FOR countries, cities, mountains, rivers, monoliths and other political or geologic entities, changes in their names are an occupational hazard. An unfortunate few – like St Paul’s Hill in Malacca – undergo multiple transformations.
Reasons for name changes include securing independence, reflecting new political constructs or altered mindsets, eliminating words now considered offensive, acknowledging an indigenous people’s association or reverting to an ancient patronymic.
Named after the now-maligned imperialist Cecil Rhodes, Rhodesia later became Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics devolved into 15 countries while Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City, in remembrance of North Vietnam’s heroic independence fighter.
In February this year, it was proposed two Colorado mountains with names now considered offensive should be given politically-correct monikers. Squaw Mountain was re-designated Mistanta Mountain, the name of a prominent Cheyenne woman, while Redskin Mountain became Mount Jerome, to honor photographer and artist Irene Jerome Hood.
Possibly the most famous name change was Ayers Rock in Australia. Christened in 1872 to commemorate then South Australian premier Sir Henry Ayers, the world’s largest rock formation was reincarnated as Uluru. Ownership of the towering red monolith was also returned to the Anangu, an acknowledgement this indigenous group was Uluru’s original custodian.
Whether the new name gains acceptance depends on how persuasively the need for a new appellation is explained, how this change was effected and whether the previous nomenclature had significant emotional cachet or monetary value.
Three notable examples spring to mind. Although Persia became Iran, its finely-woven floor coverings are still touted as Persian carpets.
All rubies – particularly those with the much-sought after pigeon’s blood colour – are still labelled Burmese rather than Myanmarese.
Bombay is now called Mumbai. But the centre of Hindi film-making in this Indian city – drawing inspiration from California’s Hollywood – is still called Bollywood rather than Mullywood.
A recent proponent of new naming is the Malacca Museum Corporation (Perzim). Recently, Perzim suggested St Paul’s Hill should revert to its original name during the Malacca Sultanate – Bukit Melaka.
If Perzim’s suggestion is implemented, the highest mound in Malacca will have the possibly unique distinction of being known through five centuries under four different nomenclatures in four different languages – Portuguese, Dutch, English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Malacca was conquered by Portugal in 1511 and by Holland in 1641. Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824, Britain exchanged Bencoolen in Sumatra for Malacca.
Hill and church was called Sao Paulo by the Portuguese, according to a blogger. Under the Dutch, the Catholic Church changed denomination and was re-consecrated as St Paulus and the hill was presumably known by the same name while the moniker St Paul’s Hill was due to the British.
As a legally-trained nitpicker, I have several issues with Perzim’s suggestion.
First, one of the biggest empires in 15th century Peninsular Malaysia was known as the Malacca Sultanate. This suggests St Paul’s Hill would have been called Bukit Malacca.
On May 3, 2017, the state government declared Malacca would thereafter be known as Melaka, severing the commonality in names between this city and the Straits of Malacca.
In the interests of accuracy, Perzim should amend its proposed name to Bukit Malacca. Or does Perzim also propose re-naming the Malacca Sultanate in English as the Melaka Sultanate?
Second, St Paul’s Hill is located near several historic buildings – the Stadthuys, the Porta de Santiago which is the gate of the famous A Fomosa Fort and the Muzium Kebudayaan that replicates a Malacca Sultanate palace.
Changing the name of St Paul’s Hill will require new publicity material to be printed and revamping multiple tourism websites in this country and overseas – an additional expense at a time when and the number of tourists and tourism-related revenue has plunged.
According to newspaper reports, 10 hotels are for sale. Mahkota Hotel Malacca, the Emperor Hotel Malacca and the Ramada Plaza Melaka have already closed down.
For a state where foreigners contribute 33% of its tourism revenue, the outlook is bleak. News reports add cumulative losses could total billions of ringgit.
Malacca tourism heritage and culture committee chairman Datuk Muhamad Jailani Khamis forecasts recovery in the state’s tourism industry could take two years.
Third, in countries like New Zealand, the re-naming process is clearly detailed and a widely-publicised hearing is held to obtain the views of stakeholders and the public. Justification for the name change is substantiated through documents or prior long usage.
Commendably, Melaka Chief Minister Datuk Sulaiman Md Ali said the proposed change should be meticulously examined by historians and any drastic changes to historically important sites must obtain feedback from various parties.
Re-naming initiatives shouldn’t stem from haphazard research. In this country, hamburgers are known as beefburgers. The meat patty in hamburger doesn’t contain ham; this fast food owes its name to Hamburg City in Germany.
Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org