The symbol of Singapore: The Merlion

The symbol of Singapore: The Merlion

To many, the Merlion is as synonymous with Singapore as chilli crab. However, not everyone knows how the Merlion came about. We trace its origin and development over the years as Singapore's tourism icon.

SINGAPORE: It has the head of a lion and the body of a fish and many tourists make it a note to visit the Merlion for a must-have holiday snapshot.

Tourists Channel NewsAsia spoke with described the creature as a "Singapore icon" and a guardian to the island-state, but few knew of its origins.

merlion at fullerton park

An 8.6m Merlion at Merlion Park. (Photo: Yeo Kai Ting)

The Merlion was first created in 1964 as an emblem for the then-Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, and served as the board's corporate logo from 1966 to 1997.

"It was a rather unique period in Singapore's history,” said Professor Gemma Calvert from the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School. “When the Merlion was introduced in logos in 1964, Singapore had recently ceased being a British colony and it was in sort of a political limbo.

“So, the Merlion is actually a kind of symbol. In this particular case, it kind of captures the roots of Singapore's underpinnings as a fishing village and a seaport with the fish, of course, and embodies the cultural values of Singapore's people - hard-working, thrifty, down-to-earth and so forth - and yet combines it with sort of chimera with the lion, which of course we all know signifies courage and bravery, and leaping into the future."

The original Merlion design was by Fraser Brunner, who was also curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium.

original merlion design

The original Merlion design of 1964 by Alec Fraser-Brunner

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the design reflects the legend of Sang Nila Utama - a mythical tale of a Malay prince who sailed across the seas and discovered a fishing island called "Temasek", meaning "sea town" in Old Javanese.

After arriving on the island, he was confronted by a majestic creature which appeared to be a lion. That was why he decided to name the island settlement "Singapura" which means "Lion City".

"The head, the face was reflective of the lion-like creature that he saw when he landed here and the tail is to symbolize our humble origins as a fishing village," said Ms Serene Tan, director of Lifestyle Precincts Development at the Singapore Tourism Board.

Following its introduction, the Merlion became so popular that two statues - one measuring 8.6 metres high and weighing 70 tons, and another smaller one of about 2 metres and tipping the scales at 3 tonnes – were sculpted by the late Lim Nang Seng. The statues were based on a blueprint by artist Kwan Sai Kheong and were installed at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1972.

Family taking photo at Merlion

The smaller Merlion at Merlion Park. (Photo: Xabryna Kek)

This installation was officiated by Singapore's late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

However, the completion of the Esplanade Bridge in 1997 meant that the 8.6 metre statue could no longer be viewed clearly from the waterfront. In 2002, both the main statue and the little one were relocated 120 metres away to Merlion Park.

merlion tile

A tile from the original Merlion. (Photo: Yeo Kai Ting)

These are not the only Merlion statues in Singapore. One has been looming over Sentosa from 1996. Standing at 37 metres tall, abseilers are specially hired to give the Sentosa Merlion a good scrub annually.

There are four other Merlion statues authorised by the Singapore Tourism Board. One is at Mount Faber’s Faber Point.

merlion mount faber

Mount Faber's Merlion. (Photo: Yeo Kai Ting)

Another two are hidden in Ang Mo Kio-Bishan, near Block 220, while there is also one at Tourism Court. The Merlion has also made its way overseas to Indonesia, China and as far as the United States.

"Singapore Tourism Board is indeed the custodian of the use of the Merlion emblem. You just apply for it online through our corporate website,” said Ms Tan. “The use of the Merlion is free of charge."

SG50 Rolls Royce (2)

Rolls-Royce stitching the Merlion motif on a car's headrest. (Photo: Rolls-Royce)

In recent years, other iconic structures such as the Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay have been used as symbols of Singapore. However Ms Tan said the Merlion is an "enduring icon".

“We know that today, one in five visitors will go to the Merlion Park when they are in Singapore. And I think what's heartening also is that a lot of local designers in recent years have been very inspired by the Merlion," she said.

"So what has come out of it is that we've seen chic and unique products such as ice cube trays, such as porcelain plates, such as cushion covers and so on. This has helped to sustain the interest in the Merlion, not just amongst tourists but also amongst the locals."

"In a sense, I think that Marina Bay Sands which is so iconic in the skyline is actually the logical transformation of the values that the Merlion represents,” added Prof Calvert. “Because there you have something exactly analogous, not rivalrous, because it's signifying the historical roots in the sea and yet it takes a lot of courage really to build an architectural structure like that, so I think it's very complementary with the principles of the Merlion. It actually signifies, and perhaps it's time to give the Merlion a renewed vigour."

Source: CNA/ek