Kwa Soon Bee: Group chairman of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, transformed Bird Park

Dr Kwa Soon Bee was also the chairman and managing director of the Jurong BirdPark.
Dr Kwa Soon Bee was also the chairman and managing director of the Jurong BirdPark. PHOTO: ST FILE

More than 1.5 million visitors went to Jurong BirdPark each year for the last three years. As it celebrates its 23rd year, Tracey Yeo talks to Dr Kwa Soon Bee, the park's chairman and managing director since 1980, on the plans that led to its success.

WHY BIRDPARK'S A HIT

Borne on the wings of one man's vision, Jurong BirdPark celebrates its 23rd birthday with soaring visitor arrivals and the launch of its first glossy coffee-table book, On Wings Of Excellence.

Set up in 1971, the place has been constantly upgraded since 1980 and new exhibits introduced to take it to the 21st century.

It started as the dream of one man, Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister of Finance. Inspired by a free-flight aviary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he shared his vision of a bird park in Jurong at an inaugural meeting of the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in June 1968.

Said Dr Wong Hon Mun, JBP's executive director: "Dr Goh wanted to create a recreational facility for the industrial workers in Jurong to seek refuge from work and urban life and appreciate nature."

Its current 20.2-ha site on the western slope of Bukit Peropok, now known as Jurong Hill, was selected and developed on the advice of eminent aviculturist Dr John Yealland and aviary architect J. Toovey, both from the Zoological Society of London.

Mr Lim Sak Lan, a member of JBP's board of directors, recalled: "There was no park of the scale we wanted to build then. We had to improvise and innovate to suit the conditions of the site."

The late Dr Woon Wah Siang, the park's pioneer chairman and managing director, persuaded ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries here to contribute birds. He had said previously: "I attended every National Day cocktail party just to ask for birds."

At the park's opening on Jan 3, 1971, it had 7,000 birds, mainly smaller ones.

The place, with a unique Jurong Falls Aviary and 30-m man-made waterfall, drew 37,493 visitors in its first 15 days, and a total of 645,743 visitors in 1971. But after the initial euphoria, the turnout declined, fluctuating between 334,278 and 606,646 from 1972-81.

Said Dr Wong: "There were no new programmes to renew the interest of the public."

Winds of change swept through the park under the helm of Dr Kwa Soon Bee, its chairman and managing director since 1980, and who is also Permanent Secretary (Health) and director of medical services.

Indeed, visitor arrivals have ascended steadily, hitting one million in 1989. In 1993, 1,549,595 visitors came, out of whom 1,002,587 were tourists.

The park won two Singapore Tourist Promotion Board awards - a merit award for best managed tourist attraction in 1985 and an outstanding tourist attraction prize in 1986.

It was also highly commended in the Pacific category of British Airways' Tourism For Tomorrow Awards in 1993.

Said Dr Kwa: "We are continuing with Dr Goh's vision but want to take it one step further - whilst Dr Goh saw the park as a recreational facility, we see it as a park which can educate the public."

JBP's new direction was evident in its new corporate image, logo and mission statement in its 15th year (1986). That year, landscape consultants were also engaged to produce a master plan to revitalise the premises.

"Four objectives - recreation, education, conservation and research were laid down to guide the park's development," said Dr Wong.

The park unveils new attractions almost every year to renew public interest. "We aim for large impressive displays of birds in their natural habitat - either from one species or from one family of birds," Dr Kwa said.

"We have become more selective - concentrating on South-east Asian birds and exotic tropical birds which attract the eye, like parrots."

Exhibitions, art and essay competitions, video screenings and in-house publications like Birdlife and Birdwatch increase public awareness and appreciation.

"We subtly educate people about birds through our interactive and participatory bird shows," said Dr Kwa. "Our shows also propagate the message of conservation."

For conservation and research, the JBP set up a breeding and research centre and signed a joint memorandum of understanding to collaborate on research projects with the National University of Singapore in 1988.

"Being a repository of a large collection of over 8,000 birds, we are in the best position to study bird behaviour, nutrition and breeding," Dr Kwa said.

The park has also ventured into horticultural research. A memorandum of understanding on heliconia research was signed with Plantek International in 1989 and a three year anthurium research project with Nanyang Technological University and Ngee Ann Polytechnic was started in 1991.

"We have become a small rehabilitation centre and sanctuary," said Dr Kwa. "Free flying birds come to the park to feed, live and breed."