Find out the history behind the half lion, half fish mythical creature and where you can find it around the world
Undoubtedly one of the strangest national symbol in the world, the Merlion has both confused and mesmerised travellers and locals alike since its inception.
The Merlion was commissioned in 1964 by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as Singapore Tourism Board, or STB) and designed by Alec Fraser Brunner, a zoologist and curator of Van Kleef Aquarium, Singapore’s first public aquarium.
The lion head signifies the legend of Sang Nila Utama’s when he discovered a lion during his land on the island, while the fish body pays tribute to the country’s humble beginnings as a fishing village.
Van Kleef Aquarium is an oceanarium that opened in 1955 to the public. Home to over 6,500 marine creatures, aquarium attracted over 400,000 visitors annually in the 1970s. However, visitorship fell over the years. The opening of Underwater World on Sentosa in 1991 dealt another blow to Van Kleef Aquarium, leading to the oceanarium eventual closure in 1996.
The name is a combination of “mer”, a prefix applied to partly sea-creatures, and “lion”.
Its embodiment of Singapore and unique design promoted STB to use the symbol as its official logo from 1964 to 1997. The Merlion was trademarked in 1966 by STB, making it a legal requirement to apply for the use of the symbol on souvenirs and commercial activities; non-commercial, tourism-related activities are exempted.
The Merlion made its first physical appearance in 1972 with a statue of it near the entrance of Singapore River. The 8.6-metre tall and 70-ton Merlion was designed by then vice-chancellor of National Univeristy of Singapore Kwan Sai Keong and crafted by local sculptor Lim Nang Seng.
For a period from 1998 to 2002, the Merlion did not spout water from its mouth due to a water pump malfunction. A relocation to Merlion Park prompted an upgrade to a two-unit pump system, ensuring that a backup is always ready in the event of a malfunction.
In 1997, the completion of Esplanade Bridge prompted the relocation of the Merlion statue as it had blocked the former Merlion Park from the Marina Bay waterfront.
Several sites were considered, including the Esplanade Park, a promontory near where Marina Bay Sands is today, and a promontory where the Singapore Flyer is. It was eventually decided that the Merlion will be shifted to a reclaimed promontory at the front of the Fullerton Hotel.
Today, with its prominent location and a 360-degree view of the surrounding, the new Merlion Park has emerged to become a major tourist attraction at Marina Bay
The Merlion was once struck by lighting in 2009, resulting in a huge chip at the head of the statue.
Separately in 2011, the Merlion became a pop-up hotel as part of the 2011 Singapore Biennale, a large scale contemporary art exhibition. The hotel was fully-booked within an hour.
The 8.6-metre Merlion was once proposed to be shipped to Venice for the 2005 Venice Biennale. The proposal was later dropped by STB in light of the logistical difficulties.
Over the years, imitations of the Merlion statue have sprouted across Singapore as well as other parts of the world.
1) A smaller statue standing two metres tall and weighing three tonnes can be found at Merlion Park. It was designed with Chinese porcelain plates as part of its design.
2) A 3-metre Merlion statue can be found at Faber Point at Mount Faber Point
3) Another 3-metre Merlion statue can be found at Tourism Court, the office of Singapore’s Tourism Board. It is the only indoor Merlion statue in Singapore
4) Located opposite Ang Mo Kio-Bishan Park, along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 (block 216 – 222 carpark entrance) is a pair of stone Merlions. The pair was initially renounced by STB as proper permissions were not made. Their stance was later reversed and their are now part of the six approved Merlion statues in Singapore.
5) The seventh and perhaps the most iconic Merlion, the Sentosa Merlion, was closed in Oct 2019 to make way for a linkway between Resorts World Sentosa in the north and Sentosa’s beaches in the south. The now demolished Merlion statue stood 37-metres tall and featured an animated exhibition of Sang Nila Utama’s discovery of Singapore.
6) A pair can be found at Woodlands Avenue 6, block 718. It is said that the pair were sculptured by the local community
7) A 2-metre Merlion can be found abandoned at Changi Air Base near block 151. The place is closed to the public.
8) A 8.6-metre tall Merlion — the same height as the one at Merlion Park — can be found on the outskirts of Hakodate, Hokkaido’s third largest city. It was erected in 1989 by philanthropist Masaru Yanagisawa, who was a big fan of Singapore. The Merlion is said to act as a guardian deity for navigation safety, guarding ships that travel to the port of Hokodate.
9) A miniature Merlion statue can be found at a kimono shop in Karuizawa, Nagano, Japan. It was purchased by the owner during a visit in Singapore. The statue rose to fame in 2016 after it was spotted by Lee Hsien Loong during a family trip to Japan.
10) A 2-metre Merlion statue flanked by two Singapore flags can be found a Nami Island, South Korea. It is unknown why it was there.
11) A 2-metre statue of the Merlion can be found at Benjakiti Park in Bangkok, near the entrance next to Queen Sirikit Convention Centre. The statue is a joint contribution by Singaporeans living in Thailand as well as Singapore Thai Chamber of Commerce, Singapore Club of Thailand and Singapore Tourism Board.
12) A 6-metre Merlion statue can be found right outside Cafe Singapore at Bontang, Indonesia. It is one of three Merlion statues that can spout water, the other two being the ones at the Merlion Park.
With this handy list in hand, how many Merlions can you take a selfie with?