Memorial service for a Singapore icon

Ah Meng's keeper, Sam Chellaiyah (centre), stood by Ah Meng's casket throughout her 2 hours long memorial service, answering children's queries and shaking the hands of visitors who dropped by the zoo for one last look at Ah Meng.
Ah Meng's keeper, Sam Chellaiyah (centre), stood by Ah Meng's casket throughout her 2 hours long memorial service, answering children's queries and shaking the hands of visitors who dropped by the zoo for one last look at Ah Meng. PHOTO: ST FILE
Zookeepers at Ah Meng's memorial service, many of whom sobbed and cried, caressed the grand old dame a final time before the casket lid was brought down on the Sumatran orang utan.
Zookeepers at Ah Meng's memorial service, many of whom sobbed and cried, caressed the grand old dame a final time before the casket lid was brought down on the Sumatran orang utan. PHOTO: ST FILE
Crowds and photographers gathered around to capture the zoo's historical moment as Ah Meng was laid to rest after the memorial service.
Crowds and photographers gathered around to capture the zoo's historical moment as Ah Meng was laid to rest after the memorial service. PHOTO: MYPAPER FILE

The public can pay their tribute from 9am to 10.45am, and visit a mini display on Ah Meng’s life

They knew. Mum had died.

Ah Meng, the Singapore icon, left behind five children and six grandchildren when she died last Friday morning after eating her breakfast of fruits.

One sniff was all it took for the brood of younger orang utans at the zoo to know that the 48-year-old matriarch – 95 in human years – had left them.

Minutes after she died, the keepers gathered her brood around her so they could pay their last respects.

Ah Meng’s youngest son, Satria, 12, had his head to the ground. He “looked very depressed”, deputy head keeper Jackson Raj said yesterday.

The others also lost their appetite after her death, rejecting their meals – which is rare for orang utans.

Everyone talks about Ah Meng. Whenever anyone hears that I work at the zoo, they will always ask: “How’s Ah Meng doing?”

MS LEE SIEW YIAN, 34, formerly part of the marketing team at the zoo

When my daughter-in-law told me Ah Meng was dead, I felt goosebumps on my skin because I felt a great sense of loss. I treated Ah Meng as a best friend.

MR JAMES TAY, 70, who was part of a science project team that helped to train Ah Meng when she was nine years old

I was planning to visit Ah Meng at the zoo today. When I read about her death in the papers, I was shocked and very sad. I’ve always liked Ah Meng a lot. In fact, this photo with her is framed up in my room.

MS SHEREEN NAAZ CHARLES SYARIFF, now 20. She was two years old when this picture was taken.

Even yesterday, the young ones were still not their usual selves. They were less frisky, said Mr Raj.

When The Sunday Times visited the Singapore Zoo yesterday, 11-year-old Chomel, said to be Ah Meng’s favourite granddaughter, was sitting on a tree branch and staring into space.

The usually responsive Chomel, who bears a striking resemblance to her famous grandmother, ignored the keepers’ calls.

Mr Biswajit Guha, the zoo’s assistant director of zoology, said certain species, like elephants and great apes, do get emotionally affected by a death in the family.

“It is highly likely that such an intelligent species like the orang utan experiences grief,” he said.

According to Ah Meng’s minder of 36 years, Mr Alagappasamy Chellaiyah, she was on her feet and holding on to a wire mesh when she suddenly went motionless.

Ah Meng will be buried during a special memorial service at the zoo today. The public may pay their tribute to her today from 9am to 10.45am at the zoo’s Garden With A View.

There will also be a mini display showcasing Ah Meng’s family history, awards and photographs during the last 37 years.

Her death has saddened her many fans and was much talked about by visitors to the zoo in Mandai yesterday.

Security officer Rajendra Kumar, 44, rushed down to the zoo yesterday, specially to pay his last respects to Ah Meng.

Two years ago, he had his picture taken with her.

“She was very sweet. She gave me a hug and when the picture was taken, she put her arm around my shoulder,” he said.

Disappointed that he could not get a glimpse of his “favourite girl”, Mr Kumar will be returning to the zoo today for her funeral.

Ms Djuantiena Buang, 24, was so overwhelmed by grief when she found out that Ah Meng had died, she could not sleep on Friday night.

Said the customer service officer: “My family had planned to visit Ah Meng the past month but kept putting it off.”

So when relatives called her home on Friday to say that Ah Meng had died, she did not believe them.

Only when they watched the evening news did Ms Djuantiena and her family accept the fact. Her five-year-old son, Danial Dicky, cried.

“Now we’ll never get to meet her,” said Ms Djuantiena, who finally visited the zoo yesterday.

Some Singaporeans were disappointed that they missed the chance to have a picture taken with Ah Meng.

Said sales executive Louis Tan, 30: “She’s a famous character at the Singapore Zoo. I wish I had taken a picture with her earlier.”

Fans had to settle for a picture with the famous orang utan’s statue, instead.

At the zoo’s orang utan enclosure yesterday, one father loudly beckoned to his family members, telling them to take a picture with the statue because Ah Meng “si liao” (Hokkien for “has died”).

Marketing officer Junice Yeo felt that Ah Meng was the original Singapore icon.

Said the 27-year-old: “She came from humble origins, had a lot of charisma and was very original. That’s why she was different.”

Deputy head keeper Mr Raj believes that Ah Meng will remain in the hearts of many.

“Her name is synonymous with orang utans everywhere,” he said. “Even at an Australian zoo, I hear people call the orang utans there ‘Ah Meng’.

“She has created a deep impression people can never forget.”

ndianah@sph.com.sg