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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

RICHARD FREEMAN: The Orang Pendek in Singapore

Creatures strikingly like the orang-pendek have been reported elsewhere in Asia; on the Malayan peninsula where it are known as ‘mawas’ (a name given to both small and large mystery apes), Borneo where it is known as ‘batutut’, and in the valleys and foothills of the Himalayas where it is called ‘teh-lma’ (a type of small yeti as opposed to the man-sized ‘meh-teh’ and the classic giant ‘duz-the’). However, I was unaware until recently that such creatures had been reported in Singapore.

We generally spend a couple of days recuperating in Singapore after our visits to Sumatra. This city-state is one of my favorite places in the world. It is clean and beautiful with an excellent zoo and fascinating museums. Chinatown is straight out of an Indiana Jones film whilst the city at night recalls Bladerunner. But it wasn’t always like that. Once Singapore was nothing more than a Malay fishing village. In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles and the East India Company set up a trading post and the rest is history. Today that fishing village is a shining metropolis of 4,987,600 people. But back in the early 19th century most of it was thick jungle and swamp.

In 1805 the first report of the creature was made by a Malayan elder who saw an upright-walking, monkey-faced creature in the Bukit Timah area.

Such an animal could have easily inhabited Singapore in the pre-colonial days but amazingly there are a number of reports from modern times. The New Paper, Singapore’s first English langage paper launched in 1988, has run a number of such reports.

A 48-year-old taxi driver, called Serangoon made the following report.

"When driving my taxi past the Fire Station on Upper Bukit Timah road in the middle of the night I hit what I thought was a child that ran out in the middle of the road. It was on the car bonnet and then snarled at me- it was like a monkey but so big! It ran off injured covered in blood, and holding its' arm which was broken."

A 29-year-old housewife said

"I was going to the bus stop early one morning to catch the 171 bus. It was very foggy and cold. I thought I saw a tramp going through the rubbish bin, however when I approached, it called out with a loud animal sound and ran back into the forest. It was grey, hairy and ran on two legs, but had a monkey's face. I was shivering with fear and called the police but to no avail."

65-year-old retiree, Bukit Panjang recalled the creature dubbed the ‘Bukit Tima Monkey Man’ from his childhood.

"We were always told as children when in the Kampung not to go near the forest at night due to the Monkey Man. Of course we never saw it ourselves but it was always some Uncle or friend of the family who had seen it. Once we were shown these footprints near the forest road, and I remember the strong urine smell. Whenever we heard shrieks coming from the jungle we would tell each other- don't disturb the Monkey Man."

The Chinese-language paper Shin Min Daily News reported in 2008 that the Monkey Man would appear after dark in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. It was described as having the face of a monkey but walking upright like a man. The paper dispatched a journalist to the park but he failed to see the creature. The park’s offical take was that people were mistaking long-tailed maquacs for the Monkey Man. Needless to say, these monkeys bear scant resemblance to the upright 5-foot Monkey Man..

Bukit Timah Nature reserve lies only 12km from Singapore city centre. It is only 164 hectares in size so it seems unlikely that a population of orang-pendek type creatures could exist there today. When Singapore was a wilderness I have no doubt that these creatures would have roamed the area but today there is just not enough wilderness left to support even a relic population. So what was happening here?

Japanese soldiers apparently reported the creatures during WWII so maybe they survived in the wilder areas up till then. It is unlikely they were swimming across the Johore Strait from mainland Malaya. However, I cannot conceive of them surviving unnoticed in modern-day Singapore. Perhaps an orang-pendek from Sumatra or something akin to one from mainland Asia was captured and sumuggled into Sigapore were it escaped anmd was at large for a time. Maybe being hit by the car killed it. Only time will tell. As far as I know the last sighting was in 2007.

Odd to think that we might not have needed to suffer the discomforts of Sumatra to find the orang-pendek. As Adam Davis said, we could have larged it in Singapore for two weeks and just said we went to Sumatra!

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