The Merlion of Singapore

[This story is real, but I have changed the setting, names and characters for the interest of privacy. I have also blended a few instances. A little lengthy post but I do hope you” enjoy” the coincidences and experience. Personally, I learnt a lot and understood myself better in the process]


I joined a mission in 1995 on a project for Development of Expert System for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The project was very interesting, technically challenging and perhaps way ahead of the times.

The idea was to develop a Computer based Expert system that would help Staff at the Environmental Regulators at the National Governments to identify significant environmental and social issues for a project and come up with mitigation measures to prepare an Environmental Management Plan (EMP). The system would in addition come up with Terms of Reference for collection of the baseline data that would help in assessing significance of the issues and the effectiveness of the EMP. The system had a GIS interface.

The Expert system was to be cast in the form of a Rule base. Rules had to be developed by mining data, information and knowledge and later by extracting “the experience” and “ability to assess” from the national experts.

A typical impact assessment rule was structured as follows If an ACTIVITY takes place in a PROJECT (with certain timing, at a certain scale and following a particular method or methodology) and if the ENVIRONMENTAL COMPONENT exists in the AREA OF INFLUENCE (with certain sensitivity, abundance and economic & ecological importance), and certain conditions prevail at the SITE (e.g. low mixing heights), THEN the impact (or CHANGE IN ENVIRONMENTAL COMPONENTS/S) could be SIGNIFICANT. This inference is drawn based on data, documents and experience of experts (all details listed or tagged to the RULE) at say 80% of CERTAINTY or CONFIDENCE.

EA fundamentals_PrasadModak

My job was “knowledge engineering” or creation of the RULES. The target countries were Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The sectors for which the RULES were to be developed consisted Thermal Power (Thailand), Irrigation (Indonesia), Water Supply (Philippines) and Highways (Malaysia). Idea was to hold knowledge engineering workshops in each of these countries over one week, invite subject matter experts and using a RULE CAPTURING SOFTWARE extract knowledge on impact assessment from the experts. Through these workshops, I could build around 1000 RULES on impact assessment.  These RULES formed the core of the Expert system and represented the “minds” and associated “evidence” from more than 100 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) experts from four countries addressing four key sectors.

[I wish I could do such a work for India. My repeated requests to Indian Ministry of Environment & Forests were and have been in vain. Thanks to the Indian bureaucracy and simply an absence of “vision”. It’s a pity I could never excite the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.]

The mission of four weeks consisted four members. Our Team leader was Jim and other team members included Mike and Shona. Jim and Mike hailed from Canada and Shona was from Aberdeen in Scotland. I was the fourth member.

We set out our mission by meeting up in Manila. We were to spend a week in the Philippines followed by visits to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta to finally exit from Singapore. In each country, we were to meet with the Environmental regulators and conduct knowledge engineering workshops. In those days, Internet was still in infancy and so were the laptops. All my team members had their own laptops. They also had subscription to the dial up Internet services at the four cities. Their service provider had provided them local telephone number where they could dial up using the modems that were attached to the laptops. The modems used to make beep beep sound and then a gurrr at the end when the laptops got connected to the local server!!

I was desperate to stay connected on Internet. The mission was rather long and I was wondering how to access my email box.  I did not have a laptop either! Those were not the days where flooding of emails used to happen, but still, whatever trickle of emails that it was, I was keen to receive and read the messages coming in.

During our first dinner in Manila, I expressed my worries on the Internet connectivity. Amongst our Team, Shona understood my concerns. She was a very warm and friendly person in her mid-thirties. Here is a deal she said. “I don’t work late at night so I will pass you my laptop post dinner. I will teach you how to dial up on the modem and access the local city server. Ask your colleagues in Mumbai to access your email box and forward your emails to my email id. Once connected, your emails will get downloaded along with my stuff. You can then read and respond. Bring the laptop when we meet in the morning for breakfast. OK?”

I thought that was a great deal and I was really touched by Shona’s offer. Giving access to personal email box to someone strange like me was amazing. May be she trusted me or she was a good face reader or she was a genuinely nice person to everyone. (Recollecting now I think all of the above was perhaps true!) Shona further added. “Do me a favor however, I don’t know how much your email traffic is. Assuming it is high enough, just clean up the junk so there isn’t any clutter in my mail box with your stuff. But don’t delete my emails in the process!!” – She smiled. I noticed the dimples. “Done” I said

So our nightly laptop delivery and morning laptop return operations began. My very first access worked and I could read and respond to my emails. I gave access to my email box to a student I trusted at IIT Bombay and he did the job of forwarding emails to Shona’s email id. I used to do housekeeping operations to Shona’s inbox as agreed, especially deleting my personal stuff and junk emails. When emails got downloaded, a large chunk of the emails belonged to Shona.

