Early Singapore had many British road names as a former colony. However, there was never a move to erase such signs of our colonised past, unlike other post-colonial cities who vernacularised their streets and city names. Instead, we started adding Malay conventions to our new streets in the 1960s to strengthen our links to neighbouring states, as a part of the merged Malaya — this accounts for the many Lorongs and Jalans that we see today! After gaining independence in 1965, our road names began to reflect more of Singapore’s multicultural heritage with the introduction of more Chinese and Tamil-named roads.
Individually, road names reveal the past to us. Collectively, these trends in naming conventions reflect an exciting period of our history, and also how we envisioned our nation’s identity.
Here are some roads that were named after notable key figures in our history:
Clarke Quay was named after Sir Andrew Clarke, the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1824 to 1902. He was most noted for presiding the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, which established the British rule over the Malay States. With support from the Chinese and European merchant traders, Clarke also pushed for protection and better treatment of Chinese coolie workers that toiled laboriously at the docks lining the riverbanks of the district. Many of the warehouses that the coolies worked and lived in still remain in Clarke Quay today.
Following the shift of port activities to Keppel Harbour, Clarke Quay was designated as a heritage conservation area in 1989 and was subsequently spruced up to become a colourful commercial and entertainment district.
Mount Sophia was named by Captain William Flint, Singapore’s first Master Attendant and brother-in-law of Sir Stamford Raffles. It was originally known as Seligi Hill (where Selegie Road comes from), after the Orang Selegie pirates that were said to live there before the British came on shore. Captain Flint renamed the area in honour of Raffles’ second wife, Lady Sophia Hull, and his daughter, Mary Sophia Anne. The area was also commonly referred to as Flint’s Hill during the early colonial times, as Flint as one of the prominent residents of the upper-middle-class neighbourhood.
‘Sophia’ means ‘wisdom’ in Greek, and this coincided with the proliferation of educational institutions being set up on the hill. Although these institutions later moved out, many of the buildings were conserved due to their rich heritage.
Zubir Said Drive
Keong Saik Road
Keong Saik Road was named after Tan Keong Saik, who owned a number of shophouses in the area. Tan was a prominent businessman who co-founded the Straits Steamship Company, a vital player in Singapore’s early maritime industry, and predecessor of Keppel Corporation. He was also elected to the Municipal Commission in 1886 and was later appointed as a Justice of the Peace. As a community leader, he championed education for Chinese girls, who were customarily kept out of school back in those days.
Pillai Road was named after Naraina Pillai, the first Indian to arrive in Singapore in 1819. Starting out as a clerk with the colonial administration, he worked his way up to become a successful cotton trader and business owner. Pillai often gave back to the society in various ways, including establishing the Sri Mariamman Temple along South Bridge Road in 1827, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Recognised as a community leader, he was appointed as the Chief of Indians from Cholamandalaman and helped to settle disputes within the early local Tamil community.
Veerasamy Road was named in 1927 in honour of Dr N. Veerasamy Naidu, one of Singapore’s first Indian doctors. In his 40 years as a medical practitioner, Dr Veerasamy used both his Western medical knowledge and traditional Indian medical methods to run his highly successful clinic. As a respected figure in the local community, he led the meeting of the Hindu Association in 1914, where the community pushed for Deepavali as the first Hindu public holiday in Singapore. He later rose to become a Municipal Commissioner and Justice of the Peace.
There are many more interesting roads and stories of Singapore for you to uncover. The next time you are back and pass by a road named after someone, do take the time to find out who that person was and what they did for Singapore — you might learn something new, or could even discover that you’re related to them!