17 May 2019

Our Grandfather’s Road

Winding through time and every corner of Singapore, our road names tell the stories and happenings of each place. Many of them were named after our pioneers, early local merchants and governors of the Straits Settlement. Aside from textbook figures such as Sir Stamford Raffles and Tan Tock Seng, which other historic individuals have we memorialised through our roads? Take a trip down memory lane with us.


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


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


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


Zubir Said Drive was named after Zubir Said, the composer of our national anthem, ‘Majulah Singapura’. Mr Zubir — sometimes affectionately known as Mr Mari Kita, after the first two words of his famed song — received numerous accolades extending across film, pop and national compositions. Throughout his lifetime, and even posthumously, he was recognised for his contributions to Singapore’s music scene and Malay culture.


After an early career touring as a performer, Mr Zubir got into music production with film production company Shaw Brothers in the 1950s-60s, a time known as the peak of filmmaking in Singapore. There, he composed songs for several Malay films, including ‘Chinta’, a box-office hit that featured Malaysian film legend P. Ramlee in his first screen appearance. He later joined Cathay-Keris, where he explored the influence of European and Asian scores with Malay folk melodies, till he retired from production in 1964.


Zubir Said Drive, which branches off from Bras Basah Road, can be aptly found beside The Cathay, the original site of the Cathay (-Keris) Building.




Aljunied Road


Aljunied Road was named in 1926 after Syed Ali bin Mohamed Aljunied (Al-Junid) of the Aljunied family, one of the earliest Arab groups to arrive in Singapore as the British established a successful trading post. They were affluent businessmen, community leaders and philanthropists. As descendants of Prophet Mohammed, the family help set up several mosques in Singapore. Syed Ali’s father, Syed Omar, also contributed to the wider community by donating land towards the Pauper’s Hospital that later became Tan Tock Seng Hospital.


Little is known about the early history of the precinct except that there used to be plantations. During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese airforce built hangars in the area to repair airplane engines, as the overgrown treescape provided the much-needed camouflage. After the war, squatters moved into the area and lived in attap houses until the Singapore Improvement Trust resettled the population and transformed the place into a residential estate between the 1950s to 1970s.




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.


Though known as a red-light district during the 60s, the area was overhauled in the early 1990s, when chic boutique hotels, design offices and upscale bars took over the restored shophouses and breathed new life into it.




Nee Soon Road


Nee Soon Road was named after Lim Nee Soon, one of Singapore’s most well-known Chinese businessmen. Lim owned huge plantations in present-day Yishun (the Chinese hanyu pinyin for “Nee Soon”) and Sembawang. After achieving success in the rubber cultivation boom, Lim also cultivated pineapples to inter-crop his rubber plantations, which earned him the nickname “Pineapple King”.

Aside from being a successful businessman, Lim was also charitable and took an interest in bettering society; together with Tan Kah Kee, he founded The Chinese High School in 1919. He also donated burial land for the Chinese underprivileged around Seletar. Lim was later appointed as the Justice of the Peace in 1925 and served in the Singapore Rural Board. For his contributions, many roads in the vicinity were named after Lim and his family members — including Peck Hay Road, Chong Kuo Road and Chong Pang Road.

Much of Nee Soon’s early greenery has been left untouched. The Nee Soon Swamp Forest is the only primary freshwater swamp forest left on the island. In 2002, a green stretch of the road was built up into a public park with cycling and running trails, which was met with mixed reception from residents, with some missing the natural charm of the rustic, rural road.


Pillai Road


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.


The quaint residential street off Upper Paya Lebar Road was named in his honour in 1957.


Veerasamy Road


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.


Before its current name, Veerasamy Road was first known as Inche Lane, and later as Jalan Tambah in 1910.



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!


Note: Written with reference to several sources, including the Singapore Infopedia and Remember Singapore.


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