The Merlion is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Regarded as a Singapore icon, the Merlion was designed in 1964 for the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) and functioned as its corporate logo from 1966 to 1997. There are five authorised Merlion statues in Singapore, the most well-known being an 8m statue designed by Kwan Sai Kheong and sculpted by Lim Nang Seng. First unveiled on 15 September 1972, this statue is now located at Merlion Park, adjacent to One Fullerton at the Marina Bay waterfront. As a symbol representing Singapore, the Merlion features prominently in tourist souvenirs sold locally.
The emblem was designed in 1964 for the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board by Fraser Brunner, curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium. Later named the Merlion, it was officially registered as a trademark of STPB on 20 July 1966, granting the board exclusive rights to use the symbol.
The fish in its design alludes to the idea of Singapore as a port city and its dependence on maritime trade, especially in the days of Temasek, as Singapore was historically known prior to the arrival of the British colonisers. The lion is a reference to a tale narrated in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), which describes how Malay king Sang Nila Utama reportedly encountered a lion when he first stepped on the shores of this island, leading him to rename Temasek Singapura ( “lion city” in Sanskrit).
With the exception of souvenirs conforming to specific guidelines, members of the public are not allowed to produce artefacts featuring the Merlion or anything that resembles it without seeking permission from the board. According to the STPB Act, failure to comply with these regulations could result in a $1,000 fine per artefact. Although STPB changed its name to Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and replaced the Merlion as its corporate logo on 19 November1997, the board continues to regulate the use of the Merlion symbol.
Approved Merlion statues
In Singapore, there are seven Merlion statues that have been built with approval from the STB. The two most well-known statues are located at Merlion Park next to One Fullerton. Designed to project seawater from its mouth, the larger statue weighs 70t and stands at 8m, reinforced by a 0.6m concrete beam beneath it. The smaller statue is 2m tall, weighs 3t, and is commonly referred to as the “Merlion cub”. It is also inlaid with Chinese porcelain plates and bowls as part of its design.
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. After completion, the two statues were unveiled on 15 September 1972 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as part of the waterfront Merlion Park located at the mouth of the Singapore River.
With the completion of Esplanade Bridge in 1997, the Merlion statues could no longer be viewed clearly from the waterfront. In 2002, the STB decided to relocate the statues to a new pier specially built on the other side of Esplanade Bridge, overlooking Marina Bay. This relocation, and the subsequent extension of Merlion Park by up to four times its previous area, cost a total of $7.5 million. The works were completed on 23 April 2002, with a ceremony held on 15 September 2002 both to commemorate the occasion and to celebrate the Merlion’s 30th birthday. Then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was once again invited to grace the occasion.
The Merlion statue faces east, which is believed to be a direction that brings prosperity as dictated by the guidelines of feng shui (Chinese geomancy). This auspicious orientation was preserved even after its relocation in 2002.
Over the years, the statue’s pump system has broken down periodically due to corrosion by exposure to seawater, and has been replaced several times. On 28 February 2009, the larger statue was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm, causing a crack in the Merlion’s mane, and a hole at the base of the statue due to falling debris. The statue was repaired and restored for public viewing by 18 March 2009.
Completed in 1995, the Merlion tower on Sentosa is built on a hill 23m above sea level and stands at a height of 37m. It is an 11-storey building, excluding the uppermost observation deck, which allows visitors to enjoy commanding views of the Singapore skyline. Commissioned in 1993 by the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), the building cost a total of $13 million and was designed by Australian sculptor James Martin, who drew upon his expertise in human portraiture to emphasise the unique facial expressions of the sculpture. Made of cement, the tower is also externally reinforced with a thin shell of concrete fitted with 16, 000 lights that, when switched on after dark, trace the outline of the statue. The eyes of the Merlion are also installed with equipment that enable them to project multi-coloured laser beams.
Another Merlion statue is located outside STB’s office at Tourism Court. Made in the Philippines from glazed polymarble (a type of plastic resin), it is 3m tall. A similar statue can be found on Faber Point at Mount Faber. It is owned by the National Parks Board and was installed in 1998, following the redevelopment of the park.
Finallly, two similar pink granite Merlion statues, each 2.5m tall, were installed in 1998 on either side of a public carpark entrance along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1.
Besides those located in Singapore, Merlion replicas have also been found in places like Shenzhen, China, and in Japan.
The Merlion has also inspired several works by local poets, among them Ulysses by the Merlion by Edwin Thumboo, and The Merlion to Ulysses composed by Lee Tzu Pheng as a response to Thumboo. These and other poems dedicated to the Merlion have been collated into an anthology titled Reflecting on the Merlion published in 2009.
The Merlion statue at Merlion Park was part of an exhibit by Japanese artist Taztu Nishi unveiled at the Singapore Biennale 2011. Named the Merlion Hotel, a temporary 100m2, 5-star luxury hotel suite was built around the statue. The suite was open for public tours in the day and available as a guest suite for paying guests by night. It proved to be the most popular exhibit showcased during the Biennale, drawing close to 700,000 outdoor visitors.
Yong Chun Yuan
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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