a rose by any other name

I was fact-checking a local medical history piece, contributed by one of my writers, a couple of months ago when I stumbled upon this 16-year-old news article, which may prove instructive with regard to the Angsana Primary naming issue. I quote (and I do find this portion particularly incisive):

What is needed is not a clinging to historic names but someone to trace their history and evolution, and explain the changes in the context of the social and political developments that they mark. For example, what we know as Fort Canning Park, was once a real fort, called Fort Canning and named after the first viceroy of India.

Before Stamford Raffles annexed Singapore for the British, it was known as Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill, the home and burial grounds of ancient Malay kings. Who knows what it was called before that?

Now, if Singaporean leaders of the 21st century should change the hill’s name to Lee Kuan Yew Park, to honour the man who led the country to independence, would it rob Fort Canning of its history?

Of course not. A place’s current name is like an onion skin. Peel it away and another name, another story lies below.

***

OK not to use Tekka but let’s not forget its history
By Tan Sai Siong

A rose by any other name smells as sweet but a road by a new name? Will it still be the same or will it rob the thoroughfare of its history, identity and context and those who work or live on it of their sense of belonging?

This thorny issue bloomed again recently when Mr Chang Wei Tee wrote to Forum to bemoan the proposal to rename Bukit Purmei, Purmeiville.

The Tanjong Pagar-West Coast Town Council replied that the name change was in line with the Government’s upgrading programme, where a precinct would be given a new name to reflect the enhancements and the new identity.

I find it perfectly understandable that upgraded Housing Board estates should want names that put them closer to middle-class private housing.

Such snobbishness is not confined to HDB heartlanders. Look at the names which private developers give to their projects, although in the case of Avalon in Stevens Road, it was an unfortunate choice. Avalon was the island where the British king, Arthur, went to die.

[Comment: my secondary school was located opposite Avalon, and the fact that it was named after King Arthur’s graveyard continually entertained me during my four years there.]

Housing estates here too come and go with rapidity, especially where there are a new money-machine known as en-bloc sale and a new urban-renewal mechanism known as selective en-bloc redevelopment.

So, there is scant reason to grow pensive whenever one housing estate gives way to another and is baptised with a new name.

But it is another story when it comes to road and place names with historical significance. Or so argues Mr Lee Kip Lee, a Singaporean old enough to remember what the country used to be and educated well enough in English to convey the past, with all its intricate nuances, in the language.

It was also Mr Chang’s protest that provided Mr Lee with the chance to launch yet another appeal to the authorities, via a letter published in Life!, to reconsider “if Zhujiao Centre” should be renamed Kandang Kerbau Centre or Tekka Centre.

“Otherwise,” he adds, “young Singaporeans will continue to be ignorant of the fact that Kandang Kerbau (Buffalo Cage) was where stray cattle in Serangoon were rounded up and kept in a pen; that the area on either side of Rochor Canal, where there were many bamboo clumps, gave the Kandang Kerbau area its general Chinese name ‘Tek Kia Kha’ (shortened to Tek Kah), meaning ‘the foot of the small bamboos’.”

In another letter to Life! on Lim Nee Soon, a Singaporean pioneer, Mr Lee slipped in yet one more appeal, asking that “Yishun” street and place names be replaced with “Nee Soon”.

This wish for a return to the original, or rather, old names as remembered by Singaporeans of the last few generations, is not new.

It is not simply because it is human nature to prefer the familiar and resist change.

It could be because it is not in the Singaporean culture to wipe out our past where place and street names are concerned.

So, although Singapore has ceased to be a British colony for nearly 35 years, most of our past governors linger on, as a casual check in the Singapore Street Directory will reveal.

Shenton Way, Clementi Road, Clifford Pier and Clarke Quay are but only a few governor-reminders from Singapore’s 138 years under British rule, while memories of lesser lights in the form of British architects and engineers survive, for example, in Coleman Street and Thomson Road.

This is quite unlike other independent countries which move with alacrity to scrub out all vestiges of colonial rule. There would be new Independence Plazas, Constitution Hills or Union Squares but nothing of those who had treated them as cash cows, hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Yet, Singapore’s culture of retaining names from the past on its map could become quite inconvenient at times, as reflected in Messrs Chang’s and Lee’s sentiments concerning name changes.

It could become, as Dr Brenda Yeoh, 33, who teaches historical geography at the National University of Singapore, once pointed out in an interview, a contest between the ruler and ruled over what constitutes heritage.

The overseas scholar, now on a one-year sabbatical, had identified “some unhappiness among the minority communities over hanyu pinyin place-names like Zhu Jiao market and Yishun” as a possible area of contest.

In my view, where place and street names are concerned, we should go with the tide, so that the old order yieldeth, giving place to new.

With due respect to Mr Lee, so what if what was once Tekka is now called Zhujiao? Frankly, even with the old name, how many of the younger generation will know what Tekka meant?

I didn’t, till the fuss kicked up in recent years by those who opposed the Government’s move to introduce hanyu pinyin forms for some popular dialect names, and I don’t count myself a member of the younger generation.

Onion skin
What is needed is not a clinging to historic names but someone to trace their history and evolution, and explain the changes in the context of the social and political developments that they mark. For example, what we know as Fort Canning Park, was once a real fort, called Fort Canning and named after the first viceroy of India.

Before Stamford Raffles annexed Singapore for the British, it was known as Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill, the home and burial grounds of ancient Malay kings. Who knows what it was called before that?

Now, if Singaporean leaders of the 21st century should change the hill’s name to Lee Kuan Yew Park, to honour the man who led the country to independence, would it rob Fort Canning of its history?

Of course not. A place’s current name is like an onion skin. Peel it away and another name, another story lies below.

The Straits Times, 2 January 1998

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