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An attempt at analysing The Merlion
Tuesday, March 26, 2013 | 7:44 PM | 0 comments

Amidst the treasure trove of Singaporean literary works, the Merlion appears to be a metaphorical magnet, attracting the attention of Singaporean writers. Such writers as Edwin Thumboo (Ulysses by the Merlion), Alvin Pang (Merlign), Lee Tzu Pheng (The Merlion to Ulysses) and of course, Alfian Sa’at (The Merlion) and other writers have written poems about this creature.

In Alfian Sa’at’s poem about the Merlion, the theme of identity is present throughout the poem. This is presented through a conversation between two characters discussing about the Merlion. Their comments and thoughts about the creature question the authenticity of the Merlion as a Singaporean icon. For example, one of them mentions that she wished the Merlion had paws, so that it would be more mobile on land and in water. This pokes fun at how it is possible for us to "customize" the Merlion to suit our "needs". This points out the artificiality of the Merlion icon, as it was initially conceived by the Singapore Tourism Board to be a “national symbol”. However, the Merlion was actually created to serve an economic function, i.e. to bring in tourism dollars. Therefore, rather than representing national identity, it has provoked scrutiny and criticisms from Singaporean writers. These criticisms and skepticism can be seen in the poem as depicted in the conversation between the characters in the poem.

The character also questioned where exactly the Merlion’s home is. This is a question that Singaporeans ask with regard to themselves, due to increasing globalization and the rapid transformation Singapore has undergone over a short period of time. The poem mentioned the idea of abandonment, which also draws a parallel to migration. This is applicable to Singapore society which consists of a predominant migrant population. The idea of abandonment is relevant in today’s context as many Singaporeans choose to leave the country and migrate to other places; for example, Australia. Abandonment could also refer to abandoning our cultural identity. This can be seen from how Singapore’s culture has been adulterated by Western influences, for example in education and media etc. Therefore, this has led to questions about what exactly is the Singaporean identity, which we are still searching for.

The theme of identity in the poem also refers to the identity confusion faced by Singaporeans. This idea can be seen from the poem where it was mentioned that even though the Merlion is supposedly a creature of the sea, it exists on land. This mirrors the identity confusion faced by Singaporeans. One of the characters in the poem is described to be a “victim” of Western influences. This can be seen from the vivid character description, such as “blond highlights in your black hair”, “blue lenses the shadow of a foreign sky” and “acquired accent of yours”.

In conclusion, this poem is an interesting read as it is still relevant to today’s context. Even as Singapore and Singaporeans continue to search for that elusive Singaporean identity, I believe that reading such Singaporean poems and works may perhaps open the right door that leads us to it.


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