Saving the Merlion... the one on Sentosa Island!

SEPTEMBER 29 — They are demolishing the Merlion. Well, not THE Merlion; the original statue built in 1972 and moved to its current location in 2002 is still safe at the Merlion park by the Central Business District (CBD).  

The one they are going for is the giant Merlion at Sentosa. The one that shoots lasers out of its eyes at the evening light show, the one just about every Singaporean child in the 90s was dragged to see. 

Apparently the proud creature – Singapore’s tallest Merlion statue at over 30 metres — stands in the way of "Sensoryscape" which is an ambitious project to redevelop the southern half of Sentosa, an island that has long been reserved for recreation, resorts and casinos. 

A bridge connecting the resorts with the beaches in the south of the island is scheduled to replace the Sentosa Merlion and the attraction will close in October.   

There has been a public outcry. People have taken to the internet and social media pages declaring their love for this icon of Singpaore and a petition is currently circulating urging the government to shift the location of the bridge to allow the Merlion to exist.   

But in a country not known for either sentimentality or protest, why the outcry over this statue?  Over the years we’ve seen the iconic national library and various charming older housing projects torn down, so why protest over this particular object?  

It is complicated. To understand the upset over what is at first glance a bit of a tacky tourist attraction, you need to know what the Merlion is.

So what is it? Well, it's half fish, half lion. Hence, Merlion. It is not an ancient symbol of the island of Temasek or whatever you want to call pre-modern Singapore; it was created as the logo for the Singapore Tourism Board in the 1960s. 

Really a piece of national branding for a tiny new nation whose government was looking for symbols.  

Alec Fraser Brunner, a British ichthyologist (a man who studies fish), was recruited to design the symbol. His creation was the Merlion. 

The lion's head represented the singa (lion) in Singapura, the lion city. And the fish half? He was an ichthyologist so he liked fish. 

But, well, the fish half refers back to the sea and the idea that Singapore’s history and future is tied to the ocean that surrounds us. 

This bit of iconography seemed to work; early tourism campaigns went well and the government then commissioned Lim Nan Seng to build the first Merlion statue by the Fullerton Hotel.  

At the mouth of  the Singapore River and at the heart of the city, the Merlion statue was a neat representation of  the island's history and aspirations.  

But while it proved somewhat popular, it was never a complete success. 

A Japanese ranking rated the Merlion among the world's most disappointing tourist attractions. And Singaporeans themselves never took to it in the way Americans embraced the Statue of Liberty or the French the Eiffel Tower. 

Singaporeans actually have a rather complex relationship with the Merlion. On one hand, it is clearly the result of the rapid nation-building of our early days. 

But yet, or maybe because of its somewhat recent and humble origins, we are fond it.  

Tacky, commercialised yet somehow Singaporean. 

It has even become a verb in our local slang – to  Merlion is to vomit – because the original Merlion at Fullerton produces a constant stream of water from its mouth. The improbable creature is also a niche in local poetry.

But like it or not, I think the Merlion is part of our heritage and not just a piece of 60s kitsch to be replaced. 

It is a reflection of us all in its perpetually vomiting laser-eyed glory. I. for one, am happy to sign the petition for its preservation. 

I mean, surely they can move the bridge a little bit to the left or right? 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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