Even though we are a young nation, Singapore, like any other countries, has its fare share of legends and myths. Most Singaporeans are aware of the popular folktale of how the name Singapura came about, but what about the other lesser-known legends of Singapore, such as the Merlion, Redhill or Radin Mas?
Let’s find out more…
Sang Nila Utama, or Sri Tri Buana, was once the ruler of the Srivijaya Empire at Sumatra. According to legends, he went on an expedition in the late 13th century, and discovered an island with white sandy shore. After learning that the place was called Temasik (Temasek), Sang Nila Utama decided to cross the waters to reach this newly discovered land.
However, a storm appeared out of nowhere and nearly capsized the boat. In a desperate attempt, Sang Nila Utama threw his crown into the turbulent waters. The weather and the sea immediately became calm, and the crew reached Teluk Belanga (present-day Telok Blangah) safely. As they landed, a strange beast was spotted from afar. Upon hearing that it was a lion, an auspicious symbol, Sang Nila Utama was overjoyed and decided to name the island Singapura, or Lion City.
The discovery was said to have happened in around AD1297, and Sang Nila Utama went on to rule Singapura for 48 years before his death. His palace and burial ground was located on top of Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill (present-day Fort Canning Hill).
2. Pulau Ubin
How did the island of Pulau Ubin form in the first place?
A legendary tale explains that in the early days, an elephant, a pig and a frog challenged one another to reach the Johor shores from mainland Singapore. The stakes were high, as those who did not succeed would be turned into rock. The frog, being the first to try, failed to cross the straits and was turned into Pulau Sekudu. Pulau Sekudu literally means Frog Island in Malay.
The elephant and the pig were the next to attempt the feat. They did not make it too, thus both of them fused together to become the main island of Pulau Ubin.
3. Pulau Blakang Mati
The former name of Sentosa was Pulau Blakang Mati, where Blakang Mati means “behind the dead” in Malay.
No one knows exactly how the name of the island came about, but there were many legends about its origin. According to one version, the island was once a place of piracy and bloodshed in the past. The victims of the murders haunted the island so much that it was given this not-so-auspicious name. Another account was that the island was located “behind” Pulau Brani, which was the burial ground of many ancient Malay warriors.
Nevertheless, Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed as Sentosa (which means “isle of tranquility”) in 1972. With the island becoming a favourite beach resort among Singaporeans and the tourists, the unhappy legends were soon forgotten.
4. Kusu Island
It is said that in the early 19th century, two holy men went to Kusu Island on a pilgrimage trip. A bond of friendship was forged between the Arab Dato Syed Rahman and the Chinese Yam during their stay on the island. However, Yam became ill one day, and they were running out of their food supplies. Syed Rahman did not abandon his friend and instead stayed and prayed for his recovery.
Miraculously, a boat containing food and water appeared by the shore, and Yam recovered from his illness. The grateful pair returned to Kusu regularly as a gesture of gratitude.
Another version was that a giant tortoise miraculously appeared to save a group of Chinese and Malay fishermen, who were on the verge of drowning after their fishing boats sank in the stormy weather. The tortoise turned itself into an island so that the fishermen could climb ashore. In order to remember their gratitude to the holy tortoise, the fishermen built a Chinese temple and a Malay shrine on the island.
5. Sisters’ Islands
Lying south of Sentosa, Sisters’ Islands refer to Pulau Subar Darat and Pulau Subar Laut.
Many years ago, there was a pair of sisters Minah and Linah living by the southern coast of Singapore. Being very attached to each other, the sisters vowed to marry two brothers so that they could live together always. However, fate could be cruel sometimes, as one night Linah ran into a group of pirates by the sea.
Stunned by her beauty, the pirate chief was determined to marry Linah. When the dawn broke, the pirates came and abducted Linah to their ships. Weeping over the loss of her dear sister, Minah came swimming after the boats. The stormy waters were merciless, and she was drowned eventually. In a desperate attempt, Linah broke free and dived into the sea.
The next day, a pair of islands appeared at where the sisters had drowned. They were named Sisters’ Island by the villagers in memory of the two ill-fated girls.
6. Redhill and Tanjong Pagar
A long time ago, the southern coast of Singapore was infested by numerous fierce swordfish. The villagers and fishermen could not ply their trades at the sea, as they would be attacked by these fearsome creatures if they ever ventured near the waters. The people requested help from the Sultan, but even him and his royal army could not do anything about it.
A little boy then proposed a solution to the Sultan. Build a row of barricade made of banana tree trunks along the affected coast, he said. When the swordfish tried to attack the villagers again, their pointed beaks would pierce through the barricade and would be trapped immediately.
