Tigers Roamed the forests of Old Singapore

How this tropical island came to be known as the “Lion City” when no such animals existed in this part of the globe, and not the far more appropriate name of “Tiger City” instead?

When Singapore became a British settlement in 1819, through the clever negotiating skills of the farsighted British East India Company officer, Sir Stamford Raffles, it was sparsely populated with native Malays, migrants from other parts of present day Indonesia and a few Chinese settlers. Beyond its urban precincts, its extensive interiors were covered by thick forests teaming with wildlife and ferocious man-eating tigers which would prey on these animals and any human inhabitants who were foolhardy enough to make forays into these forested areas.

My viewers from countries beyond Singapore would be curious to ask how this tropical island came to be known as the “Lion City” when no such animals existed in this part of the globe,and not the far more appropriate name of “Tiger City” instead?

Singapore’s coat of arms has both a lion and a tiger

To make sense of this name, one must go back to the long forgotten history of the 13th century when Singapore was then known as Temasek and people from Southeast and other parts of Asia had come to trade and to make it their home there. The Sultanate later declined and sank into oblivion by the time Raffles came upon its shores and saw the potential of developing it into a thriving free port under the British flag.

Centuries ago a Sumatran prince  and his entourage landed in Singapore in search of new territory to expand his domain. Legend has it that they then came upon a ferocious beast ready to pounce on them if provoked. Not having encountered such an animal before, the prince thought it must be the King of the Animal kingdom and promptly named it “Singa Pura”, the “Lion city”, in Sanskrit. The British later anglicised it as Singapore. The Moniker, “Lion City”, sticks and appears romantic to visitors and tourists from near and far. Singapore’s tourism board  later adopted the name as the symbol of Singapore which would attract the adventurous and curiosity seeking visitors and tourists to come to this enchanting and progressive land. So much for its historical past.

Be that as it may, both lion and tiger are reflected in the Republic of Singapore’s coat of arms for all to see.

Raffles’ free port policy immediately attracted tens of thousands of settlers from Malacca, many of them were Chinese, and others from neighbouring countries, Europe and elsewhere to reside there or to trade. Singapore began to prosper and its permanent population then continued to increase in the decades to come.

In the first decades of Singapore, the urban town areas did not extend to very much beyond the now famed Orchard Road and its vicinity, which were inhabited mainly by government officials and more affluent Europeans and local residents. The poorer sections of the community, most of whom were Chinese and Indians, had to live at the fringes of the forested areas where no Europeans would dare to set foot there.

A large number of  enterprising Chinese settled at the fringes of these forests in their humble abodes and began to cultivate the land to grow edible produces in large quantities which were in great demand by those living in the town areas. Soon, they began also to open up forest lands and turned them into gambier, pepper, nutmeg and sugarcane plantations, all of which were of significant commercial importance to the local economy. As the plantation owners grew in prosperity, they recruited more workers mainly from the poverty-stricken areas of South China and paid them a pittance for their toils. Consequently, more forest lands were opened up for commercial exploitations to cater to the above and other produces for both local consumption and for trade.

As more and more forest lands were encroached upon by plantation owners and for road constructions by Government, the conflict between humans and tigers, which hitherto would co-exist peacefully, grew as the latter began to view humans as intruders. This has serious consequences for both human lives and for the economy too. By the mid-1850s, it was reported that one worker was killed daily by tiger attack. Many such attacks went unreported as the plantation owners feared that this would adversely affect the values of their plantations. The tiger menace continued to increase unabated and the plantation owners were compelled to seek government intervention to safeguard their properties, which reached 600 by mid-1850s, and their prices plummeted significantly.

The government was compelled to offer cash rewards of $20 (workers were paid about $3 a month) for every tiger killed, which was later increased to $50 and finally capped at $100. This final reward was so attractive that one white hunter became a full-time tiger hunter. While tigers were found in various forests throughout the island, the biggest concentration of them were in Bukit Timah, Choa Chu Kang, Yeo Chu Kang and Thomson areas. With so many tigers killed by mid 1850s, its population began to dwindle and ceased to be a great threat for both workers and plantation owners concerned. The Government too breathed a sigh of relief.

Singapore continued to expand in population as more and more migrants came from many parts of Asia, mostly from China and India, to seek a better life there. Consequently, more forests were turned into plantation holdings, road and housing developments. When rubber trees were first planted in Singapore and the Malayan hinterland towards the end of 19th century, even more forests  had to make way for their large scale cultivations and this brought about more prosperity to both regions.

