Bernard Harrison’s naked truths

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By Lee Jingwei

I first met Bernard Harrison at the book launch of his biography “Naked ape, naked boss” last week. He was a picture of serenity, an aging Tarzan with a grey ponytail with a full glass of wine. The former chief of Wildlife Reserves Singapore reminded me of the restful elephants in their enclosures – at peace with his place in the world.

“Naked ape, naked boss” was written by  Kirpal Singh, associate professor of English Literature at the Singapore Management University and Harrison’s friend of 35 years. The book cover features  a cheery Harrison, 62,  nude — save for a strategically placed leaf.

“Somebody asked why the leaf is so big,” quipped Harrison when his wife Tina Lim pointed to his unabashed nakedness.

This naked boss was a prominent figure in the Singapore tourism industry and in the international zoo world. Not only was he the youngest zoo director in the world at age 30, Harrison was also the brains behind the award winning Night Safari attraction and Breakfast with Ah Meng, the orang utan that became synonymous with the Singapore Zoo.

The retired Harrison now lives in Bali with his wife. They run their own zoo consultancy firm, Bernard Harrison and Friends.

The book is an account of frank and insightful conversations that could only happen between two close friends.

“I would never write an autobiography. I’m just too lazy…so it’s very nice to have Kirpal volunteer to write it,” said Harrison of the book.

The biography includes accounts of his early life in Malaysia, Australia and England, his previous two failed marriages, his views on parenthood and of course, his time building up the Singapore zoo.

Mr Harrison admitted that it was challenging to answer some questions for the book,  even though he was famous for his candour.

“I’ve lived in Singapore for many years and we are a very cautious society. We often practise self-censorship, very scared to say certain things. Especially when I was the CEO of Wildlife Reserve Singapore, you’re very careful when you’re talking to the media,” he said.

In his biography, Harrison spoke briefly about the disagreements between him and then group chairman Kwa Soon Bee. He didn’t go into details into the strained relationship that eventually led to his resignation in February 2002, but he raised some points about fostering an environment for creativity to flourish.

The civil service culture did not suit him. Harrison described the relationship between him and Kwa, who was also permanent secretary of the Health Ministry,  as akin to “chalk and cheese”. It has also been hinted that his honesty did not bode well with the working culture that came with the entrance of  Kwa as the zoo chairman. Some chided Harrison for running the zoo like his own home with little regard to his superiors. To which Singh commented: “How very sad, how very Singaporean.”

In the book, David Hancocks, former Director of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, praised Harrison’s creative thinking, his willingness to push boundaries and his “limitless patience”.

“We can only imagine what he could have gone on to achieve for Singapore and its zoological parks if he had been encouraged to remain,” said Hancocks.

Ever since his departure, WRS has proceeded to launch project expansions, with the latest being the River Safari. Profit margins have been hiked. The zoo, as Harrison lamented in the book, has become too expensive for the average Singaporean so it focuses on the tourist market to sustain attendance.

“The primary purpose of zoos is to display animals to the visiting public and in doing so get across messages about the animals, their habitat and relationship with man, and shift visitors’ attitudes towards the need for environmental conservation.

“If a zoo does not attempt to do this, then it should not be allowed to remain open,” he said.

That last sentence  is indicative of how different the WRS would have been if he had stayed on. In a place like Singapore, it is rare to find a leader as groundbreaking and well-loved as Harrison. But the preference for profit over educational value and creativity is strong, and it has caused Singapore to lose a visionary who had put our zoos on the world map.

A son of Singapore lost to the world.