the world, consulting on what I love…..zoos.

I have a fantastic wife, four superb children (two I helped make and two I inherited).

I can’t think of what else I would want to be different.

Read tomorrow:  

  • Why Bernard Harrison left the Singapore Zoo in 2002
  • What he is doing now
  • Why he says Singaporeans are good at innovation but the country is lacking in creativity