Despite being a modern, young nation, Singapore is not without a mythological heritage.
Singapore’s 58th National Day is around the corner! With that, it’s time to feature Singaporean culture and heritage!
But this post wouldn’t be the usual “where to go for National Day” or “what to eat to celebrate local cuisine” feature. Instead, we’ll take a look at the mythological characters and creatures associated with Singapore. In other words, legendary characters and fantastic beasts who are part of the cultural heritage of the Lion City.
As a younger city-state and one with a population primarily descended from immigrants, much of Singapore’s folklore is shared with neighbouring countries or inherited from ancient civilisations like China and India.
That said, there are several folkloric deities and magical creatures who could be considered “representative” of Singapore.
The first entry on this list is also well-known internationally. Ironically, this is the name that perhaps least qualifies for a mythological listicle. On that, I’ll just say it’s perhaps a reflection of modern Singapore’s “unique” identity. Subtly symbolic of the drive of the Lion City to create its own culture too.
1. The Merlion
The Merlion is Singapore’s most famous cultural and tourism mascot. Half lion and half fish, an 8.6 metres tall statue of this mythical beast has been a landmark of the Marina Bay district since the 1970s.
Popularly regarded as the inspiration behind Singapore’s epithet of “Lion City,” the Merlion is nowadays also a Singaporean national personification and has long represented the city-state in sports, commercial advertising, and even national defense. Today, the flag of the Republic of Singapore Air Force still contains a graphic element that is possibly inspired by the Merlion.
As for the “story” behind the Merlion, this is well-known internationally, in great part thanks to the enthusiastic tour guides shepherding hordes of tourists to Merlion Park each day. The mythological creature is often described as the magical beast glimpsed by Sang Nila Utama when he visited the island during medieval times, an episode that gave birth to the name of Singapura, or Lion City.
Strictly speaking, the Malay Annals merely wrote that the prince encountered a lion but as such stories usually go, the creature in question was embellished with mythical touches in modern retellings. The fish body/tail presumably also symbolizes Singapore’s history as a sea town.
The actual historical origin of the Merlion, on the other hand, is far less magical. Simply put, there was never any magical lion hybrid with a fish body in local folklore. The statue at Marina Bay is based on a logo by British ichthyologist Alec Frederick Fraser-Brunner. The logo was created as part of the efforts of the then Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB) to promote Singapore as a holiday location. In other words, Singapore’s most famous magical beast began as the face of a marketing campaign, one that became a national symbol over time.
I’ve met Singaporeans who are deeply embarrassed by this reality; I’ll share too that I’ve never understood why they feel this way. While the Merlion is a commercial creation, so what? STPB did succeed in creating a national icon. One that’s enduring and beautiful.
Ask anthropologists and they’ll tell you most myths have mundane roots. For all we know, the real Medusa was just a stone-cold village girl with ugly braids.
Singapore’s Sentry of the South?
This was demolished not too long ago so I’m sure many people still remember. For years, a huge, monstrous Merlion statue stood at the heart of Sentosa, right beside Imbiah Station and Oasia Resort Sentosa.
At night, the 37-metre statue came alive with lights, laser eye beams, and vapour—truly a terrifying sight to behold. A British friend once joking asked me whether the statue was some sort of high-tech sentry, equipped with heat vision to instantly shoot down planes and sea vessels invading from the south.
I told him yes.
2. Badang the Strong
I first came across the name Badang during the 2019 edition of the Light to Night Festival. The mythological hero of the sixth chapter of Malay Annals, the giant was featured in one of the light projections for that year because of his association with the Singapore Stone. With great embarrassment, I admit I’d never heard of the name before that year, despite my interest in mythology.
As narrated by the Malay Annals, Badang was the loyal slave of a landowner who lived in Salwang. He gained supernatural strength after ingesting the vomit of a spectre—said spectre had agreed to grant Badang a boon in exchange for its life after it was seized by the slave. The spectre, or hantu, had also been eating the fish of the river Badang fishes at.
Thanks to his newfound strength, which enabled him to perform feats like clearing swathes of woodland with just a hand wave, Badang’s fame spread far and wide. After he was granted freedom by his master, he was invited to join the court of Sri Rama Vicrama, the ruler of Singhapura (see entry 7 below). Here, the strongman was constantly challenged by impossible tasks or other strongmen. Expectedly, Badang always triumphs.
In one such challenge, the strongman lifted a boulder and threw it all the way from his ruler’s court to the mouth of the Singhapura River. The Malay Annals states that the boulder remains to this day.
