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Friday, 27 June 2014

Names, Names... in Malaysia

Penang Chief Minister Announcing Road Name Change after famous MP Karpal Singh
(Source: MalayMail Online)
Recently, Penang (northern state in Malaysia) announced a promenade to be renamed as Karpal Singh Drive. The name change was done as honour to the contributions of well known Penang-born lawyer politician Karpal Singh. Geographical names, wherever they may be associated with, is critical for our daily communication for us to move around and decided on matters. However, we are not much aware about the naming policy in Malaysia

Who's in charge of naming?

In simplest sense, the government of Malaysia is in charge. In 2002, Malaysian National Committee of Geographical Names (JKNG) was created to coordinate the naming policies and activities. As geographical names come under the realm of mapping, Director-General of Department of Survey & Mapping (JUPEM) chairs the JKNG. Under JKNG, they have various subcommittees tackling issue on organizing the name gazetteer, updates, island naming and state name committees.  JUPEM organized a Malaysian standard for naming conventions: MS 2256: 2009. Naming guideline has 21 principles ranging from language usage to use of personal names. 

Few years ago, JKNG subcommittee on gazetteer created a website of nearly all named places in Malaysia called Geoname. It is a repository of names of villages, towns, islands and others. Moreover, it presented current and alternative names, recorded pronunciation of features in official Malay and its local dialet and spelling in Jawi (Arabic script for Malay). It took roughly 5 years to set up this gazetteer and subsequently website plus additional works on the online names site.

You might be wondering which parties are involved in this naming process. They are JUPEM, Planning Department, National Archives, Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (Institution in charge for Malay language), local governments, National Hydrographic Centre and other relevant parties.  Both national and state governments under JKNG are involved in the naming policy

So, how the place could be named?

For the public, the documentation about the process is weak or scarce. Let's narrow down to a general geographic feature like a new island (an anonymous one). The official groups that can name the island are Federal, State and Local governments. However, other agencies can provide the name (e.g. if the island is an artificial island, the developer may submit the name but the name needs to be approved by the naming committee). Preferably, the name should be Malay (as it is official language of Malaysia) and the way it is spelled and pronounced should be along the official Malay language. The name should not be offensive or discriminatory. If the island happened to be named after a person,  preferably the nominated person is dead (i.e. the case of Karpal Singh Drive) and made significant contribution to Malaysia or the affected area.

If this island had a common societal name before, priority should be given to retain the common name unless exceptional circumstances (i.e. offensive in nature). The naming groups/committees must do their best to remove any possibilities of duplicate names. If the island is small or big, emphasis can be added (e.g. Pulau Kecil - Small Island). If the island happens to have alternative names, the maps should indicate these names in brackets -  "Pulau Kecil (IJM Island)". Should the island in future requires a name change, a significant reason (s) needs to be presented for change. After all, names are used by the public for direction purpose and name change significantly affects personal mental maps.

I strongly encourage those who can read Malay to refer Malaysian Naming Guideline for the 21 principles behind naming. Those who need rough translation, contact me.

Examples of names in Malaysia

The traditional names you may find in rural areas in Malaysia (hence the common names) could stem from legends or folklores . For example, Pulau Dayang Bunting in Langkawi derives from the legend that a maiden lady who immerses herself in lake (in this island) would be pregnant. 

Some of the names are derived from flora, fauna or geographical feature. For example, Gua Tempurung in Perak is named after the coconut shell shaped caves. Langkawi is named after the sea eagle.

Some towns are named after the economic activities they represent. For example, Batu Arang in Selangor literally means charcoal stone and once was a site of coal mining activities.

Since Malaysia has rich history of interaction with outside world, place names are influenced by different world culture. For example, Taiping (Perak) in Chinese means heavenly kingdom 

Like any other country, after independence in  1957, Malaysia progressively adopted new names to replace the British Version. For example, Port Swettenham (name of British administrator) was renamed to Klang (main port in Malaysia). In 1982, Teluk Anson (once the shipping port of rich tin fields of Perak) was renamed as Teluk Intan. However, not all British names were replaced like George Town (Penang) - named after King George III.

Though local governments are empowered to determine names of entities (e.g. roads, buildings) to be line in Malaysian identity, these rules are not regularly enforced. One may notice the adoption of English or global names for shopping centres in Kuala Lumpur and other urban areas.

Controversies with naming

As Malaysia is a developing country, one of its weaknesses is the poor or lack of community consultations. This has affected to naming policies in Malaysia. For example in 2010, in rural Sarawak, a name change of a road without much notice created so much confusion and led drivers lost in their journeys (Borneo Post, 28/7/2010). Not only because of no notice, locals were infuriated that the new road name change does not reflect the local identity.

In 2014, one of the political parties in Sabah criticized the state government (Sabah) for naming villages or areas without any proper understanding of indigenous languages or identities. However, they welcome renaming of a suburb of Kota Kinabalu (Sabah's capital) to reflect the indigenous spelling (Menggatal to Manggatal).

In Penang, in late 2013, false allegations that second biggest island in the state (Pulau Jerejak) was renamed lead to heated debate in state parliament. According to the state opposition leader, the island was renamed to Pulau Mazhu by the island temple operator.


  1. Jawatankuasa Kebangsaan Nama Geografi, Garis Panduan Penentuan Nama Geografi, 2005, Kuala Lumpur,
  2. MacGDI, Pangkalan Data Nama Geografi dan Gazetir Kebangsaan,  Kementerian Sumber Asli dan Alam Sekitar (NRE), 
  3. Pusat Infrastruktur Data Geospatial Negara (MacGDI), Surat Pekeliling Pelaksanaan Infrastruktur Data Geospatial Negara (myGDI) Bilangan 1 Tahun 2012, 2012, Kementerian Sumber Asli dan Alam Sekitar (NRE),
  4. Abdul Ghani, R & Mohamed Husin, N. Place Names (Preserving Cultural Heritage, Reflecting National Identity), 2013,UNGEGN South-East Asia Seminar,,%20Reflecting%20National%20Identity).pdf
  5. The Star, Pulau Jerejak never renamed Mazu Island, says CM, 20th December 2013,
  6. Free Malaysia Today, What's in a name? 3rd March 2014,
  7. MalayMail Online, Penang to Rename Jelutong Sea front 'Karpal Singh Drive', 19th April 2014,


  1. Something of relevance:

  2. New road name in penang:

  3. New road names in Kuala Lumpur