For most Singaporeans, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is a part of everyday life. But if you were to ask them about the origins of MRT names like Tiong Bahru, Toa Payoh, and Tampines, the ordinary citizen would respond only with blank stares (or cheeky jokes).
Here, we highlight the prominent stations along each MRT line and tell you how they got their names. Are you familiar with any of them?
1. East-West Line
Ever heard fervent claims that Singapore’s east side has the most delicious food? Or that “west side = best side”? Welcome to the never-ending debate.
The Bedok area is home to Singapore’s largest resident population. The name “Bedok” hails from the Malay word bedoh, which means drum. In pre-loudspeaker days, a large drum was used at the nearby Masjid Al-Taqua to call the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day.
Long before the arrival of the British in Singapore, there used to be a large river canal that ran through the Bugis district. The earliest known users of this canal were the Bugis, a notorious seafaring warrior tribe from South Sulawesi in Indonesia. In the 1960s, Bugis was known for housing a thriving transvestite population.
Tourists might sometimes pronounce this place as “tam-pines” – but it’s actually pronounced “tam-pennies”. Despite its salacious-sounding name, the name “Tampines” has nothing to do with the male anatomy. “Tampines” is derived from the highly-valued ironwood tree tempinis, which once abundantly dotted the area.
Contrary to popular belief, Tiong Bahru did not obtain its name from the numerous “Ah Tiongs” (China nationals) that lived there. Tiong Bahru derived its name from Thiong (Hokkien for cemetery) and Bahru (Malay for new), as it was the site of the second cemetery to be built in the area. At one point in time, Tiong Bahru was even named “Burial Ground Road” by the British. Creepy.
Boon Lay was named after Chew Boon Lay, a Singapore pioneer who emigrated from China in the 1870s. Boon Lay opened a soap, biscuit, and brick-making factory, and eventually bought vast mosquito-infested swathes of land in Jurong. He then cultivated rubber plantations in the area, amassing a huge fortune from the industry. The land was later acquired by the government in the 1940s.
2. North-South Line
The North-South line takes you to Singapore’s popular shopping belt in Orchard, and also houses the country’s five oldest MRT stations.
Also known as Singapore’s shopping district, Orchard draws its name from the numerous nutmeg, pepper, gambier, and fruit orchards that covered the area in the 1830s. A mysterious man, known only as Mr Orchard, also owned plantations at the corner of Scotts and Orchard Road.
Toa Payoh was known as a notorious squatter district, deriving its name from the Hokkien word for “big” (toa), and the Malay word for “swamp” (payoh). The squatters were relocated in 1964, and Toa Payoh became the Housing and Development Board’s very first residential town. Today, many HDB estates follow the town plan of Toa Payoh.
Jurong obtained its name from Sungei Jurong, a channel that runs into the Jurong lake. But there are several possible things that the word “jurong” could refer to. In Malay, the word “Jurong” could mean “shark”, “gorge”, or “corner”.
Yishun was named after “Pineapple King” Lim Nee Soon, who was well known far and wide for being a pineapple tycoon. A prominent Peranakan Chinese, Nee Soon was a leading member of the Teochew clan in Singapore. “Yishun” is Nee Soon’s name in Mandarin.
Choa Chu Kang
Contrary to popular belief, Choa Chu Kang is not the name of a person. The name “Chu Kang” is derived from the Hokkien word for river bank, kang chu. In the past, the village in this area belonged to the Choa clan. There are other riverside villages nearby too, such as Lim Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang.
3. Circle Line
Here’s one line that just keeps going in circles. This line connects several prominent residential estates, and it also has the most interchange stations.
The name Dakota means “friend” in the native American Lakota Sioux language. Singapore’s Dakota region was so named because of the numerous commercial Dakota DC-3 aircraft that used to land at the nearby Kallang Airport.
Pasir Panjang literally means “long sand”, due to the sandy beaches that litter the area. Here, war hero Lieutenant Adnan Bin Saidi led a regiment of Malay soldiers against the Japanese onslaught during a bloody battle in World War II. Today, a giant poster of Lieutenant Adnan can be found in the MRT station.
Contrary to popular belief, Holland Village was not founded by the Dutch. Holland Village was named after architect and amateur actor Hugh Holland, who was an early resident of the area. Today, Holland Village has a prominent nightlife scene, with plenty of popular watering holes and eateries.
Mountbatten is named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command from 1945 to 1946. He was the commander who received the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Forces in Singapore in 1945.
4. North-East Line
The NEL connects several well-known Indian landmarks, and also reaches into the far ends of Punggol in the northeast.
Dhoby Ghaut was once known for the numerous dhobis, or Indian washermen, who worked in the area. The word ghat is Hindi for a series of steps that lead down to a body of water. The dhobis would obtain their water from the Bras Basah River, and then bring their customers’ clothes to the Dhoby Green to wash them in the 1900s.
The name Serangoon derives its name from a small marsh bird, the burong ranggong, which was prominently found in the then-swampy region. In the 1900s, Serangoon was known for its bustling cattle and brickmaking industries.
The word Punggol means to “hurl sticks at branches of fruit trees to bring its fruits down to the ground” in Malay. That’s quite a lot of information in one word! This indicates that the area was once a thriving fruit-growing district.
Potong Pasir means “cut sand” in Malay. This refers to the dozens of sand quarries in the region in the past. Potong Pasir now houses the St Andrew’s Village, a mega cluster of schools under the St Andrew’s banner.
Not many people know this, but the official name of Buangkok is “Trafalgar”! The fancy name given by the British did not stick with the locals. Instead, the locals called the area “Buangkok”, which means “united”.
With the knowledge of the backstories of these MRT stations, go forth and explore!