M DIALOGUE: Bernard and Sharda Harrison
Interviewer: Hi Sharda and Bernard! Let’s get your dialogue going by the both of you introducing and describing each other. So, Sharda – talk about Bernard, not just as your dad but the guy you love and respect. Likewise, Bernard, give us an idea of the Sharda you hold dear to your heart.
SHARDA: (laughter) So Bernard Harrison… always known as the man of the zoo, is to me my father. I always admire and respect him for his daring nature, daring to go off and do the things he likes with wildlife conservation and pushing the boundaries of creativity and management in the world. I have always looked up to him as more than a father but more like this man who always had a vision and dream for the Night Safari and the Zoo and now with Bernard Harrison & Friends. As a father… well, he’s not a very good one! Just kidding…
Interviewer: I am looking for any reaction in Bernard but he’s just sitting here, eating his bread.
Bernard: (laughing) I’m hungry.
SHARDA: He’s half English. So he’s very stoic. Anyway, he’s more like my best friend. The only time we’ve ever had a father-daughter conversation was when he asked if I was still a virgin. That’s the only time. Everything else is more like… A best friend…. Listening to all my love life horror stories…
Interviewer: I mean, you’re always on her Facebook.
SHARDA: Yeah, he’s like my business advisor, best friend, drinking buddy, Sunday morning beach walk partner… We have a very close relationship. Okay enough of me. (TO Bernard) Now you must talk about me!
BERNARD: Well. Sharda… I gave her her first sex education lesson when she was six.
SHARDA: No lah, eight lah.
INTERVIEWER: Could you understand? Anything about it?
BERNARD: We talked about the birds and the bees.
SHARDA: The thing is, I thought women got pregnant by eating eggs. So this was a serious issue.
INTERVIEWER: I mean yeah, we do have eggs.
BERNARD: So I told her no, you don’t become pregnant from eggs. We’re a very nude family. We walk around in the nude, so talking about this, it’s not a sex thing but it’s more of the human anatomy. That way explaining things is much easier. Because I would say a lot of families are quite prudish. The father would not be seen naked in front of his daughter. I’ve always maintained a very open relationship with my children.
Interviewer: Was that something you also had with your own father?
Bernard: Yup. My father was very down-to-earth and direct. So that’s what I’m like with Sharda and Sean (Sharda’s brother). I think obviously also fathers and daughters always like each other – something about that relationship… like daughters and mothers have a different type of relationship. It’s almost competitive. We’ve always had a very close relationship, we’ve gone for a few holidays together. We had a great time in Nepal and India. These were the kind of trips that sort of helped to cement our relationship. A lot of parents don’t get it, that you actually have to work on a relationship with your children. They think that children have to respect them like it’s an expected thing. It doesn’t mean that having a love for your children means that you have a relationship with them. You work on the relationship just like how it is for any other relationship: the more effort you put into it, the greater the return.
Sharda and Sean are very different. With Sharda she’s always texting, she’s always very expressive to me. She’ll pick up the phone and we’ll talk which is quite different from Sean. Can’t get anything out of him, but that’s what men are like. I remember when I was at boarding school, I was sent there when I was eleven years old. We were forced every Sunday to write a letter to our parents after breakfast. But as soon as I left school, I stopped writing letters to my parents because to me, it was the worst thing to do. I never communicated with them for months and as far as I was concerned, it’s cool – if you don’t hear from me, I’m fine. Boys are like that. So likewise I never hear from Sean. If I want to get a message to Sean, I say, Sharda can you tell Sean we’re having dinner tomorrow night?
SHARDA: My father lives in Bali so I try to maintain a sort of long distance relationship.
BERNARD: You know what, when I used to live in Woodlands…. We never saw that much of each other.
SHARDA: I’m pretty sure when I make Bali my second home base, I won’t see much of him. (both laugh)
INTERVIEWER: Discuss the gaps between your generations in terms of ideals and aspirations, specifically for the both of you.
BERNARD: Well, I’m a baby boomer and she’s a millennial. Baby boomers are what happened after the Second World War. When all the soldiers came back and started going to bed with their wives again and you had this big surge of…..
BERNARD: Yeah. So that’s the baby boomer generation.
