Notes on Names of Places in the Island of Singapore and its Vicinity

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By H.T. Haughton
JSBRAS No. 20 1889, pp.75-82

Extended Notes

Notes on Names of Places in the Island of Singapore and its Vicinity

Most articles explaining the origins of place names in Singapore which have been reproduced or anthologised have tended to focus on Chinese place and street names. This much-overlooked but highly informative article by H.T. Haughton which appeared in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society – the precursor to the Journal of the Malayan Branch – in 1889 was probably the first of its kind and focuses almost exclusively on Malay place names in Singapore and its immediate vicinity.

Haughton’s article has been referred to extensively in a later book by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh entitled “Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names”, published by the Eastern Universities Press in 2003. This article, however, requires further elucidation in view of the dated material presented therein and also to supplement the efforts of Savage and Yeoh in explaining the origins of place names in Singapore. Though an admirable work, there was much that missed the scrutiny of these two scholars with regard to Malay place names in Singapore as listed by Haughton in his fascinating article.

The socio-economic changes which accompanied the rise of Singapore first as a premier port in the Straits Settlements and secondly its emergence as an economic powerhouse in Asia following its independence wrought significant shifts to the geo-ethnic map of Singapore. Its native population, namely the Malays and the Orang Laut, were among the groups upon whom these changes had the most dramatic impact. These included mass displacement of a rapidly dwindling Malay population and the destruction of many traditional native settlements or ‘kampungs’ as an inevitable result of urbanization.

These were in fact already happening when the article was written and was pointed out perceptibly by the author himself in the closing years of the 19th century. One may advance a reasonable conjecture that Haughton’s list was compiled out of a sense of foreboding and concern that the native legacy in Singapore was in danger of being silenced altogether completely. Haughton however, in a typically self-effacing way, describes his own effort at compiling the present list as a superfluous undertaking but justifies it as nothing more than an honest initiative aimed at stimulating an interest in the subject matter among readers who, though curious enough to inquire, may lack sufficient command of Malay to delve deeper into the origins of these place names.

Certain parts of Haughton’s article may require further clarification before it may be fully utilised by the modern-day reader. In the second paragraph of Haughton’s article, he refers to the origins of the name Point Roumania or Tanjong Penyusok as it was called in Malay, located at the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula in the state of Johore and now known as Teluk Ramunia. Haughton asserts that the name applied to the point – Ramunia, Roumania and Rumania – is a corruption of Rumenia, which was a type of fruit bearing tree. The spelling employed by Haughton in the article in referring to the Latin or scientific name of “Rumenia” is perhaps outdated. The more current spelling appears to have been “Bouea macrophylla”, a plant known in English as the marian plum and identified variously throughout Malaysia and Indonesia as “rembunia”, “setar”,”gandaria” or “ramania”.

Haughton’s article has identified most of the locations of these place names but there are instances when this has not been done. Savage and Yeoh in their book deal mainly with toponyms and does provide the present-day locations of the sites listed therein, but not in every single case. The following short note will proceed to identify wherever possible the present location of the place names listed by Haughton. Most of the names are still in current use and are fairly well-known to the modern-day reader; it is not for these that the following short notes have been compiled. It turns out that a good number of places on Haughton’s list can no longer be traced except by those with an intimate geographical knowledge of Singapore and the islands surrounding it; the compiler of these notes by no means includes himself within this category. Readers are welcome to contribute further information or correction as to any of the places listed in the article and accompanying note.

Ayer Gemuruh has been identified as an old Malay village in the vicinity of Changi.

Bajau refers to Pulau Bajau, an island that is now within the Poyan Reservoir in the Western Water Catchment area. Like similar islands in the area, it is now an army live firing area and is inaccessible to the public. Haughton’s definition of a Bajau as a pirate suggests that at this time, the Bajau ethnic group in North Borneo was singularly associated with the scourge of piracy. It is also possible that to the native Singaporean population at one time, the association between Bajaus and piracy was so profound that the term was used interchangeably.

