When the Singapore Tourism board (STB) was searching for an easily recognisable symbol which would aptly represent Singapore, it was agreed that a merlion statue installed in a strategic location facing the sea in the city centre would be the answer.
Not many countries in the world have undergone such a rapid economic development and urban transformation over the past three decades as the tiny island Republic of Singapore, a mere red dot in the vast Asian continent. This has propelled it from a Third to a First World country with a rising per capital income that compares well with the most developed nations elsewhere. It is remarkable that it was achieved in just one generation. This diminutive island nation, with a combined population of under six-million Singaporean and foreign inhabitants, is truly a melting pot of races and cultures of both East and West. Without any natural resources and well-endowed natural scenic beauty to boost it, most of its popular tourist attractions are man-created. Despite such limitations, foreign visitors from all over the world have been attracted to come here to see for themselves what has made Singapore tick and to enjoy its disparate places of interest, other innovative recreational attractions, varied and outstanding international cuisines and, last but not least, to shop in a shopper’s wonderland. Widely acclaimed as a garden city, it now wants to be known as a city within a garden.
Its ever changing cityscape, made more alluring by the clusters of imaginatively designed skyscrapers dotting its Marina Bay vicinity and beyond, have given it a new skyline which is rivalling the dazzling and vibrant Hong Kong harbour front in its central district. Singapore’s popularity with foreign visitors has multiplied manifolds over the years. This is self-evident from the tourist arrivals which have steadily increased from a few millions in the 1980s to the estimated 13.5 to 14.5-million in 2012.
Many of the top tourist attractions are conveniently located within the central or fringe city areas. Among these is the 8.6 m high and weighing 70 tons merlion statue, which is a prominent landmark in the Marina Bay area, right in the heart of Singapore’s bustling business and financial hub. The statue is further enhanced by the backdrop of high-rise commercial buildings. One of the must-see sights on a Singapore visit, just like the mermaid of Denmark’s Copenhagen, the merlion is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish with jets of water sprouting from its mouth into the bay. For the record, the merlion animal, in various manifestations, had, long ago, already been depicted in other countries like ancient Greece, Britain, India and Philippines. But it is only in Singapore that it has been accorded its shining glory and has become its tourism and national icon. What is the story behind its creation? When the Singapore Tourism board (STB) was searching for an easily recognisable symbol which would aptly represent Singapore, it was agreed that a merlion statue installed in a strategic location facing the sea in the city centre would be the answer. The lion head and fish body idea was adopted for their historic significance for Singapore. The legend goes that when a Sumatran prince, who set foot in Singapore in the 11th century, was confronted by a fearsome looking animal that he thought was a lion (probably a tiger which abounded there), he immediately named the island Singapura (a Sanskrit word for Lion City). It was later changed to Singapore when it became a British colony. The fish body would reflect Singapore’s ancient name Temasek, meaning the sea. Lim Nang Seng (1907-1987), a reputable sculptor who had won several national art design competitions was selected in 1971 to execute the merlion statue, based on a design of STB’s Board member Kwan Sai Keong who was also the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore and an amateur artist. This cement fondue statue, reinforced by a steel structure, was installed at the specially constructed Merlion Park at the mouth of Singapore River. It was officially unveiled publicly by the founding Prime minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in 1972. In 2002, the statue was lifted from the ground and moved by crane to a nearby more spacious reclaimed land site of the Marina Bay, complete with a new Merlion Park. Visitors can now command a better view of it both on land and from the sea. A mini replica of this statue was later added for the benefit of young visitors. At night fall, a regular laser show is staged in the brightly lit park to enhance its ambience and visitor enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, the merlion has been a hit with both the foreign and local visitors alike. The statue is currently undergoing an extensive maintenance and repair of its structure and will be reopened to the public in September, just in time for its 40th birthday celebration.
