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Kusu Island
Photograph: SuppliedKusu Island

The popular myths and legends of Singapore

From the story behind Redhill's name to the legend of Sang Nila Utama, here are the folktales as told by our grandparents

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid
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Don't let Modern Singapore's young facade fool you – the island has plenty of stories that the history books won't tell you, including heroes like Badang and Radin Mas to the origin of islands like Sentosa and Kusu Island. Just like Singapore's famous urban legends, you've probably come across the folklore at least once in your lifetime, whether through books, movies, or your grandparents. If you haven't, you're in luck. Find a cosy spot in the room as we bring you the myths and legends that have helped shaped Singapore, including its name.

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Badang and The Singapore Stone
Photograph: Roots/National Museum of Singapore

Badang and The Singapore Stone

Did you know that Singapore has its very own Hercules? Known as Badang, the poor fisherman lived his humble life by the Singapore River. When he realised a water jinn (spirit) had been stealing his fishes, he set a trap to catch the spirit red-handed. He then confronted the captured spirit who promised to grant his wish in return for its release. Badang proceeded to wish for superhuman strength and was soon appointed court warrior by the Sultan of Singapore. Warriors from far and wide started swarming in to challenge the strong man, including India's Wadi Bijaya. The two duelled in a series of contests, and the last one saw them lifting a massive rock and throwing it towards the Singapore River.

The rock was discovered years later at the spot where it was said to have landed. And not just that – there was an inscription on it, probably to commemorate Badang's achievement. However, only a fragment of the rock survives today as it's been said the Brits blasted it to pieces in 1843. While it's housed in the temporarily closed National Museum of Singapore, you can still see online via The Singapore Story Through 60 Objects.

Sang Nila Utama
Photograph: Shutterstock/Daniel Ferryanto

Sang Nila Utama

Here's a familiar one about the roaring beginnings of the Lion City – dating all the way back in 1200s. Legend has it that the Prince of Palembang of the Srivijaya Empire, who went by the name Sang Nila Utama, spotted an island across the sea when he was hunting. Curious, he asked his chief minister about it, and was told that it was called Temasek (Singapore's former name which means 'sea town' in Old Javanese). Eager to step foot on the island, he returned to his ship and set sail.

En route to the island, a violent storm broke out, forcing him and his crew to throw out heavy items, including his crown, into the sea in an effort to keep the ship afloat. Soon after, the storm cleared away and they arrived at the shores of Temasek. While exploring the island, he spotted a creature that looked like a 'singha' ('lion' in Sanskrit). Believing it to be a good omen, the prince and his men stayed on the island and founded a city, renaming it Singapura (Lion City). However, since lions weren't around back in the day, we reckon he saw a tiger instead.

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Redhill
Photograph: Shutterstock

Redhill

Redhill – otherwise known as Bukit Merah ('hill red' in Malay) – has a bloody tale behind its name. As strange as it sounds, it all started with a swordfish infestation where the sea creatures attacked unsuspected villagers and fishermen by the shore. But not all heroes wear capes – our young hero had something else up his sleeves: the idea of using banana tree trunks as a barricade to trap the swordfishes. He brought this up to the Sultan, who granted permission to go proceed. The brilliant plan worked, earning him the respect and admiration of the villagers, but not the Sultan who soon became envious of the attention.

Out of jealousy, he ordered his men to rid the boy, even killing him by means necessary. And so they did. The poor boy's blood flowed down the hill where he lived, staining the it blood red. And that's – ladies and gents – is how Redhill got its name – or so it's said.

 

Pulau Blakang Mati
Photograph: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Pulau Blakang Mati

Fun fact: Pulau Blakang Mati ('island of death behind' in Malay) was the former name of Sentosa. While no one knows exactly just how the island got its morbid name, it's been said that the island was once a place of piracy and bloodshed. Other reasons behind its name include the location of the island which was adjacent to Pulau Brani which was the burial ground for many ancient Malay warriors. Then there's the tale about a deadly outbreak called the Blakang Mati Fever in the late 1840s which almost wiped out the original Bugis settlers on the island.

In 1972, Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed as Sentosa ('peace and tranquility' in Malay), leaving its macabre past behind. Today, it's a beach resort known as 'the State of Fun'.

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Kusu Island
Photograph: Supplied

Kusu Island

Another island with an interesting backstory is Kusu Island. Also known as a scared site, the island is home to a Chinese temple and three Malay shrines. But do you know where it gets its name from? Kusu means 'turtle' in Hokkien, and legend has it that a giant turtle transformed into the island to save stranded sailors and fishermen, victims of the stormy weather. The sailors and fishermen returned the following year and the year after with offerings to show their gratitude. From then on, people head down on the ninth month of the lunar calendar to pay their respects.

Radin Mas
Photograph: Shutterstock

Radin Mas

Radin Mas is the name of the area between Telok Blangah, Bukit Purmei and Jalan Bukit Merah, as well as a couple of known landmarks around the city. It's also the name of a Javanese princess – Radin Mas Ayu. Her father was a warrior prince, her mother was a commoner, and their marriage was condemned by the Sultan. One day, while the warrior prince was away on an expedition, the Sultan ordered his men to burn their house down, killing the wife. Radin Mas Ayu, however, was saved by a loyal servant. Upon his return, the devastated warrior prince left the Javanese kingdom for Temasek with his baby daughter.

Soon after their arrival, the Sultan of Temasek arranged for the warrior prince to marry his daughter. Similar to the tale of Cinderella, Radin Mas Ayu's new stepmother wasn't a big fan of hers. But that's a whole other story. The plot thickens when the adult Radin Mas Ayu was to marry her stepmother's nephew whom she refused. Not liking (and respecting) her decision, he attacked her main man in life: her father. In an attempt to save him, Radin Mas Ayu was hurt in the process, receiving a stab in the heart. It's said that her body is laid to rest at the foot of Mount Faber, where there's a shrine in respect of her filial piety.

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