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103 Meridian East » History »  The Merlion of The Lion City: How Singapore's Icon and Nickname came About
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Some cities have unofficial and poetic nicknames: the Windy City (Chicago), the City of Lights (Paris), the Eternal City (Rome) and the Big Apple (New York). Singapore, a teeny-weeny tropical city-state, has three: the Little Red Dot, which refers to its size on the world map; the City in the garden (according to the name of the Singaporean government's initiative to make the island as green as possible); and the Lion City.


The Tale of Two Names

The latter's etymology is puzzling and intriguing, for the presence of lions on this tropical island has never been proven (though that of tigers was). Well, there are lions at the Singapore Zoo, but they are a rather recent addition and cannot possibly claim the honour of giving the state its catchy zoomorphic alias.

Confusion is further deepened by the Merlion  a half-lion, half-fish chimera - which has secured its positions as Singapore's tourism symbol, "a souvenir spinner and an icon that helps to sell Singapore overseas", wrote Pamelia Lee in her book Singapore, Tourism & Me.

We take a look at a colourful yet highly knotty ball of stories about both the Merlion and the Lion City nickname, which, if properly disentangled, may lead us to a clearer understanding of Singapore and even its not so short history, as wrongly assumed by many.

Story 1 (from a Russian children's book about countries and nature):

"According to an ancient legend, in the eight century, a sea monster appeared. It was half-fish and half-lion and made such an impression on a Malay prince that he renamed the city to Singapura meaning "Lion City". And, today, a dragon with lion's jaws is featured on the country's postal stamps and its depiction may be seen pretty much everywhere"

The passage above sure raises eyebrows and even more questions: What prompted the monster's spectacular appearance in that particular century, and what evidence proves this Who was the Malay prince, and why Malay, in the first place Why the confusion with the terms "lion" and "dragon" And what was the original name of Singapore, if it was "renamed"

The Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) tell about Sang Nila Utama, the first king of the Malays who reigned A.D. 1299-1347. He was believed to be a son of an Indian prince, Rajah Culan, and a fairy princess who lived beneath the sea. Sang Nila Utama was proclaimed king of Suvarnabhumi (the ancient Sanskrit name for the Malay Peninsula) and given the title Sri Tri Buana, "Lord of the Three Worlds" in Sanskrit, which referred to the belief that the universe was divided into a world of gods, a world of humans and an underworld.

As legend has it, one day Sri Tri Buana decided to leave the old emporium of Palembang and seek his fortune on Bintan Island, which was the ruled by Queen Sadikar Shah and which is now a popular getaway destination among Singaporeans just an hour-long ferry-ride from the city-state. From atop a hill there, he saw another island with a beach of sand so white that it looked like a sheet of cloth. (Archaeological research has shown that Singapore's south shore in the early 14th century was in fact an almost blindingly white beach of fine white sand).

This, Sri Tri Buana was told, was Tumasik, or Temasek, as the island of Singapore was then called. The king decided to investigate it. As to what happened upon his landing, the Sejarah Melayu describes the events as follows:

"And they all beheld a strange animal. It seemed to move with great speed. It had a red body and a black head, its breast was white, it was strong and active in build, and in size it was bigger than a he-goat. When it saw the party, it moved away and disappeared".

No one from the king's entourage knew what it was, but an aged counsellor said that in ancient times, lions were reported to have just such an appearance. As Raymong Flower wrote in his book Raffles: The Story of Singapore: "Impressed, Sri Tri Buana decided that if the island could breed such animals, it was a good place to settle in". The king thus renamed the island of Temasek to Singapura (in Malay, 'singa' means lion, and 'pura' means city), brought in men, elephants and horses, basically colonising the island, and reigned for 48 years till his death.

Some historians questions the credibility of the Malay Annals and offer a less romantic etymology, suggesting that the name "Singapore" comes from the words 'singhha', meaning stopover, and 'pura', meaning city. Nonetheless, we now know what lies behind Singapore's widely-known nickname of the Lion City.

Here, we come to the other part of the mystery: how did the notorious large feline secure its position as a national symbol, and when did it grow its fishtail.

Story 2 (from a Russian company's advertorial which chose the Merlion as its role model):

"According to the local annals, a long time ago there was a huge monster with the head of a lion and the body of a fish the Merlion - who lived in ancient Singapore and protected its inhabitants. At the sight of the enemy, the monster's eyes would turn into red spouts of flame, which reduced the attackers to ashes. Never did the Merlion fail to spot and eliminate potential danger. Once, a heavy storm broke out, but the Merlion came out of the ocean and saved people from imminent death and the settlement of Singapore from destruction. Since then, the Merlion has become a symbol of Singapore. To commemorate their saviour, the people of Singapore erected a 37-metre tall stone tower in the shape of the fish-lion."