Jump forth to modern times, that boulder is believed to be the Singapore Stone, an inscribed sandstone slab that previously stood at the mouth of the Singapore River. (The slab was blown up by an unthinking British commander in 1843 but fragments survive) If not, the Singapore Stone possibly marks the grave of Badang the Strong as the Malay Annals states that after Badang’s passing, the Raja of Kling sent two stone pillars to be raised over the strongman’s grave “at the point of the Streights of Singhapura.”
Given the heavy mythological elements of the tale, it is, of course, anyone’s guess as to the real history of the Singapore Stone. In an unmagical, mundane world, it could be the case that the inscribed slab was romanticised with a fairy tale. Archeologists believe the Stone existed for centuries.
Or maybe, just maybe, an Asian Hercules indeed lived in Singapore centuries ago.
3. Tua Pek Gong
If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese religious practices and have not visited any other Chinese-majority country other than Singapore, you wouldn’t be faulted for assuming Tua Pek Gong (大伯公) is one of the most important Chinese gods.
The prosperity god is indeed beloved and widely worshipped throughout Singapore. From carefully maintained altars at kopi tiams to the hugely popular Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple. “Lord Eldest Uncle” is, however, unique to Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese folkloric worship. You’d be hard-pressed to find a temple dedicated to him even in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
As for the origin of the popular deity, there is no consensus among historians despite decades of research. Some believe the name “Tua Pek Gong” is the local term for Chinese gods of the earth, known in East Asia as Tudi. The term could also possibly be the sinicised version of the Malay words tokong and datok, which means “temple” and “grandfather.” It might be a sinicised portmanteau too.
Others claim that the god is the deified form of Zhang Fude, a much-respected Zhou Dynasty courtier. Notably, Tua Pek Gong’s godly title is Fude Zhengshen (福德正神), which means “Main/First God of Prosperity and Merit.”
Some scholars even theorise that Tua Pek Gong is not a deified person but the personification of the spirits of Chinese migrants working in Southeast Asia—an overseas Chinese god of sorts.
Further adding to the complexity is how Tua Pek Gong is today, prayed to for a wide variety of things. He is believed to be generous with bestowing prosperity, wealth, childbirth, health, and longevity, He is also said to be constantly willing to help the devoted overcome life obstacles.
In short, there are multiple schools of thoughts about the origins and nature of Tua Pek Gong. One of these theories even involves Kusu Island (see below) and is starkly different from the rest.
The best way to understand Tua Pek Gong is thus to regard him as the tutelary god of the Singaporean Chinese community. He is the guardian of the precious earth Singapore is built on. The genteel god is also the protector of those who came to this island to make a new home.
Trivia: “Tua Pek Gong” is a Hokkien term. In Mandarin, the title is pronounced as Da Bogong.
4. The Kusu Island Turtle
Kusu Island is a tiny island located approximately 5.6 km southwest of the Singapore mainland, with the word kusu also the Hokkien dialect word for “turtle.”
Previously known as “Governor’s Island” and “Goa Island,” Kusu Island has long been a Singaporean pilgrimage destination too. Today, thousands of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian pilgrims still visit the island every ninth lunar month to offer prayers at the island’s coastal Chinese temple and three Malay Keramats (shrines).
As for the legends associated with Kusu Island, there are many. Several involve a certain magical giant turtle.
One story goes that during the ninth lunar month, a huge turtle saved a group of sailors from watery death by transforming into an island. Before reclamation works in recent decades, the shape of the island was said to resemble a turtle.
In another myth, two fishermen were shipwrecked in nearby waters. A giant turtle similarly took pity on them and transformed itself into an island to provide refuge.
A series of 2016 special edition stamps by SingPost varied the second story a little by saying a turtle separately rescued a Chinese and a Malay fisherman after they fell into the sea. The turtle ferried the two men to a deserted island. After becoming good friends, the two men settled down permanently on the island.
Outside of tales about a mythological giant turtle, what’s most fascinating about Kusu Island is how three different faiths have peacefully coexisted on it for a century. The temple and shrines of Kusu were built around 1923.
The coastal temple worships Guanyin and is thus Chinese Buddhist. Within the same grounds is a shrine to the above-introduced Tua Pek Gong, a Southeast Asian Chinese folkloric god.
At the summit of the island’s only hill, reached by 152 steps, three Malay Keramat commemorate a religious Malay gentleman, his mother, and his sister. The shrines are said to be popular with childless couples hoping for children.
