A local Singapore artist has claimed that the new Singapore Tourism Board (STB) campaign featuring a Merlion with limbs looks strikingly similar to a concept he came up with in 1993. The campaign video features Ultraman battling monsters, also known as kaijus, at Changi Airport and Sentosa, before converging in front of the Merlion statue in downtown Singapore. The ad depicts the Merlion transforming into the Merliger to aid Ultraman.
According to a Facebook post by the local artist Gwee Li Sui, the character of Merliger bode strong similarity to the characters of his 1993 graphic novel The Myth Of The Stone. In another Facebook post on 15 April, Gwee shared that STB has reached out to him to have a "cordial" conversation to "best understand each other's perspective". Gwee also clarified that he has not filed any lawsuit, but simply wishes for his work to be acknowledged. "I am not demanding, and have never demanded, for anything. I just wish there is, as this case shows again, some acknowledgement of what Singaporean artists/writers have done by ourselves," he said.
Speaking of the similarities, Gwee said the issue isn't about the look but rather the concept of a limbed Merlion. "The standard Merlion of tourism, as we all know well, is fish bodied and limbless. Mine has a lion's body and limbs and only a fish tail," he shared. The Merlions featured in Gwee's novel also walk on four limbs, fight, defend themselves and live harmoniously as a tribe. Gwee also added that his artwork "faced much rejection and scepticism in its early reception for being unlike" the Merlion.
"All these richer meanings created from/in our own society are lost when we don't know the history of limbed Merlions...I wish there could have been some recognition of the life of home-born concepts," he said.
Meanwhile, netizens are split as to whether STB should bear any responsibility at all. Some sided with Gwee, adding that STB should at least state that it got the inspiration from Gwee's artwork. "It is the Merlion, STB may own it but it also belongs to Singaporeans now. [STB needs] to invest properly in researching and documenting its artistic representations through the years," one user said.
On the other hand, several debated that, since there is no visual resemblance between the two Merlion artworks, STB bears no fault as it did not copy Gwee's artwork. One user commented on Gwee's post, "Putting limbs on a character doesn’t make it proprietary...It will be hard to even prove that it was an idea that had been taken from your character especially since they really do not resemble each other."
Another user also shared various instances where the Merlion was reimagined with having two and even four limbs. A quick search online by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE also showed other instances of artists reimagining the Merlion with limbs.
In a statement to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Markus Tan, STB's regional director for North Asia said that STB is aware of Gwee's Facebook post regarding the "Merliger" character in its recent tourism video for the SingaporeReimagine Ultraman campaign. He shared that STB had worked with Tsuburaya Productions to "produce original characters that would resonate well with the Japanese audience, and this new interpretation of the Merlion is in line with the distinctive style of their long-running Ultraman franchise".
“We fully respect the intellectual property rights and contributions of Singapore’s creative talents and have reached out to Dr Gwee to address his concerns,” Tan said.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has also reached out to Gwee for comment.
The current video featuring Ultraman is part of the new tourism video commissioned by STB and is an extension of the one released earlier which showed Ultraman battling a kaiju at Gardens By the Bay. STB first embarked on a partnership with Japan production house Tsuburaya, which owns the copyright to Ultraman, to launch the campaign "Reimagine ULTRAMAN" last year to mark 55 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Japan. The Reimagine ULTRAMAN campaign looks ahead to a reimagined Singapore and aims to drive anticipation for travel, by leveraging Ultraman’s brand power and audience network in Japan, as well as in other markets where Ultraman is popular, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. More such campaigns are expected to roll out in the coming months with Singapore Airlines, the Night Safari, as well as a luxury hotel that cannot be named yet.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time STB has been embroiled in a conversation around concept ideation. In 2014, local design agency DoodleRoom accused STB of recycling its design wholesale for the Singapore Art Week that year. In response to DoodleRoom's post, STB released a statement clarifying that its contract with DoodleRoom stated that STB would own the original design and would have the full right to use, reproduce and modify it, which were in line with industry norms.