One of the most prosperous and affluent nations in Asia today, and a former mighty trading port in times gone by, Singapore is sometimes referred to as the Lion City. But how did it get its name of Singapore? Steeped in legends and tales from the past, there are some rather interesting tales!
In one version, it all started when the Prince of Palembang, Sang Nila Utama, set out on a journey by sea. Palembang is on the Indonesian island of what is today Sumatra.
Perilous conditions and treacherous weather culminated in the prince tossing his precious crown into the raging ocean waters in an attempt to appease and placate the God of the Sea. Eventually, the storm settled down and the waters became a bit calmer and he was able to land his vessel on the shores of Temasek / Tumasek Island. This name translated as Sea Town.
Legend says that upon alighting his boat and setting foot on the island he was greeted by the sight of a mighty and majestic lion, known in the local language (Malay) as a singa. Because of seeing this wonderfully exotic creature, the prince made the decision to remain on the island and relocate his kingdom. He renamed the island after the animal, calling it Singapura – Lion City.
Another variation of the tale recounts that the Sumatran prince went out to sea with some friends, heading to the Riau Islands with the intention of going hunting. The Riau Islands are Indonesian islands, but are located just to the south of the country that is today known as Singapore.
When the prince and his comrades arrived at the Riau Islands, it is said that the prince climbed up a hill. From the top of this hill he stood gazing out across the ocean and towards the distant islands. When he set his eyes on what was then known as Temasek / Tumasek Island h was dazzled by the white sands of the island’s beaches. Impressed and captivated, the prince wanted to visit the island and the group set out once again by boat to explore.
As they were sailing towards the island a vicious storm began. To prevent the ship from sinking, they decided to lighten the load and cast away all of their possessions, including the prince’s valuable crown. As soon as their belongings were carried away by the raging torrents, the sea immediately became calmer and the storm ceased.
The group was able to complete its journey and the boat landed safely on the island’s shores. They wandered into the lush jungle and saw a beautiful lion amongst the greenery. So inspired by the animal was the prince that he decided to call the island after the lion – Singapura.
Yet another variation says that when the prince and his friends landed on Temasek / Tumasek, having sailed across stormy seas, they were greeted by a graceful and awe-inspiring creature that was unknown to them. The beast is said to have has a red body, a large, furry mane, and a black head. Impressed by the creature but also startled by its sudden appearance, the prince prepared to shoot the beast with his bow and arrow. When he drew back his bow and arrow, the animal is said to have looked him in the eye and let out a thunderous roar before running away into the jungle.
A local sage told the prince that he thought it was a lion that had somehow made its way from the west to the island. Struck by the lion’s beauty, the prince moved his kingdom to the island and called it Singapura.
Whilst it is highly likely that, if the prince did, indeed journey to the island and name it Singapura because of spotting a creature, the animal was in fact a tiger, the island has been known by that name since around the 14th century.