Birch Road or Jalan Maharajalela?

Jalan Tun H.S. Lee now and when it used to be Hight Street. This picture is taken from Kuala Lumpur Dahulu dan Sekarang, an article on Photo Credit: Mohd Radzi Jamaludin’

I didn’t grow up in Kuala Lumpur so I don’t know the old names of the roads and streets in the capital city. By the time I moved to KL (1996), the names had all been changed.

I believe the major renaming happened in 1981 when Mahathir Mohammad was the prime minister. Wiki describes the exercise as a ‘post-independence decolonisation’ effort: the original names of the roads and streets in question were of British public figures. (I’ve been told that Jalan Madge was named after the young daughter of a British official, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. The name of this road has not been changed.)

When I was growing up I would hear my parents discuss these changes and lament that our history was being erased. We lived in small towns in Johor state, but they must have read about the name-change policy in the papers and it was clear that they were against it. They would praise Singapore for not changing the English names of neighbourhoods and streets.

When I was a teenager and living in Singapore, I admired the names of streets like Arcadia, Lavender, Scotts, Orchard, Emerald Hill and Novena. I wished we had streets with such pretty names in Batu Pahat. Even the more mundane names like Hill, Queen and Club were preferable, to me, than Rahmat, Pantai and Bukit Pasir. English was always better!

But now, I’m glad the names of the roads were changed. However, I’m not averse to the old names being preserved in some way – perhaps the former names could be printed, in smaller letters, under the current ones. While I don’t think it’s important to remember the British officials these streets were named after, there are, nevertheless Malayan and Malaysian memories connected to these old names and they are part of our past and worth noting.

Also worth noting are the current names of streets. The truth is, we tend to take street names for granted and ignore the history behind them. Of course, some of the individuals these roads were named after seem quite unremarkable apart from the posts they held. I think it’s boring that Sir William Peel was simply the British Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States and Governor of Hong Kong. However, at least Ernest Aston Otho Travers, who was the Selangor State Surgeon sometime in the 1890s, reformed the care of leprosy patients in Malaya. Actually, both Jalan Peel and Jalan Travers have retained their original names. I don’t know why some streets escaped the name change. Will try to find out.

pawangI’m thinking of getting this book, which explains the origins of Kuala Lumpur street names. I also wouldn’t mind knowing more about how street names were chosen in small Malaysian towns (who would I ask?) – like Jalan Pawang, the street on which our family home in Segamat was located: A ‘pawang’ is a shaman or ‘medicine man’ dealing with the magic of the natural world! Coincidentally, or not, the house we lived in was infamous for being haunted.

My favourite name-change has got to be Birch Road, which is now Jalan Maharajalela. Some of you may know/remember that Maharajalela was the Malay chief who, in 1875, organised and carried out the assassination of J.W.W. Birch the British resident to Perak. Sadly, the man whom Birch Road was named after was not that Birch, but his son Sir Ernest Woodford Birch. Still, it’s a close enough connection to be significant and quite amusing.

P.S. This wiki entry lists all the roads in KL and offers some information about some of the names.


2 thoughts on “Birch Road or Jalan Maharajalela?

  1. These kind of name changes are a double-edged sword, aren’t they. I understand the desire to expunge many aspects of colonialism given the shameful history that too often accompanied it. If it’s an obscure British official or a sadistic army officer who’s commemorated then by all means replace the street name — after all, that’s not a new practice. The problem comes with the replacement name, and if it’s just another political appointee or petty tyrant whose fortune is not to be British I can’t see that it would be any kind of progress. Better a topographical name (Hill Street, Forest View or Bay Road) that describes exactly what it is.

    In any case, many street layouts in postcolonial towns and cities mightn’t be there if some European power hadn’t imposed it in the first place. What should a zealous authority do? Erase the layout? Relocate the city? Where should a line be drawn between a gesture and pragmatism? I wonder if Brits would ever feel constrained to change the Latin-derived names of Roman towns in the UK — after all they were the product of a foreign imperialism back in the first century CE.

    It seems to me that a balance could, maybe should, be maintained, bearing in mind that imperialism throughout history is almost always a mixed blessing. The key thing I feel is to remember the history that brought a place, a people, to its current position — the positives as well as the undoubted negatives.

    Sorry, I’ve rambled a bit! Just one final thing. In Haverfordwest in west Wales there is a place called Merlin’s Bridge. Welsh speakers, in an effort to nativise the placename, have given it its alternative name Pont Myrddin — which naturally translates as Merlin’s Bridge. The problem is that it has nothing to do with King Arthur’s wizard. Merlin derives, via Marlin and Maudlin, from a medieval nunnery dedicated to Mary Magdalene, meaning that the spot should properly be Magdalene’s Bridge. This seems to me to be a case of zealots not knowing the history of a place and imposing a false origin for the name.


  2. Your comment is interesting and thought-provoking, as all your comments are.I think the best option, here, would be for the old names to be retained as a footnote of sorts. Truth is, people tend not to care much about the origins of street names, and I wasn’t joking when I said that malaysians favour British names cos we have been raised to believe they sound more attractive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s