The Merlion’s power as a symbol for Singaporeans
Kaya toast and kopi, Singlish, the Merlion — all iconic symbols of the Singaporean identity.
A Singaporean expatriate is drawn immediately to sights, sounds and smells that remind him of home. Whether it is food, art or language, what is this sense of familiarity that attracts and comforts our senses?
Take the Merlion. The statuesque, half-fish-half-lion figure sitting quietly off Clifford Pier — some say, guarding our shores — has more sway over us emotionally than we imagine, according to psychologists.
What psychologists call “cultural attachment” is about how we connect with others, just as children look to their caregiver as a secure attachment base. As we grow, our need to bond directly with people is transferred indirectly to elements in our culture, whether it is a social group, values or cultural symbols we are familiar with. Understanding cultural attachment is important because it affects our reactions to threat and risk.
Together with Professor Ying-yi Hong of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, we studied a group of 35 students in a clinical setting. The subjects, who were Singaporeans, had not spent a significant amount of time overseas except for some short-term travel and brief exchange programmes.
Importantly, the main cultural attachment of these subjects was undeniably Singaporean.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
Before the study, we had established that one of the symbols that Singaporeans most identified with was the Merlion.
The image was found to evoke a similar emotion that participants from the United States had for the Statue of Liberty and China students had for the terracotta warriors of Xi’an.
To measure the emotional response of our students, we used a test called skin conductance response (SCR) to record how much sweat they produce in their fingers. The idea is that with higher levels of stress one experiences, even subconsciously, the body secretes more sweat to cool itself in response.
Stressful situations stimulate our glands to produce more sweat, thereby producing a higher SCR. The SCR is a proven test as it relies on participants’ involuntary response, meaning that participants are mostly unaware even when this response happens.
Participants in the test were exposed to two sets of images. The first was a neutral image (for example, mobile phone) and a threatening image (for example, a gun pointed at them).
The second set consisted of a control image (for instance, treasure chest) that had no cultural value, and the other was a cultural image (for example, the Merlion) that held cultural value for most people.
The second set of images was flashed quickly so that the brain would not register it consciously, but the subconscious mind would pick it up.
The results showed a clear difference in the emotional responses elicited. Participants who saw the threat-and-control (the gun and treasure chest combination) images registered a higher SCR, suggesting a higher level of stress.
On the other hand, those who saw the threat-and-Merlion images showed a significantly lower SCR. The familiar image of the Merlion had apparently reduced the sense of threat and made the subject calmer.
MARKETING SOCIAL VALUES AND BELIEFS
The results tell us that cultural symbols affect how we deal with threats. This suggests that governments can learn from marketers who have cleverly harnessed the emotive power of symbols for decades.
For example, when you buy Nike, you are not only buying a pair of shoes, but you are also buying into the can-do, you-only-live-once culture that the logo symbolises. Just as brands evoke consumer loyalty, cultural symbols like the Merlion can connect citizens with their own country in a comforting and assuring way.
Countries that send missions and troops overseas could help their displaced soldiers ease into their new posts by incorporating cultural symbols into their environment, such as providing familiar food, magazines or music.
This is how bagpipes played at the close of day during World War II provided a powerful motivation to battle-worn soldiers — the music does not only comfort them but also reminds them of what they are fighting for.
Even in peacetime, countries need to continually develop social rituals, narratives and familiar cultural icons so that in times of war, or of political and economic uncertainty, there is a secure, cultural base for their citizens to fall back on.
Think of the same effect on a child who glimpses, out of the corner of his eye, his caregiver nearby.
Companies that send their employees overseas can also use cultural symbols to achieve better well-being and adjustment in a foreign environment.
Simple things such as decorating expatriate lodgings in a style similar to housing back home, hosting social events with fellow citizens and providing access to familiar brand groceries help employees adapt — even speaking Singlish over a “makan” session.
So to double confirm — it is okay to pack that bottle of chilli sauce or Tiger Balm into your luggage. These items are as powerful as that tattered toy bunny you clutched to bed when you were a baby, or the Merlion you used to gaze upon as a child.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Georgios Christopoulos is an assistant professor of Decision Neuroscience at Nanyang Business School, NTU. Yap Wei Jie is a PhD candidate at the Decision, Environmental & Organisational Neuroscience Lab at NTU. The paper was written with Professor Ying-yi Hong, Department of Marketing, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.