Forget “Lion City” – How Did Singapore REALLY Get Its Name?

01 June 2016
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What does "Singapore" really mean?

Mapping our history

We all know how our Singapore got its name: According to legend, prince Sang Nila Utama was out on a hunting trip on this island when he caught sight of an lion, and so named it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).

But did he, really?

Apparently, the origin of our country’s name “Singapore” can be found in old maps dating back to some 500 years ago


Starting in 1502, maps of the region named the Malaysian peninsula south of Malacca with variations of the name “Barxingapara”.

By the 1550s, the part of Malaysia east of Changi was called “Cape Cincapula”.

The first known example of a name on the island we now inhabit comes from a hand-drawn Dutch chart from the late 17th century, where the island is named “T Lang Isyl” (Long Island), while the waterway south is called “Straat Sincapura” (Singapore Strait).

In 1755, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, a great French mapmaker, published an extremely detailed map of the region, in which our island is named “Pulo ou Isle Panjang” (Long Island), the waterway that separates Singapore from Malaysia is named “The Old Strait of Sincapour” and the waterway to the south, “The New Strait of Sincapour”.

It is not until 1787 that we find a map in which the island carries three names: “Paulau Panjang”, “Iatana” and “Sincapour”.

The historical record is clear: Years before any map located the island of Singapore, maps of the region were calling southern Malaysia “Barxingapara”, then there was Cape Cincapula, and then a waterway, Sincapura Straits.

But why “Barxingapara”? Dr Peter Borschberg of the National University of Singapore speculates in his article Singapura In Early Modern Cartography that “bar” means a kingdom of a coastal region, “xin” means “China”, and “gapara” is the Javanese word for “gateway”.

As Singapore marks the transition from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, “The Kingdom of the Gateway to China” may not be as poetic as “Lion City”, but has the history of printed maps to support its claim as the real origin of the name of our country.


By Eric Rosenkranz, The Straits Times, 24 May 2016


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