Remote as Kusu Island is, this magical turtle island is a microcosm of multi-religious Singapore. Through and through, It exemplifies the social harmony the city-state cherishes.
Kusu Island Tua Pek Gong
Lianhe Zaobao’s Ah Boy Don’t Play Pray series of animated shorts presented the following story as one of the possible origins of Tua Pek Gong; specifically, the one worshipped on Kusu Island. Before I continue, it is important to note that the series theorised that since there are multiple tutelary gods of the earth in Chinese folklore, Tua Pek Gong deities worshipped throughout Southeast Asia are all different gods.
So the story goes, a Malay child prodigy figured out a way to hunt swordfish by using banana tree trunks. He would lure the deadly fish into impaling their deadly bills into the tree trunks before killing them. His method thus ensured the safety of many fishermen and coastal residents.
However, the sultan the child lived under became convinced that the boy would overthrow him. Terrified, he had the child imprisoned and killed. The Tua Pek Gong worshipped on Kusu Island is said to be the spirit of this child. If not, the shrine commemorates the Hokkien foster parents of the child prodigy.
Now, if you’re familiar with Singaporean folklore, you would know the story of Attack of the Swordfish is the legend behind the Bukit Merah district. Bukit Merah means “Red Hill.” Supposedly, the child’s blood stained an entire hill red after he was butchered, thereafter giving rise to the modern name.
In 2014, SingPost also released a series of stamps featuring this legend.
I don’t know whether Zaobao got their resources mixed up or whether there’s indeed an alternate version of the Swordfish/Red Hill legend. Regardless, since there’s seldom any canon version in folklore, there’s no right or wrong. Who knows? Maybe a swordfish battle did happen in the seas and after the boy was killed by the sultan, a giant turtle transformed into an island to be his grave.
To me, the many possibilities are what makes mythology fascinating.
5. Na Tuk Gong
If you’re familiar with modern Malaysian, Indonesian, and Bruneian socio-politics, you’d know that Datuk, or Dato, is an honorific term given to a gentleman after he is conferred with certain honours.
The current Malaysian Prime Minister is a Dato Seri. The great Michelle Yeoh who’s seriously everywhere in every other movie nowadays is also a Dato. (Rather than a Datin). So is her father.
This creates a bit of folkloric confusion because Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese have long prayed to local deities titled Na Tuk Gong, with the title obviously a sinicised version of Datuk/Dato. The main Keramat on the above-mentioned Kusu Island venerates Na Tuk Gong (拿督公). Other than Kusu Island, there is an outdoor Na Tuk Gong shrine at Dempsey Hill and one at Loyang Tua Pek Gong Temple too.
The confusion clears up, though, when one remembers that the title is meant for individuals with exemplary accomplishments. Very simply, Datuk as a title long existed in Malaysia—the title was also granted to village elders, community leaders, etc. After a Datuk passes on, an outdoor grave would be established and prayers would often be offered in hopes of peace, protection, and so on.
This is part of the Keramat practice and was performed by some segments of the Malay community even though the practice strictly goes against the tenets of Islam. The practice is, in many ways, similar to the veneration of saints too.
Under the influence of Chinese ancestral worship practices, the Keramat tradition then adopted a Chinese identity as well as found popularity among the Chinese population. However, an odd syncretisation continues to exist. For example, some Keramats in Malaysia display miniature statues of community elders in Malay traditional wear.
Coming back to Singapore’s Kusu Island, the three Keramats at the highest point of the island are dedicated to Dato Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother, and his sister. The Dato’s sister, Nenek Ghalib, is said to have visited the dreams of a Chinese businessman named Hoe Beng Whatt in 1917 and requested for the shrines to be built. In exchange, her family will grant business success.
Other Na Tuk Gongs shrines in Singapore venerate other historical or community leaders.
Lastly, what’s interesting to note is how similar Na Tuk Gong is to Tua Pek Gong. Both “gods” could easily be mistaken for one another. Both could be regarded as local community guardians too.
No surprise, therefore, that worship of them has peacefully coexisted on Singapore’s Kusu Island for a century.
6. Sang Kancil
The Sang Kancil, or the Mousedeer, is the Brer Rabbit and Anansi of Malay folktales. Meek in appearance but superior in wit, the Sang Kancil always overcomes adversity by cunning alone. Most of his adventures involve his escape from dire situations by duping others into taking his place. If not, the cunning trickster bamboozles other animals into helping him get his way.
