Dr Wong Chee Meng rectifies Lianhe Zaobao’s article over history of Onan Road, saying “any traditional festival per se has given a road its name in Singapore is unheard of”

Last Thursday (11 June), Lianhe Zaobao published an article featuring the colourful landmarks in Katong and Joo Chiat that embrace multicultural as it not only represented the culture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, but also the culture of Peranakan and Eurasian.

In the article, the writer had claimed that Onan Road was named after the celebration of Onam festival by the Malayalee community from Kerala.

Following this, on Monday (15 June), Dr Wong Chee Meng, a visiting researcher for Centre for Chinese Language & Culture at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) took to his Facebook, rectifying the erroneous history of Onan Road which has been published in the article.

“While it is a generally well-known fact that there used to be a Malayalee enclave in Sembawang as many worked for the shipyard at the Naval Base, the claim that any traditional festival per se has given a road its name in Singapore is unheard of,” he wrote.

In fact, Dr Wong pointed out that the entry on Onan Road can be easily find on the website of Singapore Infopedia, stating as “It is likely that Onan Road was named after Onan bin Rajidin, a migrant from Java who built a mosque in the area called Onan Road Mosque (demolished between the mid-1980s and 1990s due to redevelopment of the area)”, which cited from an article published in Berita Harian in 1985.

Regarding this issue, Dr Wong said he had reached out Zaobao through email and Zaobao has replied saying they have amended the online article and made an internal file correction.

He said in email exchange with Zaobao, he had learned that the writer had actually cited the information from a property website “with random nuggets” on Katong area.

Citing an article of Berita Harian in 2015, he stated that Dr Imran Bin Tajudeen of National University of Singapore (NUS) Architecture Department also mentioned about the legacy of Onan bin Rajidin in a discussion on the history of Katong and Siglap.

Dr Wong then reminded the writers and heritage buffs to be prudent in making any claims about Singapore’s heritage while promoting the “truly multicultural” and “representative identity” of Singapore.

“I can understand that sometimes writers and heritage buffs in Singapore can get very enthusiastic when it comes to promoting certain sites here as being ‘truly multicultural’ and hence representative of the Singapore identity. It is partly a way to legitimise heritage places here in our fast-changing landscape.

“But even while we should neither deny tourism as an essential industry nor the political agenda to educate on multiculturalism (I suppose it is also good to find some opportunity  to tell the Chinese readers that not all Indian Singaporeans have Tamil as mother tongue), we must be careful in making any little claim.”

If there is a further research on the area of Kreta Ayer, Kampong Glam and “Little India”, the people will also see that these areas was not exclusively Chinese, Malay or Arab, and Indian, says Dr Wong.

“Tourism brochures may want to promote Joo Chiat/Katong now as a “melting pot”, but let’s not overdo things without proper basis?” he concluded.

Meanwhile in the comment section, Dr Imran bin Tajudeen – a senior research fellow at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore (NUS) also assured that there is no uncertainty that the Onan Road was named after Onan bin Rajidin. He said that it is “unnecessarily casting doubt” when the Infopedia and Singapore Toponyms saying the Onan Road was “probably named after Onan bin Rajidin”.

To support his view, Dr Imran said the Senior Display Designer Asian Civilisations Museum National Heritage Board, Mazelan bin Anuar had contacted him in 2012 regarding the correction in Infopedia article, which was earlier stated that the road was named after the Malayalee festival.

He also claimed that the great grandson of Onan bin Rajidin had written in to Infopedia in 2009, explaining about how his father collected the rent of the properties owned by his great grandfather.

Dr Imran then suggested to interview the descendants of Onan bin Rajidin and those who had lived in Onan Road in order to validate the truth.



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