In Search of the Merlion

Merlion - Sentosa Island

Singapore was an afterthought on our first journey to Southeast Asia. Scott had been there before, fell in love with the tiny city-state and wanted me to have the same experience. So after leaving Bangkok, we stopped in Singapore for a few days before the long trip back home.

I tried to do some research on Singapore in advance, but didn’t find as much information as I would have liked. One attraction kept popping up though and managed to pique my curiosity more than anything else had during our trip – the Merlion.

Most cities and countries have some sort of mascot or emblem which is immediately associated with them. Not wanting to be left out, Singapore hopped on this bandwagon with what they hoped would become a world famous image. Did they chose an endemic animal species or famous landmark? No, they chose the mythical Merlion.

As I soon learned, the Merlion is a cross between a fish and a lion, naturally. The powers-that-be adopted this strange image in 1964 to represent both the strength of the small country as well as the importance of the sea to the economic well-being of Singapore.

While the image certainly does accomplish its intended mission, it is also one of the most bizarre attractions I have ever chanced upon in my travels. Millions of people flock to the site of the Merlion statue for pictures with this representation born out of a tourism agency. Does no one else think it bizarre to celebrate not just a mythical creature, but one that actually has no myth associated with it?

My first experience with the Merlion was at Sentosa Island, a wildly popular Singaporean amusement island. When I saw this huge, 37-meter tall Merlion I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t the ‘real’ deal, merely a representation of the actual statue found in Merlion Park on Marina Bay. Even my internal monologue on the subject had become ridiculous – real vs. fake Merlion? Sigh. Rather than fight the lack of sense involved, I decided to accept it and embrace the Merlion love.

On our second day in the steamy city-state, I was on a mission to find and photograph the real Merlion. That morning, as I got our day packs ready, I felt as if I were going on a snipe hunt, only much more ludicrous. I should also note that I am uncommonly bad with directions. It is my great travel weakness and while I have tried to improve, I seriously doubt that I will ever be able to succeed.

I had a guidebook and I had a map, yet neither prevented us from getting horribly lost. At one point we somehow ended up inside a series of shopping centers that, like a labyrinth, refused to let us exit. In retrospect I don’t remember why it seemed like a good idea to even enter them in the first place (the Merlion is OUTSIDE) and yet there we were, endlessly weaving around a collection of electronics shops and manicurists.

Real Merlion

Merlion - Singapore

Eventually, we not only managed to escape the maze of commercialism, but we actually managed to find the legendary Merlion. At this point though we were hot, tired and in no mood to bask in the wonder of this amazing creature. We stood there, watching water spurt from its mouth like an overgrown lawn ornament, took some requisite pictures and left to escape the heat and take a cold shower.

That evening over a meal of noodles and beer, I tried to reflect on what the Merlion had meant. At first blush, it certainly represented frustration, not only at getting lost but wasting hours of our precious day looking for a ridiculous, water spitting concrete statue. After a few more Tiger beers, I began to get very philosophical about the suddenly endearing mammal-fish thing.  My great satori that evening was that it didn’t matter if I thought the Merlion was little more than a tourist trap, it actually meant something to other people. Singaporeans are fiercely proud of their country, as they should be. In less than half a century they transformed a tiny, Southeast Asian backwater into one of the most important economic centers of the world. The quality of life for all citizens has risen dramatically over that time and while some may scoff at what they believe are silly laws, the system works in Singapore.

Even more impressive than its economic achievements are its cultural ones. There are few places on the planet that are as diverse as Singapore. This small nation has welcomed immigrants from all over the world and its four official languages are each well used. Yet, you see very little tension or strife between these communities, even in the very worst of times. Singapore has had its growing pains, as all countries have, but it has entered the 21st century as a strong and stable state in an area of the world not well known for such achievements. Ultimately, it is this pride that the Merlion represents not only to its people, but to the world.

So, when you visit Singapore and get the necessary shots in front of my pal the Merlion, try not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Instead, stand back and admire the world’s most famous lawn ornament for the city and people it represents.

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