10 May 1998
It was Juliet in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet who said: "Tis but thy name
that is my enemy. What's in a name? That which we will call a rose. By any other
word would smell as sweet."
Every now and then, in idle moments, I think about Shakespeare and invariably I recall
the above passage.
Two weeks ago, I read an interview in Business Week (March 30) of Nobel peace
winner Aung San Su Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Mynmar.
I remember my visit to Mynmar., accompanying Tun Razak in the late sixties with fondness.
In 1957, I had met U Ban Swee, the deputy prime minister at the Residency (now Tunku's
Memorial) during a lavish party given by Tunku in U Ban Swee's honour in the lawn
of the Residency.
It was one of my first diplomatic receptions I attended and in those days diplomatic
receptions were lavish and great fun. I recall one had to wear the tuxedo to attend
Queen Elizabeth's birthday receptions, not to mention dinners ate Carcosa, the residence
of the British High Commissioner which is now part of the Carcosa-Sri Negara hotel.
Nowadays guests turn up at national day celebrations in long-sleeved batik and many
embassies do not even hold parties anymore.
Suu Kyi was asked whether she had a preference about her country's name and she said
she did - Burma rather than Mynmar. In the media here Mynmar. is always called Burma
which shows support for Suu Kyi, 52, who won Burma's general elections in 1990, but
for one reason or other the lady, married to an Englishman, was never allowed to
She said the military rulers had no right to change the name of the country just
because they fancied it.
At independence in 1957, Gold Coast became Ghana, India split into two, India and
Pakistan. "British India became three sovereign nations following the Bangladesh
War in 1971.
Malaya became Malaysia when we incorporated Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1963.
Singapore did not change its name upon Merdeka in 1965. North and South Vietnam reunited
as Vietnam in 1975, Siam became Thailand and Ceylon reemerged as Sri Lanka and so
As Shashi Tharoor, the author of India - from Midnight to Millennium writes:
"The self-appointed guardians of the Bharatvasis are convinced that the names
India has given its cities and landmarks reflect the colonialization of a national
sensibility, a process they are determined to reverse whenever they have a chance."
So they renamed the capital of Maharashtra, "Muambai", proscribing the
use of the word "Bombay" for any official purposes. Tharoor says this is
equivalent of a company jettisoning a well known brand name in favour of an inelegant
patronymic - as if McDonald's had renamed itself Kroc's in honour of its inventor.
"Bombay" has entered global discourse, it conjures up associations of cosmopolitan
bustle: it is attached to products like Bombay gin, Bombay duck and the over priced
colonial furniture sold by the Bombay Company. In short, he adds that "Bombay
enjoys name recognition that many cities in the world would spend millions in publicity
to acquire." Like changing BOAC (British Oversea Airlines Corporation) to BA
(British Airlines) and MAS to Malaysian Airlines, but in this two instances, it was
definitely a wise move.
After independence, Penang UMNO demanded that George Town became Tanjung or something
like that but the Labour Party which controlled the City Hall resisted it and that
was the end of the story.
The Malays, George Town has always been Tanjung so what was the big deal? As Shakespeare
via Juliet, asks "What's in a name?" And, of course, even if it had changed
name the capital city of Penang will still be essentially the same population wise.
Tharoor says that Shiv Sena renamed the universally known "VT" (Victoria
Terminus) railway station in Bombay as "Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus".
Tharoor gleefully demands: "Try telling that to a Bombay taxi driver: Trivandrum,
capital of Kerala is now Thiruvananthapuram!"
This is not - to be fair - a new development, for names had been changed since soon
after 1947 when the British left: Cawnpore became Kanpur and Poona, Pune.
And, at home, some years ago, Port Swettenham became Port Klang, Teluk Anson, Teluk
Intan and the Anglicized spellings of Alor Star was changed to Alur Setar, Kota Bharu
to Kota Baru, Johore to Johor, Penang to Pinang, Klang to Kelang and Trengganu to
Terengganu, I suppose, to reflect the way they are pronounced. Try that on to reflect
the way they are pronounced. Try that on a Trengganu man or woman!