As a multilingual country, Singapore’s place names come from a variety of linguistic sources. Deciphering the origin of place names like Selegie, Telok Kurau and Chinatown can also tell us an interesting history of the area.
For example, Telok Kurau was named after a fishing village called Telok Kurau – “kurau” is the Malay word for threadfin fish, or Ikan Kurau, so “Telok Kurau” means “Threadfin Bay” in English. Meanwhile Kusu comes from the Hokkien word Ku (龟) meaning “tortoise” or “turtle”, referring to the hill on the island which resembles the domed shell of a tortoise.
How did “Singapore” become 星加坡
The Chinese translation for Singapore is 新加坡 can be traced back to Da-po (大坡) and Xiao-po (小坡), two colloquial place names that are known among the older Chinese generation. These referred to the what’s essentially two sides of the Singapore River.
Da-po (“Big Town”) referred to the side of the river with Raffles Place, Chinatown, and Telok Ayer – an area where early immigrants mainly flocked to, and therefore grew larger than the other side. Xiao Po (“Small Town”) referred to the side of the Singapore River where City Hall, Beach Road, Victoria Street, Middle Road, and Selegie Road are.
Since the names referred to both sides of the river, and Singapore was more known for its port than for its slope, why was it named with “po” (坡) which means “slope” rather than 埠 which means “port”?
An explanation could be that back in the day, most of the Chinese were believed to be Hokkien speakers, whose word for port was “po” (埠) sounded similar to 坡. In Hokkien, latpo (叻埠) was also used in early Chinese literature but since not many immigrants were literate at the time, the 坡 version was used to describe Singapore. Interestingly, the same 坡 was also used in the Chinese name for Kuala Lumpur (吉隆坡).
新加坡 only became Singapore’s official Chinese translation on 25th April 1972. Before that, while the 坡 was consistent, the other characters were basically variations of the same pronunciation, like xinjiapo (新嘉坡) and xingjiapo (星架坡 or 星加坡 or 星嘉坡).
This gives us an interesting twist to the Sang Nila Utama origin
An interesting hypothesis was presented by Yusrin Faidz Yusoff in 2018: Singapore’s name is based on “sinca” and not “singa”.
The Chinese prounciation of Singapore – “sin ka phu” (Wu), “sin-ka-po” (Gan) and “sîn-kâ-phô” (Hakka & Southern Min) – bears more similarities with “Sincapura” in Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s 1596 map and “Sincapure” in Captain Alexander Hamilton’s book “A New Account of the East Indies” than with “Singapura”.
The word “sinca” or “sin-cha” ( सिञ्चत ) refers to acts of ritual purification, such as sprinkling blessed or holy water, practised in both Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as by the native Malays in the southern Malay peninsula during Srivijayan and Majapahit rule.
Therefore, the etymology of the word “Singapore” could possibly be attributed to its old name “Sincapura”, which in Sanskrit means either “Purified City” or “Pure Land”.