October 2005

Road names as markers of history




A reader wrote to the Straits Times saying that civil servants had been unthinkingly insensitive when they gave roads in Sengkang and Punggol New Towns names like 'Compassvale Drive' or 'Edgefield Plains'.


He said the 26% of Singaporeans who could neither read nor write English - I don' know t where he got that statistic from, though it doesn't sound off the mark to me - would have difficulty managing such names. How would they tell a taxi-driver where they wanted to go, for example?

What followed was a number of letters for and against, one of which was notable for its unabashed honesty. The writer said, if privately-built condominiums were allowed to have fancy names to lend them an air of class, why couldn't the HDB [1] do the same for their public-housing estates? So you see, the civil servants weren't insensitive. They were well aware of people's aspirations.

Of course, it's a separate matter whether coining words that resemble provincial English names from a bygone generation Edgefield Plains, come on! really evokes class and glamour. Frankly, they sound pretentiously fake to me.

But most cities are like that. Place names and road names tend to be an accretion of various impulses through time. Taken together, they tell the social and political history of a place. At every point in time, someone somewhere will say the latest naming fad jars with the custom of a place. Sometimes, these detractors will be proven right, and when the fashion passes, the place names linger to cause either embarrassment to those who know their silly origins, or mystery to those who don't. But at other times, the custom of a place evolves, and the names that at first seemed completely out of character become part of us.

Each naming fashion is a marker of its time. Each is like a sediment of history laid onto our ground.

Singapore must be particularly rich in sediments. We've had a, well I won't say tumultuous, but certainly a very changeable history, both in social as well as in political terms. Although as a city, we are not even 200 years old, this place has seen many phases. What's more, it appears that the fads in road naming are accelerating. We've had more fads in the last 40 years than the 150 before that.

Does this show an insecurity of identity post-independence? Is the flip-flipping of trends an indicator that we hardly know what we are?

The Orang Laut period (pre 1819)

The oldest names in our city come from the days prior to the arrival of the British. They are names that the Orang Laut (the 'Sea People'), a Malay ethnic group, gave to certain prominent features. A small community of Orang Laut, about 2,000 people, lived on Singapore Island at about the time that Stamford Raffles, on behalf of the (English) East India Company, set foot here to found the city.

These names, naturally, are Malay-based. The sandy spit partially occluding the mouth of the Kallang River was called Tanjong Rhu. 'Tanjong' means cape, or headland, and 'Rhu' refers to the Casuarina tree, a species that grows very well on beach sands. Today, the road that runs there is called Tanjong Rhu Road.

Then there is Tanjong Pagar. As above, 'Tanjong' means a headland, and 'Pagar' is Malay for 'fence'. It is speculated that wooden fences were built outwards from the headlands into the sea, so as to trap fish. The road running towards what used to be the headland (now much extended by land reclamation) is our well known Tanjong Pagar Road, well known because many gay bars are in the vicinity

Yet another old name is Bukit Merah ('Red Hill') named for the red laterite soil found in the area. It is associated with a centuries-old legend about a murder: so much blood was spilt, it turned the earth red. The main road running through this area is called Jalan Bukit Merah, but the name Jalan Bukit Merah does not represent the pre-Raffles period. It represents the Malaysia period (first half 1960s). I will come to this later.

Not all Malay names in Singapore are pre-Raffles, reminding us of the Orang Laut phase of our history. Some are quite recent, as we shall see.

The British colonial period (1819-1963)

Raffles founded modern Singapore in 1819. He made it a free port, a very rare thing in those days, and which attracted thousands and thousands to settle here, hailing from China to Ottoman Turkey. All these communities brought their influence to bear on road names as the city grew.

The earliest roads had descriptive English names, e.g. Beach Road, South Bridge Road, Hill Street and Cross Street (which transversely crossed the main thoroughfares of the old town).

Later however, roads were named to honour colonial governors and other notables, e.g. Coleman Street, Thomson Road, Collyer Quay, Clementi Road, Farrer Road and Keppel Road.

