By Evan See
Have you ever thought about where our roads got their names? Perhaps some are obvious, like Munshi Abdullah Avenue or Zubir Said Drive. Some names even have fascinating stories behind them, such as the legends behind Redhill or Sisters’ Islands. In fact several popular locations in Singapore have names that many don’t realise actually immortalise some unsung heroes of Singapore’s past.
Here are some iconic areas in Singapore you probably didn’t know were named after people:
You’ve probably realised that Clarke Quay, the heart of Singapore’s nightlife scene was a historically important pier, but did you also know that it was named after Sir Andrew Clarke, the second Governor of Singapore?
Clarke, also governor of the Straits Settlements, was responsible for signing the Pangkor Treaty in 1874 establishing British control over the Malay states of Perak, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. This became extremely beneficial for Singapore, with its position as the central port for commodity trading in British Malaya.
Sir Andrew Clarke was surely an important figure in our rich commercial history, yet so few realise that the drinks they grab in Clarke Quay on a night out might not be so readily available if not for him.
Thomson is one of the more affluent neighbourhoods around, and its arterial Thomson Road is among the oldest roads in Singapore. Despite its reputation as a foodie hotspot, not many people know the origin of its name.
British engineer John Turnbull Thomson played a huge part in developing Singapore’s infrastructure in the 1800s. Starting as a surveyor, Thomson mapped out much of the island by himself on horseback.
Thomson was responsible for designing and overseeing construction on a number of buildings including the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital (present-day Tan Tock Seng Hospital) and the Seamen’s Hospital (predecessor of Singapore General Hospital). Thomson also designed the Thomson Reservoir (now Macritchie Reservoir), and the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca.
Interestingly, John Turnbull Thomson is also believed to be behind the name of another town in Singapore – Ang Mo Kio. While the name’s origin is disputed, most sources point to a bridge that Thomson built in the area which locals referred to as “Ang Mo Kio”, or “Red-haired bridge” in Hokkien, due to Thomson’s distinct red hair, or maybe just the fact that he was Caucasian.
This area in Geylang is named after Syed Omar Aljunied, a wealthy Yemeni merchant who arrived on Singapore’s shores shortly after Raffles did. A descendant of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Syed Omar was hugely respected by the Muslim community in Singapore. He is notable for building Singapore’s first mosque in 1820, now the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in the Central Business District.
Well-known for his philanthropy, he provided a certain Tan Tock Seng with the land to construct the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital, and donated land in the City Hall area that St. Andrew’s Cathedral currently stands on. He also contributed land for a Muslim burial ground at the Jalan Kubor Cemetery, which was previously only reserved for the burial of Malay royalty.
With its reputation as a seedy red-light area, it would seem surprising to most people that Desker Road is actually named after a highly-respected Dutch Eurasian named Andre Filipe Desker who lived in Singapore in the 1800s. He was well-known as the owner of Singapore’s largest slaughterhouse which was situated in the area, and as a philanthropist who donated generously to local Catholic schools and churches.
He probably didn’t foresee this meat-selling turning into an another form of flesh trade years later. Originating among the decadence of Bugis Street in the 50s, the transgender prostitution scene had trickled into Jalan Besar following government efforts to clean up Bugis Street in the 80s, eventually settling at Desker Road.
Unfortunately for Mr Desker, all those donations didn’t seem to do his name much good.
With the new statues of our pioneers along the Singapore River in celebration of the Singapore Bicentennial, perhaps it would do us some good to pay attention to those who have made our country what we are today. So the next time you walk down one of these roads, just remember that it isn’t your “grandfather’s road” – it’s our grandfathers’ road.