Are Singaporeans and overseas tourists captivated by the merlion statue’s creative and aesthetic attributes as a good piece of sculptural art? On the whole, its admirers far outweigh its detractors. Some think that it is stiff, ugly, too massive and devoid of creative charm and finesse to be a high quality art piece. But the majority of the visitors find it charming, pleasing to the eyes and well crafted by an outstanding sculptor. Its massive size with jets of sprouting water from the creature’s mouth adds to its public enjoyment. The US-based and internationally respected Internet outfit, Trip Advisor website, which recommends interesting sight-seeing places, hotel accommodations and eating places for tourists visiting other countries, has made many comments on it over the years. Its viewers’ comments are often well heeded by its followers and also closely monitored by the establishments and outlets commented upon. The result shows that of the 421 reviewers who commented on the Singapore merlion, 93 rated it excellent, 205 very good, 89 average, 25 poor and the remaining 9 terrible. Based on this, one must conclude that the Singapore merlion has been accorded a favourable world-wide endorsement by a diverse group of generally well travelled and worldly visitors. If a similar opinion survey is conducted in Singapore it will be revealing to compare the results. However, from my conversations with a fair cross sections of Singaporeans and Malaysians who have seen this creation, many repeatedly, most spoke highly of its artistic accomplishment.
How well-known is sculptor Lim Nang Seng among Singaporeans today? From my knowledge, very few members of the public who are his fellow country men and women, including the better educated ones, know that it was he who created the merlion statue, even after they had seen it. Many even thought that it was created by a foreign artist of note. Why? There are several possible reasons for this. First. hardly anything, if at all, have been written about Lim’s life and professional achievements in the mass media. A search for information on him on the Internet has confirmed that there are hardly any information about him and his professional antecedents and achievements other than that he created this statue. Was he given any national award in his honour for this truly popular, well endorsed and iconic national landmark? My inquiry with an official source confirmed that no such honour was conferred on him but there is a plague with his name inscribed by the side of the statue. Lim was invited to design Singapore’s first batch of one-cent coin in 1967 and by 1971 he had won several craft and art design competitions organised by the STB. This source also drew my attention to a book on History of Malayan Art written by Marco Hsu in 1963 in which the writer said that “Since 1958, Lim Nang Seng’s sculptural works have been selected for annual art exhibitions in Singapore. He had studied sculptural techniques since young, starting from the making of clay figurines in Southern China. He came to Malaya after the WWII and taught at a Chinese school in Bekok in Johore. By then, his works, which use a black river clay as medium, have become rather abstract while displaying a character which is typically Malayan. While he had begun to use pottery clay only recently, his works are no less expressive in power and Malayan in thematic consideration for which he received international acclaim. However, because most of his works are small in size, they were not taken seriously.”
Some unsubstantiated sources believe that although Lim Nang Seng did execute the merlion statue, but as the design and concept for it came from someone else and his role was therefore considered a secondary one of merely carrying out his assignment more as a skilled craftsmen and not as a sculptor in the true sense of the word compared to the creator and sculptor of the Copenhagen mermaid, Edvard Eriksen, who was inspired by a fairy tale of the famed Danish author Christian Anderson to conceptualise and to create this immortal work. Another view offered is that Lim’s lack of formal professional art school training and being a self-taught sculptor might have also contributed to the downgrading of his effort and attainment in executing this prestigious Singapore landmark. To compound the problem of his professional credentials, he is also said to have begun his career as a skilled mason, an outstanding one no doubt. I completely disagree with these untenable reasons as possible contributing factors for not according Lim the recognition he might otherwise deserve for having created a good piece of art that so many foreigners and Singaporeans have been fascinated by it and which has become Singapore’s official tourism symbol and much publicised in STB’s promotional materials both abroad and locally. The STB would have become a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world if the merlion statue is indeed devoid of artistic creativity and merit and is merely seen as a copied work of art.
Speaking not as an art expert but as someone interested in the visual art, I believe that the above possible reasons ought not per se be advanced as grounds for denying Lim Nang Seng the due recognition for this important work. The merlion statue should be judged primarily on its artistic merit and accomplishment. It takes a great deal of professional skills and artistic imagination to give it the flesh and blood, as it were, and to make it come to life by creatively shaping and transforming it into a lively and living art object that can withstand the test of time and which would give pleasure to those who gaze upon it, even though the idea and concept of it came from someone else. I believe that on these criteria Lim had succeeded in his given mission. I would therefore support the view of many who has seen it and have endorsed it as a very good piece of work which deserves more concrete recognition for a dedicated sculptor of no mean professional attainments.
