I’ve got a new book out for children, about a lovely elephant who swam to Singapore from Malaysia. But first, the backstory.

[Illustrations here are by AJ and the new book will look nothing like this, thank goodness.]

My daughter Nicola was a toddler when an elephant swam across to Singapore from Johor, the southernmost state of the Malaysian peninsula.

It made the news for 10 days in March, 1991. Only the previous year, three elephants appeared on Singapore’s Pulau Tekong and had to be rescued and taken back to Johor’s nature reserve.

This time, the story began with an account of a man being attacked and injured by a wild elephant on Pulau Ubin, an island off Singapore’s northeast coast. There were a few hundred people still living there, mostly farmers, fishermen, the last of the island’s quarry workers and shopkeepers.

All the experts were called in. The elephant disappeared, then reappeared to chase a couple of visitors and a taxi, before going out of sight again. It sparked a big elephant hunt.

Singapore Zoo chief Bernard Harrison guessed that the elephant was hungry and looking for food, and quipped that it was probably just as frightened of the islanders as they were of it.

The search party found footprints, but no elephant. More experts were called in from Malaysia, as the elephant had probably swum over from a national park in Johor.

In the end, it turned out to be a young elephant. It was caught and tranquilised. Then, two adult female elephants were brought to escort it onto trucks and then a barge that took it back to the Johor forest reserve.

I loved that story. Many readers followed the reports that appeared in the newspapers for more than a week. The pictures in the papers showed that it was no huge rampaging beast but just a small guy who found himself on a strange island and had gone looking for food. Or his Mama.

I made up a story about Ubin Elephant for my daughter. I drew some pictures in crayon and told her the story of the elephant that swam to Singapore and made everyone excited. I showed my storybook to my son Zachary too, after he turned up. I called it Ubin’s Adventure.

Then the kids grew up, I put my storybook in a box and nearly 30 years went by.

I was clearing my old stuff one day – I have a fear of becoming a hoarder, so I fling things out regularly – when Hedwig picked up the old Ubin story and said: “You should publish this.”

I said: “No way, my drawings are horrible.”

But she has a way of giving me assignments and walking off.

In early 2018, I was no longer at The Straits Times and among my Facebook friends was Quek Hong Shin, who was an editorial artist at the paper when I worked there.

On many days he’d come to me when I was night editor and show me the artwork for the Page One blurbs and I’d say OK or make changes. He never said a word to me. But after we both left the paper, we became Facebook friends.

He became a freelance artist, working on children’s books among various other projects. We met one day for coffee at Cluny Court and I asked if he would illustrate these books I was thinking about, because my drawings and crayon art were, err, not good enough.

I showed him a couple of my storybook pages from the early 1990s and he was kind enough to say: “Not bad what.”

Hong Shin said yes to illustrating the book.

Our plan was to start with the story of the elephant that visited Pulau Ubin in 1991, then do other books about animals that made the news over the years. There was no shortage of them. Over many years of choosing stories and photos to run in The Straits Times, I’d seen quite a few funny, sad, wacky, exciting stories about all sorts of animals.

We approached Susan Long, who was head of Straits Times Press at the time, and she said yes to doing it.

Then Inuka the polar bear died in April 2018, and the plan changed. The Singapore Zoo asked STPress if it could do a polar bear book for Inuka’s birthday and Susan asked if we could do that book first instead.

Inuka the polar bear was one of the best loved animals at the Zoo, because this fella was born in Singapore in 1990.

When our kids were small, Hedwig and I took them to the Zoo often. We were Friends of the Zoo, the best deal ever because it let a family go any number of times through the year. Inuka was almost always our first stop. 

Later there would be a debate over bringing polar bears to the equator, but Inuka’s keepers were utterly devoted to his parents, Sheba and Nanook, and to him.

Everything looks better when Hong Shin illustrates it!

So the polar bear beat the elephant and The One And Only Inuka came out in December that year. It won the 2019 Popular Readers’ Choice Award for the best children’s book in English.

Time went by.

A pandemic arrived. Life went weird.

One day I said to Hong Shin: “Eh, the other animal books, how ah?”

(To Be Continued…)

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