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Straits Times, October 16, 2011
By Huang Huifen
When senior public relations associate Sheena Sim, 26, showed her Australian friends around Singapore recently, she gave the water-spouting Merlion at One Fullerton a miss.
Instead, she took them to Marina Bay Sands and the Esplanade.
'The Merlion looks 'ancient' and does not show how Singapore has progressed over the years. So I took my friends to the Marina Bay Sands and the Esplanade as these places better portray what Singapore is today - modern and hip,' says Ms Sim.
And it appears that her carefully edited itinerary had worked. Ms Sim adds: 'My friends said Singapore is a modern and beautiful city.'
With the dramatic changes to the skyline, some like Ms Sim say the half-lion and half-fish sculpture has lost its roar. After all, it is dwarfed by the shiny triple towers of Marina Bay Sands, the futuristic Helix bridge and the piercing skyscrapers of the Marina Bay boulevard.
So, should the Merlion be retired as an icon of Singapore?
In one corner is the 'Yes' camp who thinks the Merlion is dated and looks out of place on the new skyline. On the other side stands the 'No' camp who thinks the Merlion is a symbol of Singapore that cannot be removed.
Salesman John Tan, 64, says: 'The Merlion is an anchor point of Singapore. It is part of our history and represents us. It may be old, but it is a significant landmark.'
Tourists such as Mr Yogesh Gupta, 47, from Delhi, feel that the Merlion should not be retired. 'When I think of Singapore, I think of the Merlion. The Marina Bay Sands is just a commercial building,' he says.
Mr Gevin Png, a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic's hospitality and tourism management programme, points out that it is not by accident that the Merlion Park is surrounded by newer and grander attractions. He says: 'The Marina Bay area was conceptualised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority as a 'necklace of attractions', with the Merlion Park as one of its attractions. These attractions are not usually marketed individually overseas and are meant to be complementary, not competitive.'
This involves a 3.5km waterfront loop linking attractions around the Bay, including Marina Bay Sands, Esplanade, Singapore Flyer, the Merlion Park and the upcoming Gardens by the Bay.
Australian tourist Luke Granleese, 26, appreciates this juxtaposition of the old and new. 'As a tourist, I came here to see the Merlion. And it is good that I get to see the modern buildings and the Merlion in one spot. The buildings or the Merlion will not look as good if they stand alone,' he says.
The Merlion, however, has seen better days. It was first designed as a logo by Mr Fraser Brunner, a curator of the now- defunct Van Kleef Aquarium, for the then-Singapore Tourist Promotion Board in 1964. To promote Singapore as a tourist destination, the 8.6m-tall concrete sculpture was created by late craftsman Lim Nang Seng and unveiled at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1972. In 2002, in a historical moment witnessed by thousands, the 70-tonne sculpture was moved from the mouth of the Singapore River to its present location because the new Esplanade Bridge blocked the view of it from the Marina Bay waterfront.
The creature continued to make splashes in the headlines when it got struck by lightning which damaged parts of its head. More recently, it attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to view a 'hotel' built around it as part of an art installation during the recent Singapore Biennale. But without the fanfare, the Merlion still holds its own weight. It was ranked among the top five free-access attractions and sites visited by tourists, along with Orchard Road, Chinatown, Little India and the Singapore River in a Singapore Tourism Board's 2009 tourism statistics report.
Travel agencies also say the Merlion is still a must-see for first-time visitors. A visit to the Merlion Park is part of a city tour that includes trips to Chinatown, Sentosa and the Marina Bay Sands. Chan Brothers Travel spokeman Jane Chang says: 'Customers are not exactly bubbling with excitement to view the Merlion compared to the snazzier sights of the Singapore Flyer, Universal Studios Singapore or MBS, but they do appreciate the history behind the attraction.'
Indeed, when LifeStyle visited the Merlion Park recently, the battered beast was still a stoic photography companion for throngs of tourists. Some enthusiastic ones even came up with innovative poses which positioned them in such a way that their mouths appeared to be catching the water spouting from the Merlion's mouth.
Australian tourist Bruce Phillips, 54, who was seen enjoying a popsicle while taking in the view of the Merlion, says: 'My daughter visited Singapore last year and told us that we had to see the Merlion because it is a symbol of Singapore. It does not look out of place at all, and it is nice to have a water feature, too.'
Old or new, majestic or dwarfed, a city's icon should not be determined by its modernity or size, says Mr Png of Temasek Polytechnic. 'The Statue of Liberty is huge, but it's not modern. The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen and The Pissing Boy in Brussels are small statues and clearly not modern, too. Yet these are icons. Whether the Merlion remains an icon depends on how Singaporeans see it as part of the national psyche,' he says.
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