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FOLKLORE OF SINGAPORE

THE MANY NAMES OF SINGAPORE
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 25 Apr 2019  

 

Singapore’s a city of colourful identities – and it shows in the country’s rich heritage, food and culture, among many other things. We delve past its surface to uncover whispered folktales from eras gone by, and how traces of these myths and legends have shaped Singapore today.

 

Lion

 

A Lion City, birthed

This one’s a favourite among many locals, even if it’s no longer told: Back in the 1200s, a prince of the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire – Sang Nila Utama – was hunting on an island close to the then-undiscovered Singapore. He chased a deer to the top of a cliff and spotted another island across the sea, which his chief minister said was called Temasek (Singapore’s traditional name), or ‘Sea Town’ in Old Javanese.

The prince returned to his ship to make the crossing to Temasek, but a violent storm forced him and his men to discard heavy items into the sea to stop the ship from sinking. This didn’t seem to help, so the prince was urged to throw his crown overboard to appease the sea. He relented, and the storm quickly abated, allowing them to arrive on the shores of Temasek. The prince soon spotted a wild animal with an orange mane. His minister claimed it was a lion, or ‘singha’ (the Sanskrit word for lion). Believing it to be a good omen, the prince decided to stay on the island and named the island ‘Singapura’, or, ‘Lion City’.

 

Merlion

 

Crouching tiger, hidden past

We know today that Singapore was never home to lions, but the Malayan tiger. Still, the (kitschy, if we may) Merlion – with its lion’s head and body of a fish – remains one of the country’s icons. You’ll find five official Merlion statues ’round Singapore – two of which are located at the Merlion Park in One Fullerton. Psst: There’s plenty to see and do in the Marina Bay area besides Merlion-spotting. More curious about Singapore’s tiger lore? In 1902, the last tiger in Singapore was shot while cowering under a table in Raffles Hotel’s Bar & Billiard Room.

 

Kusu Island

 

The magical turtle

Apart from Sentosa Island, Singapore comprises over 60 other islands, several of which are accessible by boat. Hop on a southern island cruise to explore Kusu Island (Kusu means ‘turtle’ in Hokkien dialect), which remains tied to several legends. In one, a giant turtle saved a group of sailors from rough waters by turning itself into an island. The sailors returned the following year with offerings to show their gratitude. Today, the island houses a Chinese temple and three Malay kramat, or holy shrines of Malay saints. And how’s this for a little more magic? The island continues to attract some 100,000 Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian pilgrims annually. These obscure religious sites across Singapore also have far-reaching roots in history.

 

Singapore River

 

Singapore’s Hercules 

Another well-known Singapore folk tale? Enter Badang, a Malay hero in ancient Singapore who may have been the country’s only answer to Hercules, if at all. As a poor fisherman who lived on the banks of the Singapore River, he would set a trap to catch fish every evening. When he discovered a water jinn (spirit) had been stealing his fish, he trapped the spirit, who promised to grant him any power if Badang ate whatever the spirit threw up. His wish for superhuman strength was granted, and he was soon appointed court warrior by the Sultan of Singapore. He was challenged to duel the strongest man in India in a series of contests – the last of which being a rock-throwing competition.

Badang effortlessly flung a huge rock into the waters, and it landed near the mouth of the Singapore River. Years after the legend had been told, a rock was discovered at the same spot with an indecipherable inscription. That rock was blown up to widen the river, but a fragment survives today – and you’ll easily find the so-called Singapore Stone on display at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

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