:: trivia retrieved ::

One for the birds

Many a Sunday morning you will find me at the Zoo. Well, it is near where I live (I live near the Zoo, not IN the Zoo) and as a FOZ (Friend of the Zoo) there is unlimited free entry for me and my grandchildren.

On one recent occasion I saw a Hornbill bird. The hornbill is a magnificent bird and it might have been visiting the Zoo because of
the fruits and nuts from the trees there.

There are some beautiful stamps of Hornbills from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. I even have one from Singapore and that was
from a special 1975 issue honouring the Jurong Bird Park.

Talking about the Bird park, do you know who was the prime figure in the establishment of the Bird Park? [Clue: It is not Dr Ong Swee Law who was instrumental in the establishment of the Zoo.] This VIP made a very humorous speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Bird Park. I attach the speech for your reading pleasure.

(Speech by Dr GohKengSweeat the opening of JurongBird Park, 4 January 1971)
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, since Mr WoonWahSiang has revealed, doubtless with the best intentions in the world, my involvement in this project, some words of explanation from me seem to be called for, perhaps even some words of exculpation. For in the history of mankind, there have from timeto time arisen to eminence men of high principle and staunch moral character who are prone to regard aviaries and bird parks as unworthy frivolities.

The Confucian scholar MrNi Jo-shui was one such person. He lived during the time of the great T’ang Emperor, Hsuan Tsung, whose reign from A.D.712 to 756 witnessed the apogee of the dynasty’s cultural brilliance. In the year 716, Emperor Hsuan Tsung decided to build a bird park in the imperial garden and dispatched collection parties to the four corners of his realm.

Mr Ni objected to this enterprise and addressed the Emperor as follows:

Though farms and mulberries are in a critical state just now, collection parties capture birds and wild fowl in their nets to supply frivolities for garden and pond. From far beyond the river and mountain passes, these are transferred under escort by water and land and fed with millet and meat, so that passers-by cannot but conclude that Your Majesty esteems birds while despising men.

It is difficult to follow the logic of this complaint. Apart from the elementary point that one can esteem both birds and men, birds, unlike predatory animals like tigers and leopards, do not eat much and impose no strain on the nation’s food supply. However, this was preparatory to the main argument to come and MrNi continued:

‘To Your Imperial Majesty, a phoenix must surely be an ordinary bird and an unicorn an ordinary beast.’

This was hitting below the belt for Mr Ni knew that Hsuan Tsung could not contest this proposition without serious damage to the dignity of his office.Then came the telling blow:

‘If so, how much more ordinary is a pond heron or tufted duck. In what way are they so worthy of esteem?’

Thus cornered, Hsuan Tsung was obliged to disband the collection parties and release the birds. He then presented MrNi with forty pieces of rich cloth. I suspect that this is in subtle revenge. Though the history books did not record it, this present to the austere Mr Ni must have led to a rupture of domestic peace between him and his wife as to what to do with it.

It is more than possible that there may be people in Singapore who question the propriety of building the Jurong Bird Park at a time when the Republic [of Singapore] is assailed by so many problems. I will justify the project on four grounds.

First, its origin is impeccable, its conception immaculate. The idea first occurred to me while attending the World Bank meeting in September 1967 in Rio de Janeiro when during a free moment I visited the Rio Aviary. I was confirmed in the soundness of the idea when attending an ECAFE meeting in Bangkok the following year. The authorities managing the Bangkok Aviary, which I made a point to visit, assured me their main problem was what to do with the millions of bahts [Thai money] they had accumulated over the years.

My second line of defence is that this enterprise should be self-supporting, though it may not be in the same money-spinning class as the Bangkok Aviary because of its much higher capitalization.

The third justification is that, unlike the aviaries of the Emperor Hsuan Tsung, this one will be open to all people and at all times, albeit for a modest fee.

And, finally, the purpose of the bird park. Here one should be careful not to overstate one’s case. It is as well to concede at the outset that the bird park will not make our society more rugged, certainly not with the train service MrWoon is providing. It will
have negligible effect on the productivity of the workers in the Republic. Its efficacy as a means of tightening national cohesion is open to doubt, as is its contribution to raising the cultural or education standards of the population. I am afraid that the bird
park will achieve none of these admirable ends. But it will add to the enjoyment of our citizens, especially our children. At the risk of appearing less than God-fearing, I give this as my final justification.

The bird park is incomplete in one respect. I had originally planned to introduce falconry displays as part of the bird park’s activities. The valley next to this seems well suited for this purpose. We approached the British Services for an adviser in the belief among these versatile and intrepid people can be found experts in any of the more esoteric pursuits of man. However, it turned out that this royal sport had died a long time ago, most likely a sad victim of the great egalitarian movement of recent history.

I do not know whether any of the Ambassadors and High Commissioners gathered here represent a country where this noble sport is still practised. I am not optimistic about the modern industrial nations. But perhaps in some quiet corner of the world, in some last refuge of reaction and obscurantism, people still happily engage in falconry without let or hindrance from tiresome moralizers. If one of your Excellencies represents such a twentieth century Ruritania, may I suggest that our respective Governments immediately enter into a Bilateral Technical Assistance Agreement for the Promotion of Falconry in Singapore.

Re-trievia recalled: Excerpts from Year 2000
Tan Wee Kiat


Written by Ivan Chew

23 September, 2007 at 9:40 pm

Posted in Year 2000

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