What is a Merlion?

Now and then, 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.

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?

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. 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.

Following the design of the icon, the Merlion became very popular that statues were built. There were two statues made in 1972. The first statue weighed seventy tons and about 8.6 metres high was positioned at the Singapore River’s mouth. The second statue weighed three tons and about 2 metres high.

It was Kim Nang Seng who sculpted the Merlions. He based his sculpture on the blueprint given by Kean Sai Kheong. It was the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who officiated the installations of the two figures.

In 1997, the Esplanade Bridge was completed but it distorted the view of Merlions so in 2002, the two statues were relocated to Merlion Park. Other Merlions has been looming over the island-city. There is another statue in Sentosa, Mount Faber’s Faber Point and Ang Mo Kio-Bishan which are authorised by the Tourism Board. The symbol also made its way internationally with statues installed in United States, China and Indonesia.

While it often appears on tourism related sites, collateral 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.

Come over to Singapore to check it out! 

Check out my related post: What is Peranakan food?

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