SHARDA: In terms of theatre, with the baby boomer generation, they would be like the Phillippe Gauliers of their time. There was this huge rush of creativity, reactions to post war, it was so rich and vibrant in this angst that was going on. People were looking for new ways to make theatre. For my generation, although there are a lot of go-getters and visionaries amongst us, and I’m not putting down millennials at all, but I think there was something appealing about my father’s generation because of this urgency to create new work, ideas and ways of thinking. Today, in my generation, there are a lot of structures already in place. Therefore there are also restraints in everything. Not just in the arts. At the same time, I don’t want to be dismissive like that – there are people who are also rising, young creative entrepreneurs who are trying and finding their footing in being different. That’s important: Difference. In this age of technology, it’s like, how do I do something? Go look at a Youtube video. There’s a manual for everything.
BERNARD: I was doing a Skype interview with a bunch of students from some university in Singapore. It started to dawn on me because you know, they would classify me as an entrepreneur, but I said no, I’m not an entrepreneur. Then they said, but you’ve been running your own company for fifteen years. I said yeah, but I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I was a salaryman. When I was running the zoo, the last thing I dreamt about was leaving. I couldn’t think of anything worse than setting up my own company. I’d never thought about it. I was so happy doing what I was doing and it was great to work for somebody. But I was forced to because I had to resign due to circumstances then. So I did resign and set up my own company… and a few more, none of them have really made any money but it certainly created an atmosphere that it’s okay to set up your own thing.
My father was a professor of Zoology. I didn’t come from an environment where entrepreneurship was a norm. Sharda has set up her own company when she was, I don’t know, how old were you?
BERNARD: (laughing) No, no. You’re not allowed to.
SHARDA: (Laughing) Yes I was twenty seven when I set up Pink Gajah Theatre.
BERNARD: But the thing is Sharda’s mother had set up companies too when she was younger. So she was born into an environment where that is a logical path. People think about it. I was born in an environment where this just wouldn’t have occurred to me.
SHARDA: That’s an interesting gap because my generation is all about going out all the way to get things. It’s a juxtaposition there. He talked about being a salaryman, in my generation, a lot of people don’t want to consider that. It’s an option, but going freelance or having your own start-up is also alright.
BERNARD: In my generation, the concept of education was very different. Most people’s parents wanted them to go to university and to study a sensible profession preferably, a doctor, a lawyer… accounting. It’s unwise to study anything else because parents at the time thought there would be no way for you to get a job. A lot of children followed suit because it was the only way to go.
INTERVIEWER: Did you feel that pressure as well?
BERNARD: I didn’t feel any pressure because my father was more liberal. Still, when I told my father, Dad I’m going to study Zoology in Manchester University, he said, are you sure? You’re not going to make any money. You should actually go and be a banker. I said, Nah I won’t really enjoy it. So that’s the same advice I gave Sharda and Sean. Go and be a banker. They said I was nuts. The point is that, now what you study in University is irrelevant. Whether or not you even need to go to University is debatable. There are a lot of different possibilities, so many well-known figures are school drop outs. We have many role models today who are swashbuckling. A lot of millennials I have talked to don’t take getting a degree too seriously.
SHARDA: Do you think it’s important though?
BERNARD: I think a lot of millennials don’t see that importance. I agree that now it is irrelevant too. I’m saying in the old days, people rarely did that. They would definitely ask where you went to school and what you studied. Now it’s more of, what can you DO? Show me your portfolio.
SHARDA: I think education is important in Singapore. Even as a theatre actress, I need my degree and soon even a Masters to teach. It’s not so much about the certificate but more the learning experience. Isn’t it Dad?
BERNARD: Yeah. For instance, going back to talking about sensible career options, ninety percent of sensible parents would never encourage their daughters to study acting. But I encouraged Sharda to do it. You should do what you want to do to be happy. From the age of five –
SHARDA: - when I set up my first company…
BERNARD: (laughing) she first started acting in Act 3, and she really loved it. Naturally, she’s an actress. It comes through in everything she does, whether she’s in the toilet –
SHARDA: -Can we not mention the toilet? We’re sounding like a very weird family now.
BERNARD: Yeah when she was young she would just leave funny messages in my answering machine.
SHARDA: Yeah like weird stuff, about weather reports and things like that.
BERNARD: This is her field. Though she probably could be a good banker as well.
BERNARD: A certain type of banking, like a personal banker. Where you have to maintain and create relationships. It’s got nothing to do with numbers.
SHARDA: Hmm… I should be a banker then. No, never!
