Singa the Courtesy Lion

Singa the Courtesy Lion (also known as Singa the Lion or Singa) was introduced to the public in 1982 as the official mascot for Singapore’s National Courtesy Campaign (NCC). In his role as courtesy mascot, Singa has appeared in numerous publicity materials, souvenirs and events related to the campaign. In 2001, Singa became the mascot of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) after the NCC was incorporated into the movement.

Creation of Singa
Prior to Singa’s creation, the NCC was represented by a smiling head logo. Ministry of Culture officials who were involved in running the NCC felt that this logo was misleading as it gave the public the wrong impression that the campaign was merely about smiling. Ministry officials therefore wanted to create a new campaign mascot to help spread the message that being courteous entailed much more than just giving someone a friendly smile. The ministry’s decision to create a mascot was also influenced by the observation that mascots had been effective in promoting campaigns in other countries.1

The NCC committee considered several options for the mascot, including a human character and the Merlion, before finally deciding on the use of a lion. In particular, the committee wanted a lion that was lovable, friendly and warm rather than one that was fierce and had a snarl.2

The task of creating a suitable lion mascot was given to a team of artists in the ministry. The artists – Joseph Teo Teck Seng, Ahmad Asran and Eileen Wat – spent one-and-a-half months brainstorming, doodling and sketching before they finally came up with a suitable lion for the campaign. Named Singa (meaning “lion” in Malay), the lion was depicted as a young cub to coincide with Singapore’s status as a young nation. Warm colours of orange, red and yellow were also used to depict the friendliness and warmth of courteous living. Wat drew up the final version of Singa for the campaign.3

Singa as a mascot for courtesy
Singa was introduced to the public during the 1982 edition of the NCC, appearing in publicity posters, souvenirs as well as live events. The mascot quickly gained popularity. Two weeks after Singa’s unveiling, The Straits Times newspaper reported that the NCC’s courtesy hotline had been swamped with requests for Singa products.4 Many children even called the hotline asking to speak to Singa.5

Mr Basskaran Nair, who headed the NCC at the time, involved the private sector in the campaign. According to him, it was the retailers who came up with the idea of putting Singa on various products such as badges, iron-on transfers, stuffed dolls and tee-shirts.6 In addition, it was also the private sector that suggested the creation of a courtesy-themed ‘snakes and ladders’ game that later became popular with schoolchildren. In the game, courteous behaviour would send a player up a ladder while rude behaviour would send the person down the ranks.7

Singa soon became a well-known courtesy icon in Singapore. A 1984 survey by the Times Organisation found that 81 percent of the 382 people interviewed recognised Singa. Most interviewees were also able to make the correct association between Singa and courtesy.8

In 1987, the public was introduced to Singa’s wife and three cubs. Singa’s family was created to help promote the family theme adopted for the courtesy campaign held that year.9

In 1991, an award to recognise courteous behaviour among students was introduced. It was named Friend of Singa Award after the popular courtesy mascot.10 This award was administered by the Singapore Courtesy Council from 1994 to 2000 and by the SKM from 2001.

Singa was the most recognisable symbol of the NCC in the 1980s and 1990s but by the turn of the millennium, Singa rarely made public appearances. This trend continued after the NCC was subsumed under the SKM in 2001.

Singa’s alleged death
In 2009, three students of the Singapore Management University (SMU) organised a mock funeral to mourn the death of Singa the Courtesy Lion.11 The students’ intention was to jolt Singaporeans into becoming more active in creating a gracious society.

When informed of the event, SKM chairman Koh Poh Tiong denied rumours of Singa’s death. Instead, he announced the unveiling of 10 life-sized Singa statues at the launch of the Singapore Kindness Month in April 2009.12

The SKM subsequently began actively using Singa in its publicity materials. Singa was given a Facebook page and also appeared in new publicity videos. Singa and his lion cub friends were also featured in the Kindness Gallery launched in 2012. The gallery was created as a permanent space within the former MICA Building (also known as the Old Hill Street Police Station) to exhibit various artefacts related to the history of the NCC.13

Singa’s resignation
On 15 May 2013, SKM announced that Singa had resigned as mascot of the movement and posted his resignation letter on their website.14 In the letter, Singa expressed that he was “just too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society” and called for Singaporeans to take responsibility for their own actions. A similar letter was sent to primary schools notifying students that Singa was returning to his faraway home.15

News of Singa’s resignation went viral and provoked a wide range of responses from the public. Some people expressed their sadness and said that they would miss Singa. Others felt that the resignation did not make a difference as they believed that mascots such as Singa had become irrelevant in today’s society.16

The day after Singa’s resignation was announced, it was reported in the press that the move was part of a media campaign by SKM. The aim was to stimulate online conversations and reactions about kindness and the relevance of Singa. While the campaign succeeded in bringing Singa back into public consciousness and increased discussion about the level of kindness in Singapore, criticisms were raised over how these goals were achieved. Some Singaporeans felt that the stunt was misleading and unkind, giving the impression that Singaporeans were ungracious.17

Despite Singa’s resignation, SKM general secretary William Wan said that there was a possibility that Singa would return if the public felt he still had a role to play in promoting kindness.18 Singa was conspicuously absent during the inaugural launch of Kindness Day SG by the SKM on 31 May 2013. Instead, 5,000 rubber daisies, each representing an act of kindness and appreciation, were released into the Singapore River to mark the event.19 However, Singa continues to be featured as part of the SKM logo, on the SKM website, in its publicity materials and in the Kindness Gallery despite his apparent resignation.


Stephanie Ho

1. Philip Lee, “Mascot for Campaign,” Straits Times, 15 May 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Evangeline Gamboa, “How Eileen Wiped the Snarl off Singa…,” Straits Times, 18 May 1982, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Gamboa, “How Eileen Wiped the Snarl off Singa….”; Uma Moorthy, "Singa – What It Could Have Been," Straits Times, 30 June 1988, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Singa Has Become Mane Attraction,” Straits Times, 16 July 1982, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Philip Lee, “Courtesy Line Was Real Hot, Thanks to Our ReadersStraits Times, 2 August 1982, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
6. M. Nirmala, Courtesy – More than a Smile (Singapore: The Singapore Courtesy Council, 1999), 24–25. (Call no. RSING 395.095957 NIR -[CUS])
7. Nirmala, Courtesy – More than a Smile, 25.
8. Josephine Ng, “How You Rate the Campaign Logos,” Straits Times, 8 July 1984, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Fun-Filled event will Herald Courtesy Month,” Straits Times, 15 May 1987, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Nirmala, Courtesy – More than a Smile, 37.
11. LinYanQing, “Goodbye, Singa the Lion,” Today, 31 March 2009, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Esther Ng, “Singa Lives On,” Today, 1 April 2009, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Lim Yan Liang, “New Home for Singa the Courtesy Lion,” Straits Times, 9 March 2012, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Singa Resigns,” Singapore Kindness Movement, 15 May 2013.
15. Priscilla Goy, “Singa the Mascot May Stage a Comeback after ‘Quitting’,” Straits Times, 16 May 2013, 2–3. (From NewspaperSG)
16. See “Responses to Singa’s Resignation Letter,” Singapore Kindness Movement, 15 May 2013.  
17. Priscilla Goy, “Did Singa’s ‘Resignation’ Letter Lack Kindness?Straits Times, 17 May 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Goy, “Did Singa’s ‘Resignation’ Letter Lack Kindness?
19. Lim Yi Han and Sabrina Tiong, “Day of Fun to Let Kindness Bloom,” Straits Times, 1 June 2013, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 26 June 2013 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.


National Courtesy Campaign

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