Berhala Keping seems to have been spelled in contemporary sources as Berhala Reping. It is a tiny island off the northeastern tip of Sentosa Island (formerly Pulau Blakang Mati) on the Sengkir Straits (throughout Haughton’s article, this bit of waterway was known as the Sinki Channel). Northwest of Berhala Reping is the much bigger Pulau Brani. Berhala Reping seems to have been established in the 1890s as a shoreline forward defence shield. Its purpose was to protect the entrance to Keppel Harbour, namely the Sengkir Straits, near which Pulau Brani – the site of refuelling coaling station and tin smelting factory – was located. Berhala Reping was also one of the burial sites for the infamous “Sook Ching” massacre of Chinese civilians by the Japanese “Kempeitai” in 1942. Nowadays, Berhala Reping is no longer an island as the land around it has been reclaimed and the island itself incorporated as part of the Serapong Golf Course (owned by the Sentosa Golf Club) built in the 1980s. It is now out of bounds except by members of the club.

Beting Kusah was a sand bank identified as being in Changi.

Bukit Gemia is known these days in a more corrupted version as Mount Imbiah, one of four coastal fortifications on Sentosa Island built in 1912 and which remained in use until the 1930s. At an elevation of 60 metres, it is now a lookout point and a tourist attraction on Sentosa. Note, however, that the spelling used for “Imbiah” in Haughton’s article is slightly different than the one currently employed. “Gemia” and “Imbiah” are both derivations of “Rembia” or “rumbia”, as it is presently spelt. All the words refer to the sago palm or the Metroxylon sagu, to give it its scientific name.

Bukit Serapong was also known as Flag Staff Hill. Like Bukit Gemia or Mount Imbiah, it was another coastal fortification on Sentosa Island. It is the site of Fort Serapong, a coastal battery at an elevation of 51 metres located on the eastern side of Sentosa Island and constructed in 1885.

Kampong Renggam is possibly a Malay village close to Tanjong Renggam on Pulau Tekong.

Loyang is now an industrial estate in the eastern part of Singapore close to Pasir Ris. There is a river here called Sungei Loyang and perhaps the brass-like colour of its water explained the origin of the name.

Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Limau (alternatively known as Pulau Merlimau) and Pulau Ayer Merbau were three of a total of seven islands that were amalgamated to form the artificial island of Jurong, an artificial island to the southwest of Singapore which was officially opened in October 2000. These islands remained fishing communities till the 1960s when a few of them were used to house oil refinery facilities. A project to join the southern islands off Jurong as one colossal island was conceived in the 1980s when land scarcity on the mainland presented an obstacle to further expansion of industrialization.

Pulau Damar Laut is located off the western coast of Singapore in Jurong. It now exists as part of Jurong Port and presently there are four container terminals and a cement terminal on it. Pulau Damar Laut was an idyllic spot once: its palm-fringed coastlines, sleepy Malay kampungs and coral reefs with clear water were recalled vividly by author Julian Davison who came here on countryside excursions with his family in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Pulau Khatib Bongsu is located within a nature area on the northern shore of Singapore close to Yishun Estate. It is very popular with kayak enthusiasts.

Pulau Merambong is an uninhabited island largely made up of mangrove swamp now located on the Malaysian side of the Johor Straits, and is visible in the distance from the Tuas shore.

Pulau Misemut is now spelled Pulau Mesemut. It is one of the seven smaller islands that now forms Jurong Island.

Pulau Miskol is currently spelled Pulau Meskol. It is one of the seven smaller islands that was reclaimed to form Jurong Island.

Pulau Pesek was also one of the seven smaller islands that was amalgamated into Jurong Island.

Pulau Sa-kijang Bandera is also known as St John’s Island and was formerly a quarantine station for immigrants coming into Singapore. By the 1930s, the quarantine station here had achieved international renown and functioned, among others, to screen returning pilgrims and immigrants from the Middle East. A highly respected Muslim scholar from the state of Kedah in Malaysia, Dato’ Syeikh Zakaria Haji Ahmad Wan Besar (1928-2011) recalled in an oral history interview that he was quarantined here upon his return in 1948 following a lengthy sojourn in Mecca.

Pulau Seburus is one of the smaller islands located in the western part of Singapore, probably close to the Jurong side.

Pulau Semulun is now spelt Pulau Samulun and exists as an offshore island in the Jurong Industrial Estate where ships consigned for scrap are scuttled. Separated from the Singapore mainland by Selat Samulun, it is only less than a kilometre away from the former.

Pulau Suber actually exists as two separate islands known collectively as Sisters Islands. Sisters Islands now form part of the Southern Islands, an offshore urban planning area south of Singapore consisting of eight major islands, namely Kusu Island, Lazarus Island, Pulau Seringat, Pulau Tekukor, St. John’s Island, Sentosa and the two islands in question.