To weed out my emails, I used to read the subject lines. Many emails to Shona used to be from her husband George. I was many times tempted to read his incoming emails but refrained doing so on ethical ground and the because of the trust she showed in me.

Shona was an amazing person to work with.  We developed a process of developing EMP based on ACTIVITIES and ENVIRONMENTAL COMPONENTS. I think this was something unique and a great value add. Our approach essentially consisted of a combinotorial framework where alternatives were developed both around PROJECT ACTIVITIES and the impacted ENVIRONMENTAL COMPONENTS to achieve cost-effectiveness as well as sustainability. ACTIVITIES were either dropped, modified or “appended” with CONTROLs or MITIGATIONS and COMPONENTS were shielded, relocated or enhanced. I still use this approach when involved in the development of project EMPs.


To arrive at this approach, we had several sessions between us in the coffee shops of the hotels we stayed during the mission. We also had (friendly) arguments. The discussions were often “recorded” on the paper napkins that we used to carry to our rooms. We became good friends and started socializing after the days work got over.

One night, as I was downloading emails from Shona’s laptop, I saw a subject line “Re: This Guy Prasad Modak” from George. Obviously, Shona had written something about me to her husband George and George had responded. I became extremely curious. I wanted to know what Shona thought of me… as a colleague and now as a friend.

I had a debate in my mind whether I should cross my decency, open the email and intrude Shona’s privacy. The important issue was her trust in me. Opening the email would simply mean a betrayal. Something unethical. I saw myself to be so “small” even with this thought. I took a pause, walked to the window and looked outside to the deserted late night streets of Makati. I tried to divert my mind. I did my best.

I couldn’t however tame my curiosity. The resistance of remaining ethical was melting away … I gave up.

“OK, let me do this ONLY this time” I told myself “And this will happen JUST ONCE” And I opened the email.

[When I look back, I still feel that it was not just right for me to open Shona’s email. And I feel rather ashamed that I did. That’s where I guess the human weakness is.. ] In the email, Shona had introduced me to George. She had found me professionally good; was happy that I did not intrude her privacy and she liked working with me as I did not dominate conversations that most Indians do. To this George had responded that tell me more about Prasad Modak … He ended the email saying that there is some joint in Manila that she should visit where coffee is served in the setting of a library. He did not know the details of the coffee place however.

The next day was Saturday and all of us were having a lazy breakfast at the Edsa Plaza hotel. Jim and Mike wanted to go for shopping. Shona said that she was not interested in shopping but was looking for a place to relax and read a book in peace. I came up with a suggestion to go to Cool Beans. Cool Beans is the first and only Library Cafe in the Philippines to serve Philippine Highland Coffee (PHC) Cool Beans has a big collection of over 500 pieces of reading material! This library cafe also has a very homey, cozy environment. It has couches so that customers can lounge while reading and having coffee. Today Cool Beans is located at 67 Maginhawa St., Brgy. UP Village, Diliman, Quezon City.


Cool Beans – Sourced from in Manila

Shona was excited when we reached Cool Beans. She ordered for a large cup of PHC, inhaled its unique aroma, paused and took a deep sip. She said “My husband George probably wanted me to visit this very place. Thanks so much Prasad for bringing me here”. “My pleasure” I said. Shona picked up a copy of a book by Scot Fitzgerald and I chose to read Thurber’s Carnival. We sank into the couches and read the books for an hour. Did a second round of PHC before leaving Cool Beans.



We discussed about the books in the taxi.

The next night, I accessed the emails once again. George had responded. This time I opened the email right away without much thought. I was shamelessly addicted…. Shona had written how she enjoyed visiting the Cool Beans, conversations with me and especially the choice of the book I did. We moved to Bangkok.

My regular reading of her emails continued. Each night I used to be eagerly waiting for Shona to walk up to my room with her laptop. I became part of the world of George and Shona – on a virtual or invisible basis. Many times in our conversations, I used to see traces of views from George and Shona’s own point of view as I used to read in the emails – I then scuttled around making remarks that were aligned but were subtle. Shona used to show surprise how similar were thoughts and colleagues, Mike and Jim often said that although were lived thousands of kilometers away, we shared similar views and interests in life! To be careful however and that the secret should not bust one day, I used to disagree or speak another point of view – but only occasionally.