Lim was already 65 years old when he completed the merlion statue. Thereafter no other significant sculptural projects had come his way besides a large dancing girl sculpture in the Tiong Bahru Housing Estate and a substantial monkey clock tower piece in the Bukit Timah shopping Centre which are still on public display there. The then University of Singapore also has several of his works in its art collection. The merlion statue did not increase his professional income significantly. Undaunted, Lim carried on crafting smaller works as he had always been doing for a limited demand in order to earn a modest living. He passed away in 1987 at the ripe old age of 80, unnoticed by the Singapore public.
When I learnt of Lim Nang Seng’s death, I was saddened by it. I have fond memories of him as an art professional as I had a pleasant encounter with him and he had left a good impression on me as a decent human being and a talented sculptor. It happened quite accidentally and unexpectedly. In 1982, I was given the task of organising a small scale international conference for some 20 delegates from various Asian and Western countries to be held in Singapore. I had a reasonable budget to present these delegates and organisers with a meaningful memento that will remind them of this occasion. My organising committee and I felt that a token piece of art work by a credible Singaporean artist would be both a meaningful and appropriate gift which should go down well with our foreign friends. I consulted a couple of artist friends and one of them recommended sculptor Lim Nang Seng to me for his delightful miniature pieces which would fit my budget. I met Lim and was somewhat taken aback that he and his wife lived in a small Public Housing Board apartment for the lower income Singaporeans, despite his reputation as the creator of the important merlion statue. His dwelling was austerely furnished and one of his sons and grandchildren lived there too. He greeted me genially and led me to a corner of his tiny living room cum dining room and showed me an assortment of his latest miniature art pieces lining the two long wooden shelves on the wall. This was where he would daily carry out his professional work with less than adequate lighting to reduce the electricity costs. I was struck by the highly artistic and some rather abstract creations, in particular a life-like clay reclining buffalo which immediately captivated me. After handling and examining it fondly for a few minutes, I there and then made up my mind that it was what I was looking for. Sensing my interest in it, he then told me that it was one of his latest works and he was thinking of consigning it to an art and craft gallery for sale. After finding out his price for it, I was again taken aback that he only asked for a modest $40 for such a striking piece of art. I felt this was unfair to him and counter offered him $60 per piece which was within my budget on condition that he would agree to sculpt 25 pieces of it to meet my deadline in about three months’ time. It was his turn to be surprised by my generous offered price , the size of my commission and the rather short time allowed for their completion. After a great deal of persuasion by me, Lim Nang Seng finally agreed to accept my terms and that he would put in extra efforts to satisfy my confidence in his works. Thereafter, I met him once more at his apartment closer to my deadline and was glad to see that he had only a few more pieces to complete his assignment. He duly delivered these pieces to me just ahead of the conference. They all looked gorgeous to me and I felt confident that they would be cherished by my conference delegates. The conference was a success and all my fellow delegates and organising colleagues were over the moon to be the proud owners of such a fine piece of art creation fashioned by none other than the creator of Singapore’s famed merlion statue. My own piece of this reclining buffalo has adorned my study room over the years and has given me endless viewing pleasure.
Two years ago, my second son, his wife and daughter were on one of their regular home visits from California where my son has a computer software business in the Silicon valley in partnership with his younger brother and a Japanese American lady. His Singaporean wife is a fine arts graduate from a US university and works part time as a jewelry designer and artist. She has a fine eye for creativity in art and other fine art objects. She happened to take a closer look at my small collection of art pieces and was particularly impressed by Lim Nang Seng’s reclining buffalo and remarked that it was a creative piece of work and she would like to know more about its creator. I told her that it was by a Singapore artist who also sculpted the merlion statue there. Sensing her interest and appreciation for it, I spontaneously invited her to take it home as my gift and to keep it as a family heirloom for his young daughter who, under her mother’s influence, has already shown some early flair for art. My daughter-in-law was most reluctant to accept this valued piece from me. After much persuasion and cajoling by me, she finally accepted it and it now occupies a pride of place in her living room cabinet in California. When I was in the process of writing this article and would like to pay a tribute to the late sculptor Mr Lim Nang Seng who had given my wife and I so much enjoyment of his work, my daughter-in-law spontaneously offered to take some close-up photos of it and forward them to me for inclusion in my post so that my viewers everywhere can also look at it and form their own opinions on it.
Lam Pin Foo