At the same time, internationally famous people and events were used. Thus, Victoria Street (after Queen Victoria), Waterloo Street (after the Battle of Waterloo), Havelock Road (after Henry Havelock, a military hero who suppressed the Indian Mutiny 1857), Clemenceau Avenue (after a French Prime Minister) and Verdun Road (where a major battle of the 1st World War took place)

In the 20th century, the British, proud of their far-flung empire, had roads named after their other possessions and frontiers: Moulmein Road, Mandalay Road, Canberra Road, Kandahar Street, Colombo Court, Nepal Park, Gibraltar Crescent.

The immigrants equally lent their names to the streets. At first, they used names that reflected their origins, thus, Amoy Street and Nankin Street (both Chinese cities), Malabar Street (a coastal region in southern India), Bugis Street, Kampong Java Road (after ethnic groups from parts of present-day Indonesia). Migrants tended to stay within enclaves and these neighbourhoods tended to have names reflecting their identities or embarkation points.

With time, some immigrants became wealthy and respected, and roads were named after them too. Aljunied Road was named after a leader of the Arab community, Eu Tong Sen Street was named to honour a Chinese tin-miner, Meyer Road named for a Jewish merchant and Veerasamy Road for a doctor and leader of the Indian community. There's also Whampoa Drive. Whampoa was the nickname of Hoo Ah Kay, the first Chinese member of the Legislative Assembly.

Sometimes, large land-owners gave their personal names to roads through their property. Examples are Balestier Road, Chun Tin Road, Nassim Road, Oxley Road, Ann Siang Hill.

Finally, as the colonial government paved roads leading to outlying districts, they regularised the colloquial names of these parts of Singapore Island, and the roads that led there. Thus we have Changi Road (which led naturally, to Changi), Sembawang Road, Bukit Timah Road and Lim Chu Kang Road (Lim Chu Kang is not the name of a man, though it sounds like one, but a name for a riverine district).

So from the beginning, Singapore streets carried a babel of names. Some had Malay origins, others were based on English and Western personal names, yet more based on Chinese, Indian, Jewish and Arab names, together with references to far-off bastions of the empire and distant military glories.

And then the British started to pack up, and change accelerated. Partly, it was due to the fact that by the 1950s, the housing shortage was acute and a massive public housing program had to be launched. Lots of new roads awaited names.


The first large suburb -- we tend to call them New Towns -- laid out was Queenstown, initiated even before the British fully left. This accounts for the fact many roads in the original part of Queenstown have names linked to the British royalty. In fact, the name 'Queenstown' itself says it all. The main thoroughfare is called Queensway with other roads called Margaret Drive (after Princess Margaret) and Prince Charles Crescent. But by the late 1950s, the Empire was transitioning into the British Commonwealth, and hence, the other main thoroughfare through Queenstown is called Commonwealth Road.

Toa Payoh and the Malaysia period (1963-1965)

The second major new town to be built was Toa Payoh. This name wasn't created, unlike Queenstown. It came from local usage and is quite a unique blending of Hokkien Chinese and pidgin Malay. 

This area was part of an extensive, low-lying section of the island. In places it had been a swamp, though for a few generations already, it had been drained and made into farms.

The eastern portion of the lowlands today carries the Malay name 'Paya Lebar', which simply means 'broad swamp'. The western part of it to today's Toa Payoh. 

'Toa' in the Hokkien (Fujian) dialect of Chinese means 'big', but 'Payoh' - and it's always spelt as a single word even though it consists of 2 syllables - is a corruption of the Malay 'Paya'. Hence, Toa Payoh is a place name made up of a Hokkien Chinese adjective, qualifying a corrupted Malay noun. It reminds us of the easy mingling of Chinese and Malay farmers of days long gone.

However, Toa Payoh was conceived during the Malaysia period [2], when primacy was accorded to the Malay language. For that reason, the roads in Toa Payoh were named Lorong 1, Lorong 2 and so on. 'Lorong' means 'lane' in Malay.