George was keen that in Jakarta, Shona visits the Jaya Pub. I prompted that we go to this celebrity pub on a Friday evening.  Shona was extremely delighted with my suggestion. Mike joined this time and we listened to some great jazz music on Indonesian flutes. Shona wrote to George a long email that she had a great time.


Sourced from

We moved to Kuala Lumpur. On the very first evening, we went to Saravana Bhavan to eat authentic idli-dosa as per George’s wish. The spice in the food brought her into tears. Shona wrote to George that she has been well taken care of by her new Indian friend! “This guy knows my mind – you don’t worry” she wrote

Professionally working with Shona was a pleasure and extremely rewarding. I think our four weeks mission on EIA made us mature on the science behind and its application in practice. We could understand the unevenness of EIA related Governance in four rising economies of Asia and across four key sectors. Interactions with EIA specialists in the knowledge engineering workshops greatly helped us in improve our own learning. We made several new friends in this process. Shona was a very open personality and so we would gel well and synergize our thought processes and experience.

We reached Singapore as the last stop of our four country journey. George had asked Shona to bring a large statue (12” height) of the Merlion.


The Merlion is the national personification of Singapore. Its name combines “mer” meaning the sea and “lion”. The fish body represents Singapore’s origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name—Singapura—meaning “lion city” or “kota singa”. It’s a unique Singapore souvenir.

George was hosting a dinner with friends the very next day on Shona’s arrival. He wanted to place this large Merlion statue on the bar counter. It will look so majestic he wrote. “And Shona please don’t forget!” Shona – as I now knew – was a forgetful and absent minded person.

We reached Changi airport on the last day of our mission. Our flights were proximal. I was the first to fly – Singapore – Mumbai and then Shona’s flight was to take off to London after an hour. We were doing a wrap up on the last day and so I could notice that Shona had no time to go to a shop and buy the Merlion. I was not worried because I knew in Changi, she could pick up a good piece from one of the handicraft shops in the duty free area.

But when we were strolling around the duty free area of Changi, I realized that Shona had completely forgotten about the Merlion. She shopped some perfumes, a scarf, and a silk shirt for George. She actually walked by the handicraft shop that had Merlion statues but simply missed picking the 12” piece that George wanted.

I really got worried.

There wasn’t much time left for my flight. “Let me walk with you to the train to your Terminal – Prasad”, Shona said. She wrapped around her neck the silk scarf she had just purchased. She was looking stunning. “We must keep in touch” she said.

I continued to be tensed though as I was thinking of the Merlion. Getting the Merlion to George was very important. It was to be placed on the Bar stool at the party he was hosting to celebrate arrival of Shona. I could imagine how disappointed George would be if Shona missed getting the Merlion.

I did not want this to happen.

I got into the train. Shona stood outside waving good bye to me. And I finally gave up. There was no time to lose.

I almost shouted….. “Shona – Please don’t forget the Singapore Merlion – George wants this…..”

Just then the doors to the train got shut. I could see from the glass that Shona was shell shocked. She probably could not believe what I said. But being so sharp and intelligent as she was, she quickly understood what was happening… The secret of our congruence was out and over.

But she smiled and it showed her dimples. I saw her saying something. Obviously I could not hear what she was saying but from her lip movements I could almost guess –“You RASCAL!”

I waved Good bye

[Did I meet with Shona again? I was to do a mission over 2 weeks with her in Ho Chi Minh on EIA, five years later. She opted not to join due to other commitments – supposedly. We are on emails however – but occasionally]


  1. It’s a master piece. Very touching. If I were you, I would have
    bought one merlion for her as parting gift rather than spill the bins. You are a master story teller. I suggest you wrote a full blown noble.

  2. Dr Singhal has said everything I would have liked to say with the only difference that you write short stories rather than a novel. The story is poignant like Gift of Magi and is also amusing because of the mischief contained in it.

  3. Dear Tyagiji and Dr Singhal. Yes, writing short stories will be the right thing to do. There are many interesting stories to tell! And I am so glad that you noticed the element of mischief. Regards

  4. Dr Prasad,

    There is a whiff of “subtle romance-in the air” in your story.

    It caresses ones emotions and makes for a feel-good factor.

    Looking forward to more romance mixed environmental stories.

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