Half fish, half lion, the Merlion has been the iconic symbol of Singapore for over 50 years. It sits proudly at the Merlion Park auspiciously facing east, spouting water to delighted tourists, and proud Singaporeans. The Merlion was designed by Alec Fraser-Brunner in 1964 as the logo for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). But this majestic piece of art actually has a much older story to tell.
For the Merlion’s origin, we must visit the literary work known commonly as the Malay Annals, written in 1612. Here, in chapter 3 we meet a restless 13th Century Prince by the name of Sang Nila Utama.
After becoming bored with his current life in Bentan, Sang Nila Utama took his Princess and their people to Tanjong Bemban, a place Nila Utama had longed to see. One day while out hunting, he climbed a tall rock that looked out across the sea. He spied sands as “white as cotton” and queried what land it was.
Those sands belonged to Tamasak, otherwise known as “sea town”. Immediately Nila Utama proposed travel to this new land. And so they did. On arrival he spotted an animal “extremely swift and beautiful, its body of a red colour, its head black and its breast white, extremely agile, and of great strength”. No one could tell Nila Utama what it was. Finally, he met Damang Lebar Dawn, who told him of a similar animal from ancient times, known as the singha or lion. Impressed that the city was graced with an animal so fierce and powerful, Nila Utama settled in Tamasak, renaming it Singhapura - “Lion City” in Sanskrit.
And so, Singapore’s Merlion is an artistic mashup of Tamasak “Sea Town”, and Singhapura, “Lion City”.
Although the Singapore Tourism Board changed their logo in 1997, the Merlion symbol is still protected under the STB Act. It is said the Merlion represents Singapore’s humble beginnings as a fishing village, the hard working values of citizens, and bravery associated with pursuing a progressive future.