Also built during the Malaysia period was the first residential estate to serve the southwest quarter of Singapore island that had been designated for medium and heavy industries. The residential estate was given a new name, Taman Jurong, also in Malay.

Around the same time, a new road was built right through the Bukit Merah area. It too was given a Malay name, 'Jalan Bukit Merah'.

However, the housing estate that went up on its northern side was given an English translation 'Redhill', and the main road that runs through this estate had a Chinese dialect name, Hoy Fatt Road, coined to be auspicious. 'Hoy Fatt' means to create and prosper. The civil servants then certainly knew how to keep everyone happy.


I found all these letters quite amusing, accepting as I do that creating names is always going to be controversial; you'll never please everybody. What I found not so amusing is why, after about 25 years of educational policy where English is the primary language of instruction, and 10 15 years before that where in schools that did not use English as the primary language then English had to be taught as a second language, we still have 26% unable to understand English!

It's not as if Singaporeans aren't immersed in English (or at least the local colloquial Singlish) every day.


Singapore's new towns 
The new towns mentioned in this article are indicated here. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of new towns and housing estates. The darkest red ones are the oldest, the yellow ones the newest.

1 Jurong West Extn 11 Bukit Batok 21 Toa Payoh 31 Simei
2 Jurong West 12 Teck Whye 22 Kim Keat 32 Tampines
3 Jurong East 13 Bukit Panjang 23 Serangoon 33 Pasir Ris
4 Taman Jurong 14 Choa Chu Kang 24 Hougang      
5 Teban Gardens 15 Yew Tee 25 Sengkang Other places
6 Clementi 16 Woodlands 26 Punggol BM Bukit Merah
7 Ghim Moh 17 Sembawang 27 Kallang PL Paya Lebar
8 Queenstown 18 Yishun 28 Marine Parade SE Seletar
9 Redhill 19 Ang Mo Kio 29 Eunos TP Tanjong Pagar
10 Telok Blangah 20 Bishan 30 Bedok TR Tanjong Rhu



From Bedok to Ang Mo Kio

Then there followed a longish period through the 1970s and a little beyond when a large number of new towns were built, from Bedok and Tampines in the east, to Clementi, Ghim Moh and Jurong in the west.

Not only were they all built with very similar-looking flats, there was a fairly consistent naming convention. First of all, instead of inventing new names, the planners just used what was available in situ. Sometimes the names had Malay origins, e.g. Bedok, Jurong and Bukit Batok, other times they had Chinese dialect origins, e.g. Ghim Moh and Ang Mo Kio. Yet others derived their names from existing place-names with English origins, e.g. Marine Parade, Woodlands and Clementi.

In most cases, they also followed a standard convention with road names: the bigger roads through the estates were called Avenues and the smaller roads were called Streets. Avenues and Streets were numbered. Thus "Clementi Avenue 6", or "Ang Mo Kio Street 61".

The housing consisted of large blocks of flats, and the blocks were also identified by numbers.

From here you can glimpse a highly mechanistic mindset. There was no desire to make things fancy. They simply had to be efficient, reflecting the times.

But you should note that even when a new town had a name originating from Chinese, the tendency was to use the most common dialect pronunciation. The transcription into English also included spaces between the syllables, which was the practice then. Thus Ghim Moh, Kim Keat, Ang Mo Kio and Teck Whye.


A typical new town at dusk

The Pinyin years

A sharp change occurred in the mid 1980s. A fervent Mandarinisation rolled all over. Dialect names were looked down upon, though the administrative nightmare of changing existing names meant that these could not be touched. Any new name however, had to be based on the Mandarin pronunciation, as well, the hanyu pinyin spelling system.

It was to be the fad of the decade. For example, when the Ao Kang area was developed, it was renamed Hougang. 

Teh Cheang Wan was Minister of National Development from the late 1970s till his suicide in December 1986. Culturally, he prided himself as being very Chinese, and there is an urban myth that the name of Simei New Town reflected his passion. 'Simei' in Chinese means 'Four beauties' and the urban myth goes that it refers to the legendary 4 women in Chinese history, of breathtaking beauty.