The plan worked perfectly, and the smart boy became popular among the villagers as their saviour. This invited jealousy from the Sultan. Fearing his rule would be threatened in the future, he sent his soldiers to kill the boy who lived on top of a hill. As the poor boy died, his blood flew down the hill, soaking the whole hill red. This was how Redhill, or Bukit Merah (literally means hill red), got its name.
In turn, the place where the barricade of banana tree trunks were set up became known as Tanjong Pagar, or “cape of stakes”.
(The picture shows “The Wisdom of the Boy from Red Hill” by local sculptor Chua Boon Kee, located at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)
7. Radin Mas
Radin Mas is the name referred to the area lying between Telok Blangah, Bukit Purmei and Jalan Bukit Merah.
According to legend, the place was named after a Javanese princess called Radin Mas Ayu, which means a sweet golden princess. Her father was a warrior prince named Pangeran Adipati Agung, who married a commoner, her mother, despite objection from the Sultan. During an expedition by Pangeran, the Sultan sent his men to burn their house down, killing Radin Mas Ayu’s mother. Radin Mas Ayu was saved by a loyal servant.
Upon his return, Pangeran was devastated. He decided to flee the Javanese kingdom with his infant daughter Radin Mas Ayu, and managed to arrive at Telok Blangah of Temasek (Singapore). Delighted with his arrival, the Sultan of Temasek arranged the marriage of his daughter to Pangeran. However, Radin Mas Ayu was not well-liked by her new stepmother.
When she grew up, Radin Mas Ayu had a marriage proposal from her stepmother’s nephew Tun Bagus. She refused but Tun Bagus threatened to kill Pangeran. In an attempt to shield her father from the attack, Radin Mas Ayu was stabbed in the heart by Tun Bagus. She was said to be buried at the foot of Mount Faber, and a shrine was erected in respect of her filial piety.
The few landmarks that still bear the name are Radin Mas Flyover, Radin Mas Primary School and Radin Mas Community Centre. Kampong Radin Mas was demolished in the eighties and Masjid Radin Mas (Mosque) was torn down in 2001.
The legend about Selegie Road is that it was the location of many great battles that took place in ancient Singapore. When Temasek fell in 1377, the last ruler of the kingdom was believed to have fled via this road, still a dirt track then, to Seletar. He escaped by the waters at the coast of Seletar and never managed to launch a comeback in a bid to reclaim his territories.
In the later years, a Bugis pirate tribe known as Orang Selegie was said to have occupy the area around Selegie, where they made Mount Sophia their home. The name Selegie may mean a Malay word that refers to a sharpened and hardened wooden spear.
One night, the villagers living by the southern coast of Temasek were awakened by the howling winds and the crashing waves. The dark clouds blocked out the lights of the moon and the stars, turning the world in complete darkness. It was as though the island of Temasek would be engulfed by the raging sea. The terrified villagers sank on their knees in prayers.
During this moment, a bright light was observed emerging from the southern waters. A massive creature, half lion and half fish, roared in anger. The battle between the fierce mystical animal and nature was intense, as the sky was filled with flashing lightnings. The villagers had never witnessed such terrifying phenomenons before.
After some time, the winds began to die down, the waves subsided and the sky started to clear. The gigantic sea beast had won the battle against the nature. As it claimed its victory, it stood proudly on Mount Imbiah of Pulau Belakang Mati (Sentosa). By morning, the merlion had retreated into its waters, leaving behind a bright colourful trail.
10. Badang and the Singapore Stone
According to local Malay folklore, Badang began as a poor fisherman who plied his trade at mouth of the Singapore River. One day he caught a genie in his fishing net, and in return of his release, the genie granted Badang’s wish to be the strongest man alive.
Impressed with Badang’s enormous strength, the Rajah of Singapura appointed him as the imperial warrior. Soon, other kingdoms heard of Badang’s fame and sent their warriors to challenge him. The king of India, in particular, sent his kingdom’s strongest man Wadi Bijaya to Singapura for a duel. In the last contest, Badang beat Wadi Bijaya by lifting a huge rock and throwing it towards the Singapore River.
Ancient inscriptions were added to the rock, probably to commemorate Badang’s achievements but centuries later in 1843, the British colonial government blasted it to pieces. Known as the Singapore Stone, only a fragment remains, and is now kept in the Singapore History Museum.
Note: The legends and myths of Singapore are not to be mixed up with Top 10 Most Popular Singapore’s Urban Legends.
Published: 29 June 2012
Updated: 05 December 2012