Very often, nations and cities choose an animal to represent them, one that symbolizes their origins and embodies the spirit they want to convey to the world. From the bald eagle that the United States chose as a symbol of freedom and strength, to the majestic Russian bear and the regal English lion, countries opt for animals that are most fitting to the image they want to reflect. Scotland is certainly up there among the most interesting ones, having chosen the mythical unicorn as its national animal, but one probably beats even that when it comes to an imaginative choice, by creating its own unique animal as the country’s symbol: The Singapore Merlion.
The Singapore Merlion: A Symbol of Past and Future
It sounds like a very peculiar choice but everything about Singapore’s Merlion is easily explained once you reach further into Singapore’s past. According to the most prevalent theory, Singapore was founded by a Malay prince who saw a lion when he first stepped foot on the now sovereign island, before he established a new settlement there. The country’s name pays homage to those beginnings: “Singapura” traces its roots back to Sanskrit, more specifically to the word “Singa” for “lion” and “Pura” for “city” – which also explains Singapore’s nickname as the “Lion City”. More than that, the lion head also symbolizes bravery and strength, while its chimeric element embodies the passion to leap forwards, all qualities greatly valued among Singaporeans.
The Mer- part of the symbol, a direct reference to the sea, refers to the lower part of the statue: its fish body. According to leading experts, it traces back to the origins of Singapore as a humble fishing village and a seaport – back when the city was still called “Temasek”, which, in Javanese, translates to “sea town”. Yet this choice also reflects other, equally important cultural ideals of the people of Singapore, who value hard work and a practical attitude towards life. And what better way to reflect that than to have the body of this symbol hint at its down-to-earth origins, on which the lion’s head is standing in order to boldly look into the future?
The Merlion’s History
Singapore’s Merlion was created during a one-of-a-kind moment in the country’s history: it had just ceased to be a colony of Great Britain and was going through a transitional period, socially, culturally and politically. Singaporeans were in the process of trying to rediscover their national identity and they were in need of a symbol to remind them of who they were and who they aspired to become. The original Merlion was designed in 1964 by Fraser Brunner, the man who was famously behind the Van Kleef Aquarium as its curator. Back then, Singapore was still part of Malaysia but it became a sovereign nation in 1965 – which officially makes its symbol a year older than the country itself.
It was officially introduced as the logo of the STB (the Singapore Tourism Board), which retained its use as its logo from 1964 up to 1997 and also trademarked it in 1966. While it often appears on STB-approved memorabilia and souvenirs, the Merlion has taken on a life of its own and has truly conquered the tourism industry in Singapore, mesmerizing visitors and locals alike. Along with The Little Mermaid sculpture that is situated on a sea rock in Copenhagen, Denmark, a reference to the popular fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the Merlion is among the most iconic representations of merpeople and mer-animals that are used as national symbols. Mermaids have long captured the human imagination, from the Sirens that Ancient Greeks encountered in the Odyssey to DC superhero Aquaman, who finds his home in underwater Atlantis. Yet the Merlion remains unique in its combination of the sea element, symbolizing vastness and humility, with the majestic and powerful lion.
A Unique Statue with Global Appeal
Singapore’s Merlion quickly became so widely loved that two statues were commissioned for Singaporeans to enjoy a physical rendition of the Merlion. The most popular one stands at 8.6 meters high and weighs approximately 70 tons, accompanied by a smaller one rising at two meters high and weighing about three tons. Both were created by Lim Nang Seng, based on a design by Kwan Sai Kheong. They were crafted and placed at the mouth of Singapore River on September 15, 1972. When Esplanade Bridge was completed in 1997, it blocked the view to the statue, which had to be relocated some 100 meters away in 2002. It currently stands in front of Fullerton Hotel, in what is now known as the Waterboat House Garden, just above the Marina Bay.
Local businesses with a global customer base, like Marina Bay Sands, probably Singapore’s leading hotel and casino that opened in 2006, have included the Merlion statue among the most important attractions of the city in trying to boost their appeal to international clients. It is also among the top sightseeing spots cited by all tour guides, including official tourist tips by the city of Singapore and TripAdvisor. As a rule, most accommodation providers, from the luxury Marina Bay Sands hotel to the more affordable Lucky Plaza Apartments, include the Merlion on their suggestions list and often give visitors instructions on how to get there from the premises – a testament to the Merlion’s popularity with tourists and the locals.
Although the 8.6-meter-high statue is the most prominent one, there are another seven officially-approved statutes that depict the Merlion. Perhaps the most notable one is the gigantic version that overlooks Sentosa Island. The statue stands a whopping 37-meter-tall and is home to two galleries from where you can have a panoramic view of Singapore: one situated on the 9th floor at the Merlion’s mouth and another one on the statue’s head. The giant Merlion’s teeth each stand for one of the various ethnic groups that form part of Singapore: Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian. Thus, the Merlion still stands true to its status as a symbol of unification and proud national identity.
If you find yourself in the area, Singapore’s Merlion is impossible to miss – but, even so, it is worth taking the time to explore its different versions and learn more about its marvelous history at the attraction situated inside the Sentosa giant Merlion.