BERNARD: But she can’t be an accounts clerk, for sure.
SHARDA: He would have been a great car salesman, that’s what he wanted to do too.
BERNARD: Yes, a Mercedes Benz car salesman. I probably would have made a lot of money.
SHARDA: And you would be like three hundred and sixty pounds overweight.
BERNARD: When I came back to Singapore to find a job, back then it was difficult.
SHARDA: Well, I think our family is driven by happiness, right? We never made any logical decisions. We based it a lot on emotions.
BERNARD: I’m married to my third wife, she’s Chinese. Half Peranakan. She in turn was married previously to a German. So her children are half Chinese and half German. And my children are classified as Eurasian. That mix of Eurasian has some Portuguese in it. So we have these Germans and these Latinos in the family. You can see it when we go out for dinner. So I make an arrangement: Okay guys, we’re going to meet at the restaurant at 8pm. When its 8 o’clock, my wife and I are making our way to the restaurant. At 8.01 we get a call from the Germans, “Where are you people?” Then the other German calls too. So finally at ten past eight, it’s myself and my wife and the Germans. At 8.45, one of the Latinos turn up, “Hey guys!” At 9pm is when the last Latino Sharda finally shows up.
INTERVIEWER: Bernard, You’ve implemented the idea of un-zooing, and Sharda has also in her way been undoing theatre in its usual conventions via Pink Gajah Theatre. From these similar paths of challenging norms, could you both have a little debate with each other on that?
BERNARD: Let me just talk about un-zooing first. To un-zoo is to display the animals in a way you would not expect them to be in, especially in a zoo. It’s like stepping into a forest, and you see animals flying around in the trees, or swimming around, and maybe you think, “Oh this looks natural.” But it’s also not. It’s completely managed. So that’s un-zooing.
I find it very exciting and challenging to do this kind of thing mainly because I like doing different things. I find the concept very fascinating. The way I do business development is going to a lot of zoo conferences. Every year, I try to think about something to talk about which gets people to think. If you speak at a conference, you want people to sit up and say, “Hey! He’s a good speaker.” The way to do that is to think about something interesting, and also controversial. When you are controversial, you normally split your audience right down the middle. Un-zooing creates that kind of effect. It’s very different.
SHARDA: For the first few works of mine it’s been quite family-oriented because I took on my dad’s questions of why we treat animals in such unethical ways. In terms of theatre, different mentors also challenged me to take things on unconventionally. For example, the traditional thing for an actor would be to take a script, make that script work on the floor. But I never saw it that way, I saw floating chairs or sets. I love naturalism, I mean I’m doing Hotel (by W!ld Rice) in Adelaide and those scenes I’m in are very naturalistic. But I also appreciate companies like Cake Theatre that push the actor’s body in a different state. I like different ways of expression.
I guess un-zooing is a way to undo what is traditional and give someone a new experience, in theatre for me it’s the same thing. Splitting the audience down to two. I am highly aware of the work that I do whether it is my own or with other theatre companies, that the choices we make will definitely have a portion of the audience or even the society not liking it. They will be uncomfortable about it.
BERNARD: That’s the creative process. The process is one that takes you to unchartered territory. People sometimes don’t know how to handle that. So this attitude is probably what’s rubbed off on Sharda. I did give a talk about creativity in Singapore and it stemmed from a question I was asked once by a senior citizen when I was on a selected committee. We were talking about the future of Singapore, and tourism, and creativity. Goh Chok Tong, who was then the Prime Minister, said Singapore would be a creative society and a global one too. So this senior citizen asked me, how long do you think it would take for Singapore to be a creative society? I said, probably about a generation. He said… I thought all we needed was a campaign. I said, you’re not serious, are you?
The problem is that we take our children in their first years and systematically reduce their creativity. We homogenize them and beat out any form of creativity there is in them in the school system. We put them into uniformed groups and uniforms in National Service, then universities which are regimented. They end up in white shirts and blue trousers when they come out to the work force, they have got no creativity left at all. It will definitely take a whole generation to change this as long as the government is ready to change. But of course the government would be frightened of this. Again, the reaction I get from my audience is split. Half the people think I’m mad and rude. They get very personally offended.
