10 May 1998

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One nation which I know did not change names of places, schools, institutions and roads is Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew was far more concerned about the falling standards of written English among his civil servants than thinking about changing "Singapore Sling" to "Temasek Sling!"

I recall that sometime in the early nineties, an education officer in the Federal Territory education department - as if there was nothing better to do - suggested that the name of the famous Victoria Institution be changed.

The suggestion was shot down as quickly and rightly too, I think. "VI" is a famous institution which was originally funded by public subscriptions and besides, what's wrong with the name anyway.

VI has produced numerous well-know personalities and leaders o the country. Imagine VI being changed to Viola Institution!

The particular officer seemed to object that it was named after Queen Victoria and because she was a Queens and Empress of India and the British Empire. But what could you do about it? It is a historical fact that our nation was part of the British Empire. I am not proud of this but must we distort our history?

Thailand is the only country which escaped Western colonialism in our part of the world - thanks to King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn who modernized Thailand. Remember the movie, The King and I?

I can imagine how enraged Old Frees will be if Penang Free School becomes Tanjung Free School or Pengkalan or Pelabuhan Free School!

For the sake of argument, if the officer had succeeded. What about Anderson School, and the two Clifford Schools - one in Kuala Kangsar and the other in Kuala Lipis - King Edward VII and George V? And St. Johns Institution? St. Michael? The list is endless.

I was pleased when Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra changed Jalan Brockman to Jalan Dato Onn in honour of Dato Onn bin Jaafar who have been the founding prime minister if he had not left UMNO (in anger) in 1951.

Many more names of roads have since been changed to honour Malaysians but there are many still left and we should not hurry to replace them. We can honour people who we deem deserving, after their death, by naming new schools, universities, hospitals, roads, townships after them.

We should only replace old names if they are really objectionable. We should not change the name of a place just because we fancy it. What about Nonok Besar in Sarawak? Maybe we can justify changing the name, but not Janda Baik because it is a lovely name. I shall be most peeved of someone dares even suggest it. I would yell because I take change of names seriously. One does not change a child's name, unless it is for the better because of a compelling need.

Are we so insecure we have to change everything? Singapore has not done so and it is a sovereign and independent as any nation. Neither has Hong Kong - so far.

I feel good we are not too obsessed about changing the colonial names of places and institutions or replacing words from murtad to oposate, neraka to jahim, kesimpulan to konklusi, Hari Raya Puasa to El Mubarak and maktab to College or Kolej.

I would not mind if by doing so we become more pious, and improve our written and spoken Malay or Arabic and the failing standard of written as well as oral English. I do not see how changing words or names of institutions - Bahasa to Arabic or English - will make us clever or increase our national productivity.

I do hope Malaysians will not be as fond of changing names as we are of pomp and ceremonies, celebrations and holidays. The crux of the matter is that by changing names, does it make us cleverer and more respected?

Finally I have not written about names, especially about beautiful names.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )