The Man Who Loved Singapore

18-20_Van_Kleef_251212v2-1On June 18, 1930, a Dutchman died in the city of Haarlem (now part of Amsterdam), in the Netherlands. In his will, he left his whole estate to Singapore. Who was this man?

 by Professor Tommy Koh

His name was Karel Willem Benjamin van Kleef. He was born on November 20, 1856, Batavia (now Jakarta). His father was Salomon Benjamin van Kleef, a gynaecologist. His mother was Geetruida van Hogezand. Both Saloman and Geetruida were Jewish. They had met and married in Batavia on November 25, 1850. Dr and Mrs van Kleef had four children. The first child, Maria Elizabeth, was born in 1851. Karel was the second child. The third child, Wilhem Samuel, was born in 1856 and died a year later and was buried in a cemetery in Jakarta. The fourth child, Herman, was born in 1863 in Amsterdam.

We know nothing about Karel’s childhood and education. All that I have been able to find in the Dutch National Archives and Dutch National Genealogical Centre is a certificate (undated), certifying that he was an expert in drilling in the mining industry. Karel had worked in the mining industry in Indonesia. At some point in his adult life, Karel left Indonesia and relocated to Singapore. We are not sure what he did for a living in Singapore, but we know that he was successful and became prosperous. He left Singapore and retired in Haarlem, the Netherlands, where he died.

How much money did Karel van Kleef leave to Singapore? He left the sum of $160,000, which, in today’s dollars, would be equivalent to $8.985 million. Why did Karel van Kleef leave his entire estate to Singapore? We do not know why he chose to do so. he could have bequeathed his estate to his older sister, Maria, or her children. He could have chosen to benefit the land of his origin, the Netherlands, or the land of his birth, Indonesia. Instead, he chose to bequeath his entire fortune to Singapore. This is why I call him ‘the man who loved Singapore’. I know of no other person, Singaporean or non-Singapore, who has bequeathed his entire fortune to Singapore.


Ever paid a mere 30c for admission to a new museum? This was the original newspaper notice announcing the opening of the Aquarium in 1955. Scroll to the bottom of this page for a rare viewing of the original article in FULL, published in the Singapore Free Press.

What did Singapore do with the money? In 1931, the municipal government set up a committee to make recommendations on the best way to use the money. The committee considered three options: a landscape garden, an aquarium and a zoological garden. In 1933, it was decided to build an aquarium and to name it the Van Kleef Aquarium. However, the construction was delayed by the difficult situation in Europe and the outbreak of World War II.


[Photo: Courtesy of SPH - The Straits Times and The New Paper]

The Van Kleef Aquarium was finally opened in 1955, 25 years after the benefactor’s death. The aquarium on River Vally Road, was a great success and attracted 166,000 visitors in its first four months of operation. The annual visitorship climbed steadily from about 200,00 to a peak of 400,000.

The aquarium was closed in 1991 because it was unable to compete with the new Underwater World in Sentosa. It was privatised and re-opened as the World of Aquarium. It failed after two years. It changed hands again and reopened as the Fort Canning Aquarium in 1993. In December 1996, the aquarium was closed for the final time. Two years later, in 1998, the building was demolished and, with it, the name of our benefactor, Karel van Kleef.

Singapore should not allow the name of the only person who loved us  so much that he bequeathed his entire estate to our country to disappear from our collective memory. I cannot help comparing him with an Englishman, James Smithson, who made a similar bequest to America. The US Congress accepted the bequest with gratitude and established the Smithsonian Institution in his memory. The Smithsonian Institution is today one of the great cultural institutions of America and of the world. Let us think of an appropriate way to perpetuate the memory of Karel van Kleef.

The writer is special adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies. This article was first published in The Straits Times, 9 January 2012.



 At press time, it was announced that the Aquatic Science Centre in Singapore would be renamed the Van Kleef Centre in honour of the Dutchman. The renaming  ceremony was attended by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who was on her first state visit to Singapore in January. The centre is a joint Netherlands-Singapore outdoor research facility aimed at improving urban freshwater management.

 Words Worth a Fortune

Dutchman Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef lived in Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An entrepreneur, he amassed a fortune through dealing in property and stock in Holland and Singapore, from an office at the corner of Collyer Quay and De Souza Street. In 1929, a year before he died, he drew up his will in which he made Singapore the heir to his fortune. The wording of that bequest was as follows:

 “I appoint as my one and sole heir the Municipality of Singapore (Straits Settlements) which I request to apply the net proceeds obtained from my estate to the embellishment of the town and other ends whatsoever, but on no account in behalf of churches and other institutions connected with worship in general… Should the municipality of Singapore not accept the inheritance, then I appoint the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited as my one and sole heir and I express my wish that they spend these moneys at their discretion in behalf of the Municipality of Singapore, provided no ecclesiastical institutions be benefited thereby either.”


Even back then, Singaporeans of all ages were fascinated by aquarium fish. [Photo: Courtesy of SPH - The Straits Times and The New Paper]


The opening of the Van Kleef Aquarium in 1955 marked not just the launch of a new public attraction. At the time,  it was something of an engineering marvel and a world first.

Containing more than 6,500 marine creatures of 180 different species, the aquarium boasted fresh water, salt water and even swamp water tanks inwhich to host these residents, many of them from as far away as Africa and South America. The building, which was air-conditioned, had its own water supply in the form of two underground reservoirs which supplied the tanks with water through mechanical pumps. According to one of its first curators, Teo Teck Hiang, Van Kleef Aquarium was “the first and only institution of its kind” in Southeast Asia. After an impressive opening, it went from strength to strength, and was described by experts as being “one of the best” in its class worldwide.

The 1961 edition of the Singapore Guide And Street Directory describes it like this: “Many of the numerous species shown here have lived in their tanks since 1956, and some have bred there. Sea-water is brought by pipeline to the Aquarium where it is improved chemically and stored in underground tanks. There is a service passage behind the tanks for feeding and cleaning, a quarantine system for newcomers, and a well-equipped laboratory. A specially designed launch collects specimens and seafood for the tanks.”

In 1964, its then curator, ichthyologist (a zoologist specialising in fish) A. Fraser-Brunner, was commissioned to design the Merlion emblem for the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board, no doubt banking on inspiration from the hugely diverse collection of sea creatures he was surrounded by every day. On the day it closed in 1991, after a speedy and sustained rise to fame followed by a slow sad decline in the wake of sophisticated new attractions, nearly 5,000 sentimental Singaporeans came to say goodbye to a place they had always associated with family memories and wonder.


[Photo: Courtesy of SPH - The Straits Times and The New Paper]

Sources: National Archives of Singapore, Singapore The Encyclopedia

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE  This was the original 1955 article published in the Singapore Free Press on the day of the opening of the Aquarium.




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