Singapore lion head logo
Lion Head Symbol of Singapore. Image courtesy of the Singapore National Heritage Board.

The Curious Case of the Singapore Lion


I have always felt that there lies an unsolved riddle in the name Singapore (formerly Singapura; singa = lion, pura = city). It’s the singa. Apart from at the zoo, there are no singas in this pura. There never have been. The closest ones are many thousands of miles away in India.

So how did the lion get to the lion city?

I understand that the lion is one of a particular group of animals (see horses and birds) whose inherent symbolic value makes them amenable to being transplanted for uses far beyond their natural habitat (think Royal Arms of England, Chinese lion dance and the Lion of Venice). But for me, the sense of mystery associated with Singapore’s lion comes from the manner in which its story is told. I cannot shake the feeling that the writer is hiding something.

The lion enigma

Cover of the Malay Annals in Jawi
Frontispiece of the Malay Annals in Jawi
Image: Wikipedia Commons/CC PD-Mark

The story of the lion comes from the Malay Annals, an early modern text that presents itself as the official history of the Sultanate of Malacca. Malacca is today a coastal town in Malaysia that is famous for the remains of its Portuguese battlements. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, however, it was the seat of arguably the most glorious indigenous kingdom of the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago (which spans what we now call Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines and Timor-Leste). It is largely due to the Sultanate of Malacca that some 300 million people speak some variation of Malay today, making it one of the most spoken languages in the world (Malay is the national language of Singapore and is employed in the country’s national anthem and state crest). The Sultanate also had a major hand in the spread of Islam. With its 250 million adherents, Southeast Asia ranks only behind the Indian subcontinent in terms of its total Muslim population.

How the story of Southeast Asia changed with the start of the colonial period

The description of the lion found in the Malay Annals is as follows (the British accent belongs to the translator, John Leyden):

“There they saw an animal extremely swift and beautiful, its body of a red colour, its head black and its breast white, extremely agile, and of great strength, and its size a little larger than a he-goat.”

In a lengthy work consisting of some thirty chapters, this single sentence—a fleeting vision glimpsed by a prince of a strange, oddly coloured creature—is just about all the space that the author affords the lion (the lion proceeds to disappear and the prince names his new kingdom after the animal). It is a little underwhelming, to say the least.

For anyone hearing the story, even in the 15th century, the lion would have been immediately recognisable as an animal that was not naturally present in the environment. Following the dramatic logic of the archetypical stories of the time, it should therefore have been the bearer some kind of magic or deeper meaning. Here these people were, face to face with the king of the jungle, in the thick of a free-ranging, semi-mythological adventure full of supernatural feats by both man and animal, and this sentence was all they got? The doubts rush in as soon as one finishes it (well… interesting colours… he-goats ARE bigger than she-goats… but that still sounds like one rather stunted lion. It was a goat, wasn’t it? A beautiful, agile GOAT.). A magical lion presented a writer with so many dramatic and symbolic possibilities: an evil bandit in animal form; a betrayed king trying to be free himself of a curse; even just a good ol’ chase scene or fight to the death—something, anything. Anything would have topped the he-goat.

But the writer of the Malay Annals, like his prince protagonist, prefers to keep the lion at a distance. He does not wish to dwell on this point for too long. The only narrative purpose the lion serves is to be seen by the prince so that the name of the island can be explained. Now you know. Let’s move on.

One cannot help wondering what the source of his reticence is. What is he hiding?

Whose lion is it anyway?

Scupture of two lions on an ornate plinth
Lion Capital of Asoka
Photo by AS Mysore/CC PD-Mark

I have heard that the lion is in fact a Buddhist symbol. Its presence in the names and symbols of Southeast Asia is testament to the historical spread of Buddhism across the region. Like the religion, the lion symbol originates in India, where lions are actually found. One of its most famous uses, as I learnt in secondary school, was in the Lion Capital of the great Buddhist king, Asoka—a symbol which still serves as the national emblem of India today. As Buddhism spread, much like Christian crosses and Islamic stars and crescent moons, the lion moved with it, reincarnated in places where no one had ever seen one before as the representative of divine/Buddhist power. In fact, at some point in history, the world was replete with Singapuras, or some variation of it (see Sinhapura, Simhapura, Singupuram). Today, remnants of this period can still be found in the names of places like Singasari and Singaraja in Indonesia, in the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka, or even in Thailand’s Singha beer.

It sounds like such a plausible, obvious explanation, doesn’t it? Somehow, I’d never heard any mention of it for most of my life. I happened to stumble upon it by chance, deep in the pages of some history book whose name I cannot recall. It is as if the answer to the mystery of the Singapore lion had been hiding in plain sight the whole time, obscured by the superstar fame of the Malay Annals’ multicoloured lion-he-goat.

It turns out that the writer of the Malay Annals, one TS Lanang (relation to another TS, a certain Eliot, unknown), is telling the lion story with a particular purpose in mind: he is assembling an official version of history a few centuries after many of these events are said to have occurred under the instruction of the king of a powerful Malay state, Johor. He is taking legends, old wives’ tales, historical records, hearsay, all these incoherent fragments, trimming off the myriad incongruities, and subsuming them into an overarching narrative unity that will no doubt flatter his boss. He is telling the one story to control them all. And if he succeeds, and he clearly has here, his story will become accepted as a faithful representation of the problematic, multifaceted world in which it is born and ring true down the ages.

At the time of the writing of the Malay Annals, a great battle was underway between Johor and a rival kingdom, Aceh, for regional supremacy (TS Lanang would end up finishing the work as a captive in Aceh). The crown also carried with it the leadership of Islam. A Buddhist lion running around amid all this probably wasn’t the best narrative choice if one was looking to strengthen one’s leadership claim. A he-goat on the other hand…

Ceaseless transformations

The lion of the Malay Annals has long passed from our sight. The world in which it was born is only dimly recognisable to us. Today, we mainly take its story for a quirky legend that provides us with the required explanation for how our country got its name.

Maybe we have done to the Malay Annals’ lion what TS Lanang did to the lion that preceded it; we have extracted it from its story—cleanly, surgically—and we have written it into another. The Singapore lion now comes complete with merchandise, advertising and customer service, its meaning intimately tied to corporate perceptions of investment worthiness. It is the symbol of a billion-dollar brand in a global economy, less Ikea and McDonalds, more Louis Vuitton and Mercedes-Benz. All rights reserved. Not for copy, distribution or adaptation without express permission under penalty of prosecution.

I cannot help thinking that the Singapore lion remains something of a ghost, slinking through the trees in the distance, inscrutable. Whether he be a religious icon, a part of local folklore, or a brand, we end up learning more about ourselves and the values of the worlds we inhabit when we go looking for him. These worlds come and go with the passage of time, layering themselves one upon the other, waiting to be unearthed like an archaeological find; but the lion always remains in his place, too irresistible to be buried along with everything else, taking on whatever meaning we ask him to bear and ceaselessly transforming himself.

We glimpse him now through the trees, our lion, splendid and complete—but he trembles with some other energy and waits to be reborn once more.

Lion standing on a deserted block at night
Quiet by Gary Ang/CC BY-NC 4.0
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