precious planet
Merlion or Dulion?
Text by Teresa Teo Guttensohn, August 2008

Portrait of Sang Nila Utama by Ho Tzu Nyen
“The Merlion has a lion head and a fish body resting on a crest of waves. The lion head symbolises the legend of the discovery of Singapura, as recorded in the "Malay Annals". In ancient times, Singapore was known as Temasek, a Javanese word for sea. In the 11th century A.D, Prince Sang Nila Utama of the Sri Vijaya Empire rediscovered the island.

When the Prince first landed on Singapore's shores, he sighted a mystical beast which he later learnt was a lion. The Prince then decided to name the island "Singapura" which in Sanskrit means Lion (Singa) City (Pura). The fish tail of the Merlion symbolises the ancient city of Temasek and represents Singapore's humble beginnings as a fishing village.”

- Myth from Malay Annals (AD 1612) as retold on Visit Singapore website

Mysterious Animals

Mysterious animals
Folks are fond of a good myth, especially one involving mysterious animals. So I hope someday to chat with Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate, Edwin Nadasan Thumboo (b.1933), professor emeritus of the National University of Singapore, about our mythical Merlion, and to seek his thoughts on its unsanctioned cousin, the Dulion (more on that later).

Lion of the Sea

Lion of the sea
What of our official trademark fish-tailed big-cat, the Merlion? Professor Thumboo called it the salt-maned “lion of the sea” in his 1979 poem, “Ulysses by the Merlion”. This nationalistic poem has had its share of critics, pointing out the artificiality of the national symbol, originally created by Mr Fraser Brunner for Singapore Tourism Board in 1964, and built in 1972 by late Singapore craftsman, Mr Lim Nang Seng.

As a kampong child, these facts eluded me, and I grew up trusting that the Merlion was conceived in the misty island days of Malay yore, when many animals too wonderful to imagine went unrecorded. Great was my disappointment when I later discovered otherwise.

Fictitious or not, papa Merlion and cub are now firmly lodged at the foot of the Esplanade Bridge, spouting water down Singapore River, happily resisting an ill-conceived notion to float to Venice and back in the name of art (think of all that carbon footprint!).

Merlion Poet

Professor Thumboo
Recently, days after our country’s 43rd birthday, the press paid Professor Thumboo homage in an article titled “Verse of a Nation”, whereby he was resolutely labeled “Merlion Poet” by reporter Stephanie Yap.

Merlion Poet had this to say about contrived origins: “This business about it being the creation of the Tourism Board - I say, I couldn’t care less. I find it very engaging, I find it serious fun. Every mythical figure started in some artificial way, and if you ask a committee or someone to design it, at least you know it is an intelligent bloke doing it”.

Singapore Mermaids

Could a new mythical symbol emerge from yet another intelligent local or foreign bloke (not me of course, as I’m not a bloke)? And perhaps this time around, he could try adding marine fact to fiction. I’m not sure how a lion roared into our tropical forests (perhaps like Aslan, the mystical lion of Narnia, he shows up every now and then to protect the good), but evidently once upon a time, Singapore did have “mermaids” aplenty splashing in her waters!

When Christopher Columbus explored the oceans in 1493 in search of the New World, he was quite certain he saw “mermaids”. These were in reality Manatees or sea-cows, which were often mistaken by ancient mariners (some no doubt drunken) for folkloric mermaids.

Manatees are large aquatic mammals, and the Dugong (Dugong dugon) is a close relation found in the seas of the Indo-Pacific region from the Red Sea, Arabic Gulf, East Africa, East and South East Asia, Australia to the Pacific Islands.

Dugongs (with flippers, no dorsal fin and flattened fluked tails like whales) are the rightful “mermaids” of Singapore. They once swam in healthy herds in the coastal waters of Singapore and Malaysia, munching on seagrass in submerged sea beds of Johor Straits.

Rare Dugongs

See The Story of Pat the Dugong, Written and Illustrated by Nurul Qisti Adam
Dugongs are an amazing ancient species of herbivorous mammals and are strictly marine. Sadly, Dugongs are on the decline in many places due to loss of seagrass beds caused by reclamation and sedimentation, shrimp farming leading to pollution, and loss of protective mangroves that act as filters. Dugongs are still hunted in some cultures for traditional medicine, meat, oil and tusks.

Dugong populations face serious threat of injuries and death caused by boat propellers and entanglement in mesh nets. Closer to home, dead Dugongs struck by boats have been washed up on local shores such as Pulau Tekong. These rare sea-cows face an uncertain future in Singapore and Malaysian waters, and mangrove and coastal conservation are important for their survival.

Local marine biologist, Siti Maryam Yaakub said Singapore has an impressive 11 seagrass species (a group of marine flowering plants). There are “three large seagrass meadows at Tanjong Chek Jawa, western coast of Pulau Semakau and Cyrene Reefs”, which do attract these “charismatic animals” and where dugong feeding trails can occasionally be seen.

Dugong Tale

The name Dugong is derived from the Malay name “Duyung”, which apparently means “lady of the sea”. Further north in Thailand, dugongs are called “Pha-Yoon”, or popularly known as “Nang-Nguag”.

In Thai literature, “Nang-Nguag” is the nickname of a youthful female mermaid, Phra Aphai-Mani, as written in a poem over a century ago by a famous writer SunThon Phu.

Rural Thais of the south coast do possess interesting folk tales about the Dugong. Mr Pisit Charnsnoh, Thailand’s environmental champion for people and Dugongs, once recounted to me this romantic legend:

“There was a poor young couple from a fishing village. The pregnant wife had a special craving for seagrass fruits, which tasted like peanuts, and was the Dugong’s favourite food. Her loving husband collected them for her everyday at low tide.

One day, the wife had such a strong craving that she went out on her own to look for the fruit. She walked so far into the sea that an enormous wave came and washed her away. When her husband returned home, he could not find his beloved wife. He asked the neighbours but no one knew where she was. Filled with fear for many days, he searched in vain.

One night he had a strange dream where his wife told him that she could not return because she had become a mermaid (Dugong or Pha-yoon). However, she still loved him and wanted to meet him at the beach. They met one night and pledged eternal love for each other.”

The Dulion

So you see, the Dugong lives in our South-east Asian waters and in our dreams. Surely this wondrous uniquely aquatic mammal that is part of our dwindling natural heritage deserves a mythical space of its own. Or even a national day song or two...

The Merlion is a hybrid of a fabled lion and an imaginary mermaid. I wonder if inventive Mr Brunner ever had the enchanting experience of encountering a wild Dugong. Who knows, had he been inspired by this lady of the sea, the Merlion might have been more aptly dubbed the “Dulion”!

Well, any blokes out there ready to bust out a new myth?

- END -
Quote from 2003 web article “Lion of Tor”
by Joseph Lai

“Folk history can do with a huge dose of inspiration from the vibrant natural history still found in Singapore…Folk history, as such, is not isolated in the human affairs that we hold dear, but steep in the ea Merlion or any other disneyed-inventions that are devoid of actual folk history, cannot hope to represent Singapore in its wholeness.”
- Joseph Lai,
Teresa Teo Gutttensohn is co-founder of Cicada Tree Eco-place and an eco-artist who is concerned about the relationship, between humans and nature. The daughter of a history teacher, she enjoys delving into the local passage of time. She has fun exploring the intricacies of Singapore’s history, culture and nature intertwined.

Ulysses by the Merlion
(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.

Edwin Thumboo