To give an example of the former, after falling into an abandoned well, Sang Kancil convinced several animals that the sky was falling down. After these naïve ones squeezed into the well with him, the Mousedeer tickled and annoyed them till, out of exasperation, an elephant threw him out of the well.
Culturally, many would consider the Sang Kancil stories a core part of Malay folklore rather than Singaporean mythology. That said, Singapore is still part of the Malay Archipelago, isn’t it? During my primary school days, I read numerous Mousedeer stories. I found those in the school library.
During the 2019 Singaporean Budget announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat famously referenced the Sang Kancil too.
In short, the DPM encouraged Singaporeans to be like the small but quick-witted Mousedeer. He also believed that as a city-state, Singapore is well capable of adapting to changes faster.
What Nonsense Happened at that Abandoned Well?
Here’s a link to the full version of Sang Kancil and the Abandoned Well. The illustrations on this page are absolutely adorable. (The silly tiger looks appears stupefied throughout)
This page was created by Esplanade Theatres on the Bay and back in June 2022, Esplanade hosted a performance of the most famous Sang Kancil story—the one with crocodiles getting duped big time.
Between Oct 2021 and July 2022, the Malay Heritage Centre at Kampong Glam also offered a workshop that incorporated Tales of the Mousedeer as part of the programme. As is clear, the witty Mousedeer trickster has long been widely embraced as a part of Singaporean culture.
7. Sang Nila Utama
I began this list with the Merlion. Let me end with that Singapore fantastic beast too.
Wait, I should say, let’s end this list with the mythological character who supposedly encountered the “Merlion.”
To repeat the legend in more detail, Indologist John Leyden’s translation of the Malay Annals tells the story of 13th-century Palembang Prince Sang Nila Utama suddenly experiencing wanderlust after staying at Bentan (Bintan) for a while. After receiving permission from his mother-in-law, and throwing a tantrum at his wife, the prince sailed to Tanjong Bemban where he and his crew amused themselves on the beach.
Sang Nila Utama subsequently went hunting too, and it was while atop a hill that he saw an island across the sea—one with “sands white as cotton.” His follower Indra B’hupala informed him that the island was named Tamasek (Temasek), following which the prince immediately set sail for a visit.
That supposedly short cruise did not go well. The entourage sailed into a storm and their vessels began to leak. Throwing everything overboard did not help and briefly, it seemed as if they were all going to die.
But some sort of divine revelation struck Sang Nila Utama and he decided to ditch his precious diadem. Miraculously, this ceased the storm and everybody reached Tamasek safely.
None the worse for wear, the prince and his entourage then resumed their holiday, frolicking on the above-mentioned cotton-like sands and at the mouth of the River Tamasek. At the latter location, Sang Nila Utama encountered a beautiful animal with a red body, a black head, and a white breast. He was later told that the magnificent beast was a singha, or lion.
As is well-known to every Singaporean, Sang Nila Utama was so pleased by his adventures, he decided to settle in Tamasek. He also renamed the island Singhapura (Singapura) and as ruler, was eventually given the title “Sri Tri Buana.” The title means “Lord of Three Worlds.”
Centuries later, the name of the city would be anglicised to Singapore. However, the official Malay name for the city-state remains Singapura to this day.
Did Sang Nila Utama Exist? Did the Prince Really Encounter a Lion?
First off, it’s important to note that the Malay Annals is similar to Japan’s Kojiki. It contains many mythological elements. Northern Arizona University historian Derek Heng also posited that the inclusion of Sang Nila Utama in the Malay Annals was to create a genealogy for the rulers of Melaka, and through that, infer political legitimacy. Singapura, by the way, was the precursor of the Melaka Sultanate.
Secondly, it is highly unlikely that Sang Nila Utama ever encountered a lion, let alone one with a red body and black head. Lions aren’t native to Singapore. Had the prince truly existed and indeed met some sort of animal at the Singapore River, it was probably a tiger or large civet cat.
In his paper Sang Nila Utama: Separating Myth From Reality, Heng furthermore suggested that the epithet of “Lion City” came about because the lion was regarded as an auspicious symbol in 14th-century Southeast Asia. The Malay Annals suggests that Sang Nila Utama, as Sri Tri Buana, was consecrated as an incarnation of a Bodhisattva. As such an incarnation, he would have been visualised as riding a lion steed, or singhasana.
Whichever the truth, one thing is for sure. Of all the names on this list, Sang Nila Utama is the one who most qualifies as the representative mythological character of Singapore.
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