Pulau Sudong is located off the southern coast of Singapore and was enlarged through land reclamation in the 1970s. Together with Pulau Senang and Pulau Pawai, these three islands have been a military training area and a live firing zone since the 1980s which makes them all inaccessible to the public.

Sa-ranggong has now been corrupted into Serangoon. The reference in Haughton’s article is primarily directed to Pulau Serangoon or Coney Island, and not the modern-day neighbourhood on the mainland. Coney Island is a 45-hectare island off the northeastern coast of Singapore, between Pulau Ubin and the mainland.

Selat Sinki is currently spelled Selat Sengkir and is also known as the Sengkir Straits.

Sungei Berih was formerly on the northwest coast of Singapore and is now part of the Poyan Reservoir.

Sungei Beronok is probably close to Beting Bronok, a submerged reef on the northern side of Pulau Tekong in northeast Singapore.

Sungei Peropok is located in the Jurong area of western Singapore. A part of Boon Lay Road lay over Sungei Peropok and there is a Bukit Peropok in Jurong.

Sungei Sarimbun is one of the many rivers in the Lim Chu Kang area of northwestern Singapore.

Sungei Teban is located in Jurong.

Sungei Tengek (spelled Sungei Tengeh these days) once emptied into the Johor Straits and is now the Tengeh Reservoir, built in the early 1980s. Currently part of the Western Water Catchment in northwest Singapore, it is out of bounds to the public. It is possible that the water in this river was once foul smelling thereby explaining the origins of its unflattering name.

Tanjong Malang was later known as Teluk Ayer Point; both names are now obsolete. Its present location is along Palmer Road and includes the Mount Palmer area.

Tanjong Merawang is located along the shores of Tuas.

Tanjong Ru is now spelled Tanjong Rhu, and exists as a neighbourhood in Kallang in southeastern Singapore.

Tanjong Selinsing is probably a cape located close to Fort Silingsing, one of two coastal fortifications constructed in 1901 on the eastern side Pulau Brani.

Tanjong Teregeh is probably a point overlooking the Sengkir Channel. It is probable that it is also spelled Tanjung Tereh and should this be true, then there is nothing left of this place as it is now located within the Brani Container Port. There was once a Fort Teregah (note the different spelling employed), a coastal battery built in 1861 on Pulau Brani for the defence of Keppel Harbour.

Telok Saga is a village on the northern side of Pulau Brani.

The Author

H.T. Haughton was a prolific contributor to the JSBRAS, as revealed by the Index of Authors which appeared in the JSBRAS No. 31, July 1898, in which seven articles written by him were listed. His article on the Malay art form ‘Boria’ was certainly one of the earliest and one which had been quoted at length by later scholars on the subject. Personal details of Haughton’s life however are scarce. Haughton was made a Justice of the Peace and Magistrate for the Straits Settlements by the Governor in March 1883. A perusal of old issues of the Straits Times from that period reveal a number of court cases presided over by him in this period when he was in Singapore. Between April 1885 and May 1897, Haughton apparently served in Malacca, among others as its Collector of Land Revenue, officer in charge of the Treasury and Magistrate. The insalubrious air of Malacca may have taken a toll on his health as he was away on leave of absence for over a year beginning November 1889. By October 1892, Haughton had been promoted to Second Assistant Colonial Secretary. Upon his return from Europe for the very last time in August 1896, Haughton served briefly in Malacca before his transfer to Singapore in May the following year. Back in Singapore and up to his death, Haughton held a number of significant positions, namely as the Acting Assistant Colonial Secretary, Clerk of Councils, Official Assignee and Registrar of Deeds, Singapore. Haughton’s end was, in fact, rather painful and sudden. Apparently in good health before the tragedy, Haughton contracted an inflammation of the liver, a condition which gradually worsened until he finally expired as a result of internal haemorrhage in the early hours of the morning of 9 July 1897. His own funeral at Bukit Timah on the following day - the funeral no doubt hastily arranged to prevent putrefaction of the body due to the oppressive equatorial climate and the circumstances of Haughton's own painful death - was a well-attended affair and the Straits Times reported that among his mourners were Sir Charles Mitchell, the Governor of the Straits Settlements; C.W.S. Kynnersley, the Acting Colonial Secretary; Dr. Lim Boon Keng; the Acting Chief Justice W.R. Collyer and the Attorney-General T. de M. Braddell.

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