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Issue 219

Does Singapore’s ‘Merlion’ Still Mean Much?

Trisha Low on encountering Singapore’s fantastic, ubiquitous symbol of independence

BY Trisha Low in Reviews Across Asia , Thematic Essays | 25 MAR 21

We had forgotten about the Merlion. It was cool that day – for being smack dab on the equator. Thick monsoon rolling in; Paddle Pop ice cream tacky on my lips. We’d spent our time amidst the water slides of Sentosa, Singapore’s national tourist resort. A tiny island off the tiny mainland of Singapore, Sentosa is designed to please travellers from all places and contexts, and is therefore generic, girded with candy-colour iconography. I was seven-years-old. Restless, sun-tired, we wanted to go home but it had started to rain. We had forgotten about the Merlion, but it was right there: a 37-metre statue with a viewing deck and a gift shop. Convenient, so we ducked in to rest our feet. 

The Merlion is based in myth. As the story goes, Sang Nila Utama, the 14th-century Prince of Sumatra, was sailing in the South China Sea when he was met by a vicious storm. Terrified of the ship being wrecked, he threw his crown into the ocean as a sacrifice to the gods. When the weather finally cleared, the ship had reached an island paradise. The prince clambered ashore, where he encountered a lion: the good omen after which Singapore – Sanskrit for lion (singa) and city (pura) – was named. 

Merlion Statue at Merlion Park
Merlion Statue, Singapore. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

If, as Fredric Jameson wrote in The Political Unconscious (1981), myth is ‘the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction’, perhaps this is a good framework for considering how public art helps form a coherent national identity in postcolonial Singapore. Invented by the Tourism Board in 1964, the Merlion as origin myth glosses over the later and more complex events of history – from the Japanese Occupation during World War II to racial unrest and Singapore’s secession from Malaysia in 1965 – in favour of representing a (semi-fictitious) narrative of unity and a shared civic vision that has facilitated the rapid economic development promoted by the centre-right People’s Action Party. Today, the Merlion is ubiquitous: from statues in the Business District to keyrings and figurines. But, oriented toward tourists, the Merlion is not considered by most Singaporeans to be a cornerstone of the state’s cultural imaginary. Local artists’ reactions to it over the years have ranged from ambivalence to outright mockery. Alvin Pang’s poem ‘Merlign’ (2012) calls the creature ‘a heap of fashioned stone / too light to carry souls […] neither idol nor ideal’. And much has been made in everyday discourse of the Merlion fountain ceaselessly spitting water from its mouth – parallels to vomiting or to the blind regurgitation of the party line are almost too easy to draw. ‘It’s a puking lion,’ my dad said flatly, when I asked for his opinion over the phone. 

My favourite response to the Merlion is Lim Tzay Chuen’s conceptual piece MIKE, Singapore’s contribution to the 2005 Venice Biennale. Lim requested that the original Merlion be transported to Italy and displayed at the pavilion. Unsurprisingly, his request was denied. Instead, he exhibited a fully functioning public toilet, a sign declaring: ‘I wanted to bring MIKE [Lim’s nickname for the Merlion] over’ and fictitious ephemera gesturing towards Lim’s failed discussion with the authorities as well as the bureaucracy that his request generated. There’s much to make of Lim’s tongue-in-cheek attempt to not only place government-sanctioned public art in a critical context but to lay bare the brusque, unapologetic functionality of what the Merlion has come to represent. After all, in Singapore, infrastructural development is often held to be more sacred than art. Perhaps the best part of Lim’s joke is that the 80-tonne Merlion statue had been moved just three years earlier, in 2002, as part of a multi-million dollar expansion of the Marina Bay. 

Lim Tzay Chuen, MIKE, 2005. Digital print. Dimensions variable. Artwork courtesy of the artist.
Lim Tzay Chuen, MIKE, 2005, digital print. Courtesy: the artist.

Today, from new MPs elected from the left-leaning Workers’ Party to activists challenging treatment of trans students in public schools, Singaporeans are insisting on change in accordance with the needs of their heterogenous communities. In this context, the Merlion feels less like necessary public art than an infelicitous symbol of government-imposed unity. And there is now a wealth of art and writing that seeks to cut through official narratives with the disparate experiences of Singaporeans. Sim Chi Yin’s ‘One Day We’ll Understand’ (2015–ongoing) is a series of installations composed of ephemera, artefacts and documents that record the events of The Malayan Emergency (1948–60) – a conflict between the British Colonial government and Malayan leftists – in which Sim’s grandfather and other Singaporeans participated. Sandi Tan’s coming of age documentary, Shirkers (2018), chases a mystery set in motion by her exploits and exploitation in the emerging Singaporean arts scene of the early 1990s. This is art that makes its own myth –excavates and imagines the spaces of what’s been lost, in the omissions and obfuscations of the past, but revels, too, in the blankness of what’s not yet here, of what could be.

This essay is part of a series on public art. It will appear in the May issue of frieze.

Main image: A rear view of the large Merlion statue at Merlion Park, Singapore, with Marina Bay Sands in the distance, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Trisha Low is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism

(Emily Books, 2019).