However Kevin Tan, President of the Heritage Society, has researched this and he believes that most likely it isn't true. 'Simei' was simply taken from the name of an existing road in the vicinity, known as Jalan Soo Bee. 'Soo Bee', when written in Chinese characters, even way back in a street directory of July 1970, was also 'Four beauties'.

are thus the Chinese characters for both Jalan Soo Bee and Simei New Town.

One of the new roads in Simei is Xilin Avenue. Again, it uses Mandarin pronunciation and pinyin spelling. For this one too, the urban myth is that the minister was indulging in naming things after classical Chinese legends.

Kevin Tan disagrees. He pointed out to me that the name was taken from another existing road called Koh Sek Lim Road (named after a rich landowner) that runs a few hundred metres from Xilin Avenue. Yet this one presents another mystery, for while the Mandarin pronunciation for Koh Sek Lim is Xu3 Xi2 Lin2, which sounds very close to Xi1 Lin2 of Xilin Avenue, the tones don't match and the Chinese characters are different too.

(the second and third characters mean 'tin forest') is how Koh Sek Lim is written, but Xilin is written , which means 'western forest'.

The mystery is, if it was intended to take the name of Koh Sek Lim Road for Xilin Avenue, why was a character switched? The answer will probably have to wait till government records are declassified, if the reasoning was recorded at all. 

Regardless, Simei and Xilin unambiguously represent the steamroller of Mandarinisation and pinyinisation that obliterated pre-existing names in the area (see box alongside). 

Other parts of Singapore were also affected. When the large Peck San cemetery was built over, it became Bishan New Town. Bishan is the pinyin spelling for the Mandarin pronunciation of Cantonese 'Peck San'. In this instance, people didn't mind the renaming of Peck San to Bishan, for who would want to live in an area whose name recalled a cemetery?

On the other hand, the renaming of Nee Soon into Yishun was contentious. Lim Nee Soon had been a well-known plantation owner and was once called the Pineapple King. As a place name, Nee Soon was already well-recognised. There was a Nee Soon village, but more importantly, tens of thousands of British and Australian servicemen had fond memories of barracks in that district. How could we erase a name just like that? 



My personal association with the Simei area (though it wasn't Simei then) was in the 1970s when I was doing my 3-month Basic Military Training. Most days, we were trucked to the area to do our field training, from our barracks at Changi.

Then, the area was a rolling landscape of abandoned smallholdings, a mix of cornfields and sugarcane gone wild, with copses of trees here and there. There were no roads, but deeply rutted earth tracks.

Day and night, we had to learn to patrol the semi-open country, seize hillocks and defend them. We laid barbed wire; we dug foxholes. Some nights, we camped over, and were amazed how dark nights could be without streetlamps.

For a decade or so, thousands of servicemen like me have urinated and even shat into the bushes and soil. A few might even have spilled semen. It's indelibly our ground.

There were two villages in the area, called Kampong Tiga Ratus (the Three Hundred Village) and Kampong Harvey. They were still inhabited then and the poor residents had to put up with trainee soldiers attacking and overrunning their villages every day! But a few of the villagers turned things to their advantage. They stocked up on cold drinks and cigarettes and sold them at a good profit.

I remember little of my military training now. What I do remember most is the camaraderie. That and hogging the shade waiting for the trucks to bring lunch rations, and eating dreadful food amidst the heat and wind-blown earth, the untiring flies and ceaseless expletives. I also remember the day when I was attacking one of the villages and in my enthusiasm, I ran right into a knee-high pit filled with thick black pig-waste. No expletives were adequate for the moment.

Kampong Tiga Ratus and Kampong Harvey were at least 500 metres from the nearest paved road (Changi Road). To get into the area, we had to look out for a dirt track near Somapah Village and Changkat Changi Community Centre (a wood and zinc-roofed hut with a basketball court in front).

Changkat Changi survives as a name for a school. 'Harvey' is a name for a few new roads of a housing estate, but otherwise 'Simei New Town' has blanketed all.