Well, this account had me in stitches for hours. Why, you may ask Read further and find out for yourself.

The merlion a mythical creature with the body of a fish and the head of a lion occurs in a number of different artistic traditions. Lions with fishtails can be found on Indian murals at Ajanta and Mathura, and on Etruscan coins of the Hellenistic period. Merlions, or "heraldic sea-lions", are an established element of Western heraldry, and have been used on the coat of arms of the city of Great Yarmouth in the United Kingdom; the City of Manila; and the East India Company.

"While the origin of our Merlion remain vague, we do know that the Merlion was completed in August 1972 at a cost of S$165,000. The man who sculpted it was Lim Nang Seng. It was a handsome sum of money at the time, but it proved to be a sound investment", wrote Pamelia Lee, a tourism expert who witnessed the birth of the Merlion as Singapore's national symbol, in her book Singapore, Tourism & Me.

The sculpture was commissioned in the hope of establishing a specific landmark that would come to be associated with Singapore. It was constructed of concrete around a steel frame, and designed to spout water into the harbour. The 8.6-metre high, 70-tonnes sculpture was unveiled by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 September 1982, at the mouth of the Singapore River, opposite the Fullerton Hotel.

As for the 37-metre-high Merlion, it does exist: the Merlion Tower was unveiled as a tourist attraction on Sentosa in 1996. It offers visitors a panoramic view of Sentosa Island, Singapore City and neighboring islands from the ninth floor (the lion's mouth) and the twelfth floor (the lion's head).

The Merlion or a Lion

However, the original idea of using a merlion to represent Singapore can be traced back to 1964, when the newly established Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB) precursor to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) unveiled a logo that included a merlion floating above stylized waves. It was designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee, and became the emblem of the STB. The use of the Merlion symbol requires permission from the STB.

What we see on postage stamps and governmental portals is not the Merlion, but rather a lion's head, which refers us to the widely-accepted belief that the word "Singapore" derives from 'singa', Malay for 'lion'.

Struck by Lightning

On April 30, a lightning strike took a chunk of the Merlion's mane. The debris landed on the statue's base, cracking it. The 8.6 m-tall symbol was caged in scaffoldings for workers to examine its head. Today, the Merlion has been restored to its original look.

Singapore's National Costume at Beauty Pageants

The Merlion is a source of inspiration for Singaporean fashion designers. Miss Shenise Wong who represented Singapore in the global finals of Miss Universe 2008 wore the white and silver gown with textured "scales" and an organza fishtail train. Miss Tan Yong Ying was Singapore's representative at Miss Intercontinental 2009 in Belarus, and her national costume was also based on the iconic Merlion.

Temasek Holdings

Today, the former name of Singapore is commemorated by an investment holding company of the Singapore government Temasek Holdings which is unofficially more often known as just Temasek. It was incorporated in 1974 to manage the government's investments in government-linked companies. The sole shareholder of Temasek Holdings is the Ministry of Finance.

by Julia Sherstyuk


Submit new comment


this is very interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
siew yong ying, 2011-10-12
KK, 2012-03-11
story 2 quite fake......
joanna, 2012-04-12
Cool history!
Chew ZQ, 2012-06-14
Awesome and specific stories!:)
Owen, 2012-08-01
Good story
Roobala, 2012-08-25
how do you know it is true???
annonymus, 2013-04-08
best story ever
lee jia wei, 2013-07-08
know i understand
hi, 2013-07-31
It's great! Really interesting and well written. I'd like to find also something more like a story though.
Jimena SanSav, 2013-08-14
great stories..... interesting!
Cindy Simon, 2013-10-15
The two statues were originally constructed from November 1971 to August 1972 by local sculptor Lim Nang Seng, based on a blueprint by artist Kwan Sai Kheong, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore.
Your name, 2013-08-20
Indeed the history points to that Cholan Empire that has influence the names of South East Asia.. We must accept that fact and change to suit for individual benefits
Ben Hua, 2013-08-21
booperdooper, 2016-08-21
Kes Tan, 2016-08-09
:) Awesome!! I like stories and Singapore's history!
Kes Tan, 2016-08-09
CooL hisTOry AND VeRy aMaziNG
FRaNGiE, 2016-08-07
Ang Yu Ting, 2014-02-27
This is very helpful to me. Especially that i needed these for my report. And it is very interesting to read.
Roan E. Vargas, 2014-03-05
wow interesting story
dejie, 2014-08-14
I believed in the first story because we tackled that topic in our classroom

joeffrey, 2015-01-26
good one
Ha Ha, 2015-05-12
I love this
sksk222, 2015-06-08
nono, 2015-08-10
What ever story is true it is befitting...
Kent, 2015-08-12
Singapore Expats


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