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Singapore's most famous redhead
By Roderick Eime
10 December 2016

SHE was a redhead who had a private meeting with Prince Philip, met Prince Edward, sashayed with Elizabeth Taylor and Bo Derek, and had the press at her feet when she breakfasted with Bjorn Borg.

ah meng

And she had the American media positively groveling when she went swimming in the pool of Singapore's Raffles Hotel with Michael Jackson – in the process ruffling the star's own travelling companion, his pet chimpanzee.

And while her appointment book resembled a Who's Who of politics, business, the media, Hollywood and the world of entertainment, in a career spanning nearly 40 years she never once boasted of her encounters – nor betrayed a whispered confidence.

Sadly that glorious career came to an end in 2008 when she nodded off into a sleep from which she simply never awoke.

Ah Meng – the world's best-known orangutan and a tourism icon in Singapore since the early 1970s – was 48, or a venerable 95 in our own human terms.

Hundreds of thousands of people claim friendship with Ah Meng by having shared breakfast with her at Singapore Zoo over more than 20 years, and millions more can remember her endearing antics from their own visits to the Zoo's Sumatran Orangutan Habitat – or from attending her highly-publicised birthday extravaganzas.

Ah Meng adapted to the human world from an early age. Soon after being born in Sumatra she was smuggled to Singapore where she was sold illegally to become a family pet.

When discovered by a vet in 1971 she was 11 years old, and was removed to a more appropriate home in Singapore Zoo. Within a few years she was on almost "human terms" with her handlers, prompting the Zoo in 1982 to introduce the famous "Breakfast with an Orangutan" program that would allow her to interact even more with human beings, and to raise funds for orangutan research and preservation.

And not only did ordinary visitors queue up to join her for breakfast and to have their photos taken with her, so too did countless dignitaries, with everyone from royalty to politicians and film stars insisting that their official Singapore programs include an audience with Ah Meng.

She soon became the Zoo's poster girl, was "interviewed" by over 300 international journalists, starred in more than 30 travel films, and commanded fees of around $2500 an hour for a photo shoot.

She was also made a "Special Singapore Tourism Ambassador" in 1992, the only-ever non-human recipient of the honour. The government gave her a certificate and a bunch of bananas to mark the occasion.

Along the way Ah Meng had several partners including Rodney who died in 1987, Pusung who was sent to Adelaide Zoo, and Charlie with whom she raised her five children and six grandchildren.

But she could also throw a tantrum. Once on a filming assignment outside the Zoo she tired of being told over and again what to do, climbed the tallest tree she could find and sulked there for three nights.

When finally coaxed down she slipped and crashed the last ten metres, breaking her arm.

And on another occasion when a young French university student was attached to the zoo as part of her thesis on orangutans, Ah Meng became incensed at the amount of attention her caretaker, Alagappasamy 'Sam' Chellaiyah was giving the student.

So like the true diva, she wandered almost nonchalantly across to the student and gave her a monumental back-hander that laid her on her back.

In later years Ah Meng made fewer and fewer breakfast and promotional appearances, with Zoo officials fearing they might stress the aging grandma.

And when news broke of Ah Meng's death in 2008, Singapore went into collective mourning, with messages of condolence pouring in from around the world.

Her body was displayed in a white coffin and 4000 people attended her memorial service. After numerous eulogies, her long-time caretaker, Alagappasamy swept aside tears to give her a final farewell kiss on the forehead. Some other mourners collapsed in grief.

Ah Meng's grave in a Zoo garden is marked with a Durian tree – her favourite treat – and a 1.5 tonne bronze statue.

Update: In February 2016, Singapore Zoo announced that four-year-old Ishta, picked from the late Ah Meng's six living descendants, will take on her grandmother's name.

Thai Airways operates 144 flights between Singapore and Bangkok every week.
 The writer acknowledges David Ellis as the original author of this article

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Keywords: family, Tired, young, Singapore

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