And so, a compromise eventually resulted. The old part of Nee Soon - the village and the leafy barracks - remained Nee Soon. The new town, with its tall public housing, became Yishun. It's a good solution - in English. These two districts have such different characters, they needed different names. But written in Chinese characters, they are the same.


Teh Cheang Wan killed himself after allegations of corruption surfaced. With his death, the tide receded. The pinyin fad faded.

Today, one of the newest developments, Sengkang, as you may have noticed, now carries a name that has dialect origins. Other recent new towns, such as Choa Chu Kang and Yew Tee, have similarly retained their dialect names, and have even retained the way they have traditionally been written, with spaces between syllables.

At last we seem to be getting over an inferiority complex about our dialect ancestries. We may finally be getting over wanting to be Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, and settling into our skins as Singaporeans.

Now the inferiority complex is about having addresses that say 'Street 47', 'Avenue 9' or 'Block 362'. Too utilitarian, not pretentious enough for the nouveau riche. Too 'public housing', even though it is public housing. So now we have Compassvale Walk, Rivervale Close and Edgefield Plains (to be carefully distinguished, mind you, from Edgedale Plains) and Ivory Heights.

When will we ever grow up?

Yawning Bread 


Seletar or Shilida?

Around the same time, I remember well a controversy over the renaming of Seletar.

Now, 'Seletar' referred to the Orang Slitar who were said to be a tribe of sea gypsies, living on boats. The mouth of the Seletar River was probably where they had their anchorage.

In Chinese, the name was rendered as Shilida, a translation that came from quite some time back.

Unfortunately, the Chinese-speaking community were historically unaware that there was ever a people called the Orang Slitar, and they began to insist that the Chinese name came first, that it was Chinese settlers who came up with the name 'Shilida'. 'Seletar', they argued, was the English or Malay transcription of the original Chinese name.

There was a demand that maps should show the area as Shilida, not Seletar. That was the time when all Chinese names were being rewritten into Hanyu Pinyin, even in English-language maps and street directories.

This otherwise laughable episode risked serious political consequences. The Malays felt their history was being erased. More than that, it undercut their historical pride of being the first people on this island.

Thankfully, historical accuracy prevailed over chauvinism. It has remained Seletar.



  1. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) is the government arm that builds public housing and the new towns. 'Public housing' in Singapore does not have the same negative connotation as it does in some American cities. HDB-built flats house some 80% of Singapore's population, and many housing estates have a well-kept, middle-class feel.
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  2. While Singapore recognises Malay as our National Language, nobody actually pays much attention to it, and less than 20% of our population can speak it. English is the main working language in Singapore. 
    However, from Sept 1963 to Aug 1964, Singapore was part of Malaysia, where Malay is much more important. It is both the language of the majority as well as the language of government and public affairs. Hence when Singapore was part of Malaysia, deference was given to the Malay language's primacy. 
    That ended very quickly as soon as Singapore separated. After 1965, very few public road names were derived from Malay unless it was an existing name. Even so, they were used just as names, not as Malay words. For example, in Bukit Panjang New Town, brand new names were found for the roads. The planners picked Malay words, but used them with English. For example, 'Pending' refers to a large waist buckle, but the road didn't become Jalan Pending; it defiantly became Pending Road.
    Sometimes even existing Malay names were Anglicised. West Coast Road ends where the coastline makes a sharp turn. That point was called Tanjong Penjuru ('Penjuru' means angle or corner in Malay). In the July 1970 Street Directory (published by the Survey Department) the road leading to the corner was called Jalan Tanjong Penjuru which is consistently Malay. However, by the time the 1980 Street Directory was published, it had become Penjuru Road. The Malay word was simply used as a name.
    Other times, Malay names were replaced by Chinese names. In 1970, the roads in Taman Jurong estate were simply called Taman Jurong 1, Taman Jurong 2 and so on, up to Taman Jurong 10. By the time the 1980 edition came out, these same roads bore Chinese names: Yung Ho Road, Yuan Ching Road, Yung Sheng Road, etc.
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