SHARDA: Art unites and divides. That’s one of the things. It has to. From a young age I learnt not to be scared of that. Though I did grow up being a people pleaser, I’m still trying to wean myself off that. I was always an obedient girl to my teachers, though not to my parents. But in art making people pleasing can be a curse. You have to be okay with upsetting a few people. I’ve become like that in the rehearsal room too. If I didn’t do something right, I’m not going to sit backstage and cry about it. I say, it happened, I gave my best.
INTERVIEWER: Both of you are passionate about our environment: that is nature. How have we been neglectful of nature? What should people know more about nature in order for us to further our relationship with it in more positive ways? Why do you think it is a crucial time more than ever to be mindful of nature?
SHARDA: I feel terrible because I use so much plastic. As urbanites we can’t help but consume so much of it.
BERNARD: I was just in Bangladesh and they have just banned plastic. It’s something very difficult for a lot of countries to grasp and come to terms with. Bangladesh did it because they had very bad flooding, the plastic was choking up all the sewage systems. There were four month floods in Dhaka that just wouldn’t go away. In Rwanda they’ve also just banned it, because the president found it very distasteful. They’ve turned it into something like how we see chewing gum in Singapore. It’s not a capital offence, but it’s illegal and you can get fined.
We’re not conscious of our heavy plastic usage in Singapore because we have a very efficient system that cleans things up quickly. If you live in Bali like me though, you’ll see the difference. If you look at the toilet habits of an animal, say a cat, when they take a dump, they cover up their faeces. Why? So that their prey won’t smell a trace of it. They’re not conscious of what happens to their environment or whatever, they’re doing it for the hunt. If you look at primates, who live in trees, when a bunch of monkeys are eating, they just toss what they don’t want down the tree. They take a dump where they please and it’s out of sight out of mind. We are animals. Our mentality is the same. We are oblivious to what we use. It’s one of the biggest problems we have.
SHARDA: There’s also climate change and all that we are doing that accelerates it, when we try to dispose of our plastics.
BERNARD: Yes because it goes into the sea, and it comes back to us, when we eat the animals we catch that have also eaten the plastic.
SHARDA: It’s such a domestic problem, so it’s also an easy thing to overlook.
BERNARD: The biggest issue with climate change was to get everyone to say, collectively we have a problem. It’s not an individual problem. Acknowledging that took a huge amount of time and effort to achieve. You still can’t convert everyone. Now, this is the kind of thing we can use a campaign for. Still, the problem with people is that if you say something too loudly, too often, they get immune to it. Telling people gloom and doom stories won’t work. Highlighting effective things maybe work a little bit. If we expect Man to take care of himself in the future, we will not. We just don’t work like that. We have to get wise people collectively together, to make wise decisions for the world.
INTERVIEWER: Both of you clearly engage with what you pursue with a lot of love and proactivity. What does taking an initiative in something mean for the both of you? How does that also affect your respective working ethic? From there, how would you determine what success means to you?
SHARDA: Everyone in this room is doing what they love! It’s a balance between having a lot of guts, and also doing what you need to do. Sometimes it would go against a social norm. But once you know, it’s very easy, for me I always felt like I was just following a flow. I didn’t necessarily understand it, but I knew this is what makes the most sense to me. Because of that, loving it is easy. Then because of the love, making a stand for the work comes without any forcefulness. I can speak for my father too. He didn’t need to do all these talks, or leave the zoo. He did because there was something more, to help others run zoos in better ways. It’s very instinctive passion.
BERNARD: I think it’s like, not willing to be mediocre and sit in a rut. It comes from mentorship and looking at people around you. A lot of people in this world don't have the chance to have role models and mentors in their lives. It is difficult for them to aspire and say I want to be more than what I can. They don’t know any better, so to speak. They haven’t had their eyes opened. People can only accept what they understand.
Still, success for me is not financial. I wouldn’t say I was unhappy or that I wasn’t a success if I died not making a million, billion dollars. For me success is, have I made an impact on people? Have I done anything useful? Most importantly, have I enjoyed my life?
SHARDA: (mumbles while getting her make up done)
BERNARD: It’s like she’s at the dentist.
SHARDA: Just keep going Dad.
BERNARD: No, that was it.
INTERVIEWER: To end off, our publication is after all titled Muse – we’d definitely want to know who or what both your muses are.
BERNARD: Richard Branson. He’s cool.
SHARDA: Sean Leonard Harrison, my brother. He inspires me every day.
Words: Euginia Tan