The legend that almost all Singaporean children know is the one about how Singapore came to be named. The story goes that a prince of the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire, Sang Nila Utama, was sailing in the waters around Singapore in the 1200s. He was hunting on a island in the region when he chased a deer to the top of a cliff and saw another island across the sea: one with white beaches that looked like a sheet of cloth. He was told that the island was called Temasek (Singapore’s traditional name).
He got back on his ship to make the crossing to Temasek, but a violent storm occurred, and his men had to throw heavy items overboard to prevent the ship from sinking. When it didn’t seem to help, the prince was urged to throw his crown overboard to appease the sea. When he did so, the storm abated. Landing safely on the shores of Temasek, the prince began a hunt, upon which he saw a wild animal with an orange mane. His minister told him that is was a lion, or ‘singha’. Believing that it was a good omen, the prince decided to stay in Singapore and named the island ‘Singapura’, or, ‘Lion City’.
Today, we know that Singapore was never home to lions, but it was home to the Malayan tiger. Still, you’ll be able to see the Merlion, with the head of the lion that represents Singapore’s strength and confidence, at the mouth of the river near One Fullerton. And for tiger lore, head to Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, where the last tiger in Singapore was allegedly shot.
Take a southern island cruise to explore some of the smaller islands in the area, and you’ll come across Kusu Island. It’s said a group of Malay and Chinese fisherman were in their boats and were floundering near the island, when a giant tortoise appeared and saved them by turning into an island. The fisherman built a Chinese temple and a Malay shrine on the temple as a mark of their gratitude — both these structures still stand on the island today.
Another well-known Singapore folk tale is that of Badang, a Malay hero in ancient Singapore. Badang was poor and weak, and lived on the banks of the Singapore River, where he would set a trap to catch fish every evening. When he found that a genie had been stealing his fish, he confronted the genie angrily and was granted a wish in return, so he wished for superhuman strength. He was soon appointed a court warrior and became famous throughout the empire. He was challenged to a duel the strongest man in India and won all the contests.
The last contest was a rock throwing contest; Badang effortlessly flung a huge rock into the sea and it landed near the mouth of the Singapore River. Many years after this legend was told, a rock was discovered at the mouth of the Singapore river, with an undeciphered inscription. Many believed that this was the rock thrown by Badang. The rock was blown up to widen the river, but a fragment survives until today and is called the Singapore Stone – hich you can see on display at the National Museum of Singapore.