Be that as it may, isolated instances of humans killed by tigers still occurred towards the close of 19th century. It was reported in both the English and Chinese newspapers when a man was killed in Thomson area in 1890 and followed by two more tiger killings in Bukit Timah.

In early 20th century two more tigers were killed in the Yeo Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang areas by white hunters, and their treated heads and skins would occupy a pride of place in their spacious living rooms to be admired by their friends for their hosts’ hunting prowess! In 1902, a tiger, was even found hiding in the billiards and bar room of the world enowned Raffles Hotel, which was touted by a famous British writer as the “Legend of the East”. A local team was summoned to the hotel and one of them fired five shots in the dark and the tiger was killed. How it was found there remains a mystery to this day. This same billiards table and bar room is still a popular haunt and attraction in this hotel built in 1885.

The very last tiger was reported killed by a local team of amateur hunters in 1930 in the vicinity of Choa Chu Kang. This killing alarmed Singaporeans and was widely published by the media. Some nature lovers asserted that they subsequently came upon an abandoned tiger lair in a small stretch of forest land in the West coast area. This claim was investigated and found to be unfounded. No more tigers had ever been sighted thereafter as Singapore became a well developed garden city it is today.

The last tiger was shot in 1930 in Choa Chu Kang

My viewers would like to know whether tigers were the natives of Singapore? The established opinion is that as this island state  is very close to Johore (in Peninsular Malaysia), which was and still is covered  by immense jungle areas, tigers, which are good swimmers, could swim across the narrow Johore Strait, in search of greener pastures and set up home there.

Two more tiger scares took place in Singapore towards the close of the last century  in a nearby off-shore island , Pulau Ubin, which was widely publicised in all the local media and created some panic among the some 200 islanders living there. In 1991, some islanders were alarmed by the roars of some animals at night which they thought came from a tiger. Troops were called in to search the island’s forest areas and elephant foot prints were found and the invading wild elephant was eventually captured and freed by zoo officials in the Johore forests. The zoo experts said the animal could swim across from the narrow Johore Strait and landed in Pulau Ubin.

Today tigers can only be found in the zoo (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Another tiger alert happened in 1997 when several islanders believed they saw what looked like a tiger near their dwellings at the fringe of the forest searching for food at night. They were warned to stay indoors while another careful search was conducted over several days and nights but no traces of any tiger or other large animals were found. Both the islanders and tourists in search of natures’ delights were relieved as this island is a favourite spot with nature lovers, as it is only a shot boat ride from highly urbanised Singapore City on the mainland.

Since then no more elephant or tiger scares have disturbed the peace of the Lion City!

Lam Pin Foo

The information contained in this article are obtained mainly from various sources including:

  • Song Ong Siang’s “One Hundred Years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore”
  • Donald Moore’s “150 years’ history of Singapore”,
  • Old and current English and Chinese newspapers published in Singapore, and
  • Internet and other sources.

6 thoughts on “Tigers Roamed the forests of Old Singapore

  1. Pingback: Family All Over, Part 1 – The Tan Times

      • Dear Lam Pin Fong
        I enjoyed reading your article on tigers. I have been asked to write a piece about the Leutemann print that is on display in the National Gallery featuring a tiger attack. I am writing as a volunteer for Passage magazine which is a free publication for Friends of the Museum (FOM) in Singapore. I would very much like to feature the photo of the last tiger killed in Singapore. I would be happy to give you a credit if the photo belongs to you. Or if you can give me the source I would be most grateful.
        Kind regards,
        Museum docent

  2. Thank you for your interest in my blog posting.

    This article is on the website of Genealogy Society Singapore.

    I am sure it can be of help to you.

    I wish your programme success.

    Best regards,

    Lam Pin Foo


    I wish your programme every success

  3. Dear Mr Lam,

    I greatly enjoyed reading your article on Tracing One’s Roots Through the Family Tree .
    I am a researcher on a television program in Australian and we are tracing the roots of an Australian’s Singaporean-Chinese family. We have very limited information and no contacts in Singapore and so I was wondering if perhaps you had any English-speaking genealogy contacts at all that could assist in my research please? Note, I have emailed the Genealogy Society Singapore, but have not yet had a reply. Any other leads would be very much appreciated!

    Many thanks for your help.

    Yours sincerely,

    Anya Hohnbaum

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