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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Jun 15, 2019

Merlion Musings

The Merlion may be dinky, but it carries Ong Sor Fern's childhood memories.  She wrote in The Straits Times on 12 March 2000.

When does a tourist trinket become a national icon?

She was musing over that mysterious transformational process recently after the Merlion's unfortunate encounter with nature.

A friend had sent her a text message the evening the Merlion was struck by lightning.  The brief SMS, to the point and short on details, prompted apocalyptic visions of destruction and wreckage.  She envisioned a statue shattered beyond repair and her gut reaction was dismay.'

Now, the Merlion is not something she have regarded with reverence thoughout her life, although it has been a constant presence.

She remember as a child being taken on outings to the Esplanade and seeing the statue.

One particularly vivid memory centres on the inevitable kids' drawing competition where her sister and her dutifully sketched the Merlion, spitting water as per countless postcard images even though the tap was turned off on the day.

In fact, as she grew older, the Merlion became something of a cliché as she learnt more about its provenance.  After all, it is hard to respect something created by a tourist board as a logo and marketing gimmick.

She was not the only one to have doubts about this "national icon".  As a young reporter, she interviewed one of Singapore's premier poets, Dr Lee Tzu Pheng, who had then just published a new collection of poetry, Lambada By Galilee.

In it was a poem The Merlion To Ulysses, a tart response to Professor Edwin Thumboo's landmark 1977 poem, Ulysses By The Merlion.

Dr Lee had said: "I'm very uneasy about seeing the Merlion as a national icon.  We need something that has really evolved rather than something that's chosen by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board."

And yet, over the years, the Merlion has insinuated itself into Singapore's consciousness.  Just look at the recent uproar over the lightning strike as Singaporeans speculated about the fengshui implication of the incident and whether to repair the statue of leave it standing proudly with its newfound scar.

It has become, thanks to the Singapore Tourism Board's relentless efforts, what it was supposed to be - a tourist icon.  Even in other countries, the Merlion is instantly recognised as a symbol of Singapore.

She remember gaping at a television advertisement in Japan's last year:  An airline was advertising its flight to Singapore by portraying a Japanese salaryman getting drenched by a man-sized Merlion installed in his living room.

In a way, the creature's unnatural birth mirrors Singapore's own origin as a territory thrust traumatically and unexpectedly into nationhood.  As a country, the Republic was created out of sheer willpower and deliberate design.  So it seems somehow apt that this island state is represented by a creature stitched together by a combination of pragmatism (marketing), plagiarism (of world myths) and perspiration (it took three months for craftsman Lim Nang Seng to build the statue).

(Photo above:  Lim Nang Seng at his worksite with one of the Merlion statues (background) sculpted by him in 1972.

Unlike other national icons which tend to start life celebrated then deteriorate into neglected cliché, the Merlion has travelled a reverse trajectory.

As the years have gone by, it has become the centrepiece of a vibrant literary subculture, thanks to Prof Thumboo's inaugural poem, etched onto a plague which still accompanies the statue of the Merlion Park.

After Dr Lee's first published riposte, succeeding generations of young poets have written about the Merlion.  In fact, it is something of an in-joke in literary circles that every aspiring poet must write a "Merlion".

But not all the poems are as salutary as Prof Thumboo's celebratory description of "this lion of the sea/Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail/Touched with power, insistent".

In the poems of younger poets such as Daren Shiau, Alfian Sa'at, Alvin Pang and Gwee Li Sui, the Merlion has become a prism with which to examine national identity, to satirise Singapore's insecurities, to critique the country's head-long rush into the future.'

Ironically, by virtue of its own superficiality, the Merlion has inspired thoughtful literary reveries that have invested this awkward half-lion, half-fish creation with meaning and depth.

Perhaps she was getting sentimental as she get older and the familiar geographical landmarks of her childhood vanish in name of progress and urban redevelopment.

But nowadays, when she see the Merlion, she no longer see just a tourist icon.  It has become a carrier of her childhood memories.  Her perception is also coloured by the poems she have read, which provoked her into thinking about the statue in new ways.

Where once she was mightily irked by the decision to move the Merlion from its old location to its current spot, now she see the move as an embodiment of Singapore's supremely pragmatic approach to all problems.

This latter approach might seem callously efficient, but it is this clear-eyed attitude that has helped Singapore survive all manner of storms and could be the one thing to pull us through the current economic doldrums.

After the lightning strike, she now see the Merlion in a new light, no pun intended.  It may be dinky.  It certainly is fake.  But heck, it is our creation and she have learnt to embrace it, warts and all.

Ulysses by The Merlion by Prof Edwin Thumboo
For Maurice Baker

I have sailed many waters,
Skirted islands of fire,
Contended with Circe
Who loved the squeal of pigs;
Passed Scylla and Charybdis
To seven years with Calypso,
Heaved in battle against the gods.
Beneath it all
I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled,
Travelled and travelled,
Suffering much, enjoying a little;
Met strange people singing
New myths; made myths myself.

But this lion of the sea
Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail,
Touched with power, insistent
On this brief promontory...

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium's.

They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for a centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet.
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now.

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the Dragon, Phoenix,
Garuda, Naga those Horses of the Sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.

Group photograph of Miss Universe 1987 contestants at the Merlion Park

Construction of Singapore's tourism symbol, The Merlion in 1972

The schoolchildren have fun at the Merlion Park

Above:  This is a photograph of Teng Hwee Tiang's two daughters standing in front of the Merlion cub at Merlion Park, dressed in identical red tops and brown shorts.  The Merlion Cub measures two metres high and is located 28 metres behind the Merlion, standing guard at the mouth of the Singapore River at Merlion Park.  Photograph donated by Teng Hwee Tiang and displayed at the Heritage Roadshow 2008.

Below:  Merlion Park is a Singapore landmark and major tourist attraction, located near One Fullerton, Singapore, near the Central Business District.  The Merlion is a mythical creature with a lion's head and the body of a fish that is widely used as a mascot and national personification of Singapore. (Source:  Wikipedia).

With the courtesy of the Singapore Memory Project to post my personal fond nostalgic memories of the Merlion Park here .

The photo below of my son and daughter taken in 1986 at the Merlion Park, Singapore.



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