A long time ago, before much of history was recorded down, there lived a young prince of Sumatra. His name was Sang Nila Utama. He was searching for a place that would be suitable for a new city, however to no avail. Sang Nila Utama set sail for the Riau Islands and was welcomed by their Queen.
One day while out hunting, he spotted a deer, but it disappeared far too quickly for him to catch. He climbed up a large rock in hopes of finding more game, but instead he spotted another island nearby. Never seeing the island before, he asked one of his advisors what the island was called. The advisor told him that it was the island of Temasek. Always seeking new places to explore, Sang Nila Utama decided to venture out to that new found isle.
However, while out at sea, the boat they were in started filling up with water! They were sinking fast. To delay this, they started throwing everything heavy overboard, but still, no success. Until, one of his closest friends told him to throw his crown overboard as well. Seeing that there was no other recourse, he did so. And the storm stopped.
Landing safely as what is now known as the Singapore River, he started to hunt, as this was a new place with (hopefully)more game. During this time, a quick flash ran past him and he decided to give chase. After a while, it stopped and looked at him. It was nothing like the Prince had ever seen before. Asking his friends what it was, he was told that it was most likely a lion.
Taking this as a sign, Sang Nila Utama set up a city at this spot. He declared that this island was not named Temasek any longer. But it was to be called Singapura (Singa is the word for lion and pura is the word for city) or Lion City for the great sight that he saw. He ruled this land for many years and is supposedly buried at present day Fort Canning Park.
My informant first heard this story when he was around the age of eight from his tuition teacher during the school holidays. He really did not think very much of this story and was one of the few folklore tales that he had recalled from his youth. However, he felt that, like all tales, there was probably a grain of truth in it, as Malay annals do recall a King named Sri Tri Buana, also called Sang Nila Utama that ruled Singapore or Singapura for a few decades.
However, it is rather unlikely that the prince had seen an actual lion in Singapore, because Singapore is located in the tropics, and the natural habitats of lions tend not to be in tropical rainforests. It was more likely that the animal the prince saw was a tiger because until the early nineteen hundreds, Singapore was home to many tigers. They became extinct due to overhunting as the British offered rewards for every tiger killed, and that quickly decimated the Singaporean tiger population.
Like most legends, most of this story is likely to be embellishment that was tacked on later in time as it sounded better. It is highly unlikely that there was a sudden storm that arose that threatened to sink the ship or that he threw his crown overboard. The most likely occurrence was either it was added on later in time or his crown dropped overboard and they needed to fabricate a ‘good’ omen to make it sound better.
However, due to this story, the lion is Singapore’s national animal and is a large symbol for most of the people who live and visit the island country.