Bernard Harrison interview (Part 2): When a rebel clashed with a civil servant boss

September 20th, 2013 | by The Independent
Bernard Harrison interview (Part 2):  When a rebel clashed with a civil servant boss
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By PN Balji
Editor, The Independent Singapore

“Zoo Man” Bernard Harrison talks about why he left the Singapore Zoo and why Singapore is lacking in creativity. This is the second and final part of his interview in which he earlier talked about his life in Bali

Bernard Harrison and Ah Meng

Bernard Harrison and Ah Meng

Q. Tell us about your experiences in the Singapore Zoo?

A. I first joined in 1973 and was appointed as Curator and then promoted to Assistant Director & Curator – which is really like a General Curator.

The job of a Curator is to manage the animal collection. The Curator works closely with the keepers to ensure that the animals’ welfare is taken care of — basics like  adequate shelter, food, water, freedom from discomfort, injury and distress — and the animals are allowed to exhibit normal behavior and have companionship and breed.  You try and replicate, be it symbolically at times, the ecological niche that the particular species comes from. You also are in charge of animal transactions — bringing in new ones and sending some away – and the more gruesome stuff like euthanasia. The Curator has the best job in the zoo…far better than Director…but it pays less…..so you have to move up to make ends meet.

When we first opened Singapore Zoological Gardens in 1973, there was a spate of animal escapes.  A hippopotamus, named Congo, got out into the reservoir for 48 days and made almost daily news in the media. This was followed by a panther and eland which both escaped into the surrounding forested catchment and then a tiger climbed up the fence of its exhibit and walked around the top, so she was physically free.

They were exciting times for a young man like me and very trying times for an older man…my Chairman. Dr Ong Swee Law received a letter from the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew when the eland escaped (it was the culmination of escapes) which said something to the effect that this is the largest and fastest antelope on earth and he was a loss as to how we were going to recapture it.  Dr Ong wanted to resign! Well, two weeks later it came home! It simply waked up to the back gate of the Zoo and right back to its enclosure. Not that much to eat in a rain forest for a grazer of the African plains, I guess!

We were young, inexperienced and new to the game. I bet there are still the odd escapes at the Zoo now, but they recapture them more quickly!

In the Singapore Zoo I really liked developing the Primate Kingdom. It’s simple, tranquil and displays a range of beautiful and social monkeys set in a forest setting with a moat full of arapaima  – a huge fish from the Amazon which come and feed from the keepers’ hands with a sucking noise that scares the pants off most visitors!

And of course the Night Safari was a project we worked on from scratch, conceiving it with our consultant Lyn de Alwis (who designed the Singapore Zoo) in 1987 and opening it in 1994. That is probably the single biggest project of which I am proud…and damn it – it’s doing very well for itself!

Wildlife Reserves Singapore now operates the four parks — Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari and Jurong Bird Park — and is ranked as one of the top 10 zoos in the world!

Q. When did you leave? Why did you leave? Any regrets?

A. I left in 2002. The chairman at the time, Dr Kwa Soon Bee, and I didn’t see eye to eye on a number of different issues, I being a bit of a rebel at heart and he from the old civil service. It was a mismatch – chalk and cheese – and something had to give…which was me.

I miss the staff. We had the dream team there. You cannot begin to imagine what a dream team is in the Singapore context. But it was.

Before the merger of the Zoo and Night Safari with the Bird Park to form Wildlife Reserves Singapore, we had created a bunch of staff who basically got along with each other and because there was very little in-house politics, were all pulling in the same direction.

Unusual if not unique in Singapore!

Without this kind of camaraderie there is absolutely no way we could have managed an annually award-inning tourist attraction, developed a major new animal attraction on a yearly basis at the Zoo and also developed the Night Safari simultaneously. I take my hat off to that team from 1985 to 2000!

Q. What do you do now?

A. I am a consultant and run my own, very specialized zoo design company: Bernard Harrison and Friends.

We offer a range of services for the conceptualization, planning, design and initial management of animal based attractions and eco-tourism projects. However, having said that, we are most efficiently used as conceptualizers of new projects and master planners. I think this is our strength as we are a team of very experienced zoo designers and managers who can offer a fresh and very lateral look at a new zoo, ensuring at the same time that it will really work.

One meets a lot of people in our business who claim to be zoo designers but who have never built a zoo that actually operates. That’s the scary part… it’s all a bit like smoke and mirrors and sleight of hands.

A new zoo recently opened in Rabat, capital of Morocco. We developed the concept and master plan for it. If you are ever there, go see it. It’s great!

The difference with consultancy is that we normally work on the initial development of a zoo and do not get involved in the later design and implementation. Thus one loses the intimacy of the final product. That’s why I cherish the projects at the Singapore Zoo in which I was involved (with that dream team of staff) from start to finish.

Q. You are very passionate about creativity. Do you think Singapore can ever become a creative nation in the true sense of  the word?

A. That’s a whole article in itself!

Let’s just say that there is a real difference between creativity and innovation. We do a great job of innovation but fall far short of being creative.

The present-day Singaporeans are not particularly creative because we beat the creativity out of them from the time they start at kindergarten. Creativity requires lateral thinking which is nurtured by the encouragement to question your parents, teachers and the system.

Our education and much of our basic social structure is based on Confucianism and Greek logic. The pillars of Confucianism are personal morality and conduct, family loyalty, respect and obedience for parents and superiors, a strong examination system and a highly competent civil service. Thus Confucianism discourages inquiry, questioning and especially argument with teachers and parents.

Greek logic or dialectics was formulated by Socrates and is behind most Western thinking methods. It is typified by the search for knowledge and truth through logic, encourages dichotomies to force a choice. Edward de Bono calls it “adversarial thinking which completely lacks a constructive, creative or design element. It was intended only to discover the ‘truth’, not to build anything”. Adversarial thinking discourages parallel thinking, which is the cornerstone for creative thinking and the development of lateral ideas.

Based on this combination of teaching methods our system is already disadvantaged for the development of creativity. Add to this the extremely boring teaching methods now in place and a firm adherence, at all costs, to the syllabus. Then add strict homogenization of students through a dazzling array of uniformed groups such as the Boys Brigade and National Police Cadet Corp. National service completes the homogenization process for the boys and returning scholars are uniformed in white shirts, blue trousers and gold rimmed glasses — the uniform of the civil service!

If you want to read more on what I have written on creativity, go to my website www.bernardharrisonandfriends at media releases and download Can Singapore Become a Create society? And Guns Germs Steel and Creativity

Q. What does Singapore lack in this area?

A. Creative people question authority, push the boundaries and do not conform to rules and regulations. You need this for lateral thinking.

For Singapore, this is the downside of creativity.  For the government gets very jittery with people like this around, despite their being apolitical… more likely bohemian and gay.

Innovation is incremental improvements on a product (in the broadest sense of the word). It is what the Japanese are famous for with quality control circles (which were invented by an American!).

Singaporeans are good at innovation and we have the government infrastructure and discipline to develop products and market them. However, we don’t have the creativity to dream up new ones.  We should import creative talent when we need it, but focus on innovations and selling the results, which we are extremely good at. So really we should identify our strengths and stick to them.

We will only be another Silicon Valley if we populate our science parks with NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and Europeans and Americans drawn by the bigger bucks they can earn here.


Q. Are you happy?

A. Absolutely.

See also the first part of the interview: Bali hi! ‘Zoo Man’ Bernard Harrison in paradise

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