Road Names as markers of History
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. 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....