The Merlion – half lion, half fish – is arguably the most well-known symbol of Singapore in the popular imagination today. Love it or hate it, this mythical water-spouting (or, some say, “spitting” or “vomiting”) creature is the ubiquitous representative of Singapore and its people to a global audience. In its role as anthropomorphic personification of Singapore, it is widely used in branding and advertising – appearing in banners and posters as well as tourist paraphernalia like key-rings, t-shirts, caps and plush toys. Any visiting TikTok-er, YouTuber or Instagram influencer worth their salt knows that if you don’t have a shot with the Merlion in it, you weren’t here. In popular culture, the Merlion has made appearances in video games like Mario Kart and Animal Crossing, movies like Crazy Rich Asians, a number of Japanese anime and manga series, and was even rendered in cake form in the reality series Cake Boss.
Originally conceived as a logo for the Singapore Tourism Board, the mer-lion symbol was designed by Alex Fraser-Brunner, ichthyologist and curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium in 1964 and served as the STB’s logo until 1997.
The Merlion statue, however, was only conceptualised and constructed in the early seventies. Measuring 8.6 metres high and weighing a massive 70 tons, sculptor Lim Nang Seng took almost 10 months to build it. It was officially installed at the mouth of the Singapore River, in the original Merlion Park location, on 15 September 1972 in a ceremony officiated by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Thus the Merlion evolved from brand logo for the marketing of Singapore to tourists, to an infinitely more significant and weighty role as public monument. On its scaly (non-existent?) shoulders rests the burden of entrenching the nation’s mythical-historical origin story and establishing an official narrative for our collective identity, lauding our hybridity and unity as a people. A poem by Edwin Thumboo, suitably high-minded and nationalistic in tone and aspiration, Ulysses by the Merlion, is engraved on a plaque on the site.
Subsequent generations of Singapore writers have also felt compelled to have a go at writing their very own Merlion poem – Alfian Sa’at (The Merlion), Alvin Pang (Merlign), Vernon Chan (Love Song for a Merlion), to name just a few. Mirroring the average Singaporean’s ambivalence towards the co-option of a tourist attraction as national icon, their poems reflect rather more complicated responses to this mythical creature, ranging from indifference or amused tolerance, to irony and outright mockery. Here’s an excerpt from Gwee Li Sui’s Propitiations:
“The flesh is weak, I said, Merlion!
My saliva wells up and it
can find no avenue—
but I must never spit!
The Merlion cried, My son,
my son, I spit for you!”
Contemporary artists, too, have investigated and questioned the role of the Merlion in our cultural imaginary, challenging official attributions of meaning and reimagining possibilities for engagement and encounter beyond the idealised image presented to us. In the Artists’ Village’s seminal exhibition Artists Investigating Monuments (AIM), 2000, artists Iwan W. Wijono and Agnes Yit presented performance works that actively engaged with the Merlion statue. Lim Tzay Chuen famously sought (and failed) to obtain permission from the authorities to transport the Merlion to Italy for his conceptual work MIKE, Singapore’s presentation for the 2005 Venice Biennale. Visitors were afforded the opportunity to spend a night at The Merlion Hotel, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s hotel suite installation, a temporary structure erected around the Merlion statue, for the 2011 Singapore Biennale.
Artist Ang Song Nian, however, engages with the Merlion on a less monumental scale. A contemporary artist working primarily in installation and photography, his works often explore the traces of human behaviour in our urban environment and landscapes. Included in the National Gallery Singapore’s current exhibition, Nothing is Forever: Rethinking Sculpture in Singapore is his 2013 work, Your Blank Stare Left Me At Sea. It is a collection of Merlion memorabilia made from a variety of materials such as glass, ceramic, wood, porcelain and bronze that the artist had collected from friends, or purchased from second-hand shops, Sungei Road vendors and tourist souvenir stores.
Take a closer look at the figurines and you will notice a surprising diversity and variance in how they have been rendered, notwithstanding the fact that the approval of the Singapore Tourism Board must be sought before anyone can fabricate or use the image of the Merlion.
“I was interested in the many different forms which the Merlion can take … and … in the way the figure has evolved into a state where it doubles up as a paperweight … Also, … how people would be interested in collecting a Merlion statue and displaying it in the house.”
Ang points out that people have made the Merlion figurines their own in various ways. Some, of course, show traces of misuse and lack of care, are chipped or broken and have been glued back together. A few have been drawn on and embellished. The smallest ones in the series, pictured below, look like they have been printed using some kind of 3D printer.
Monuments are never mere sculptures, created and placed in our public spaces solely because of their aesthetic and artistic qualities. They serve a larger purpose – a purpose determined by those with the power and financial and political wherewithal to commission, designate and determine what occupies our public spaces. They reinforce the primacy of official narratives and histories, which are presented as natural, immortal and eternally resistant to change.
Works like Ang Song Nian’s, on the other hand, serve as attempts to reclaim monumentality as a collective project, asserting agency in the meanings we attribute to monuments like the Merlion. Indeed, as the title of Ang’s work suggests, the Merlion’s “blank stare” lends itself to a multiplicity of readings, for history is not set in stone and our understanding of the past shifts, as do our views, our sense of who we are and of what is acceptable or possible.