Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Moo Moo & Baa Baa

I have been to both North and South islands of New Zealand and I have fond memories of the beautiful scenery.

The two South Pacific islands make up more than 95% of New Zealand's land mass and they are so called simply because of their respective geographical locations, I think. I have never thought that there is anything wrong calling these islands that way, just like how North/South Korea and East/West Berlin are named.

I find it amusing when I read that these two huge masses of land have not actually been officially named.

In New Zealand, the New Zealand Geographic Board is responsible for assigning and approving names for all New Zealand places. In a research conducted by the board to investigate Maori names for the two islands, they discovered that for more than 200 years, the islands have never been legally registered.

After more than two centuries of oversight came an opportunity for the kiwis to have a hand in naming the islands. The board have decided that they will officiate the names of North and South Islands and at the same time, they will consult their people on alternative Maori names for the islands.

In early maps and documents, the North Island was marked with Maori name "Te Ika a Maui" which means "the fish of Maui" and "Te Wai Pounamu" meaning "the waters of greenstone" for the South Island.

I am as amused as I am perplexed at the newly discovered illegitimacy of these two long and well accepted island names. Why should there be such a big fuss about whether the names have been officially registered or not. If they are not, the board can just proceed to have it done and not many people would really have cared about the "correction" any way.

I do not think that the "non-official" status of the island names causes any dent to the sovereignty of New Zealand. So, does it matter that the names have not been registered for more than 200 years? I am sure there are more pressing issues to address, especially now that the global economic crisis is sparing no one.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that naming a place is a trivial matter. On the contrary, I think that the name of a place is more than just a label on the maps as it carries the essence of the history and the culture of the place as well. For a long time, New Zealand has been trying to do justice to Maori names. For that, they have come up with the idea of joint-language names as the official names. For example, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Stewart Island/Rakiura are now the official names for these places.

These joint-names have equal status and they are meant to be used as a single name and not two alternative names. As much as that being the intention, no one has stopped calling Mount Cook as Mount Cook and Stewart Island as Stewart Island.

New Zealand's bilingual situation is not new, especially to people here in Singapore. We have more than two languages to juggle with. The places in Singapore has an official name which may have their origins from Western, Malay, Chinese or Indian names. Where necessary, these names have been romanised into names such as 'Bukit Merah' or 'Choa Chu Kang".

Being a multi-lingual country, the issue of location names will continue to be touchy at times.

Public signages are meant to inform and guide and thus it is important that the public understands what is written on them. While most of the signages here are only displayed in English, some are supplemented with Chinese, Malay or Indian names as well.

You may say, 'the more the merrier' as that supposedly adds clarity to the signages. However, there are practical problems to have every sign cluttered with all four languages. I cannot imagine the chaos and confusion on the road if all the road signs and directions are multi-lingual.

Nonetheless, there are some attempts to accommodate all or some of the other three languages.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) spent more than S$2 million to put up signages in train stations in four languages. I am not sure how that has helped to make direction clearer, since majority of the people here read English.

When it comes to naming a new public place, the LTA also seek feedback and ideas from the public on official names of new train stations. Right now, the polling for the Downtown Line (Stage 1) is open to all from 17 Apr till 1 May and the public are given an opportunity to vote for their choice names. The preferred names will later be submitted to the Street and Building Names Board for approval.

So, should the new station outside Haw Par Villa be named "West Coast" or "Haw Par Villa"? You can give your preference at the poll. My choice - West Coast, as it is less mouthful. Go and pick yours.

Name is important. No doubt it a label to tell one apart from the other, it also accords some uniqueness to the named object. I have earlier written "What's In A Name" and "What's In A Gr8 Name" on why naming a person can be such a joy and pain.

I have an official name just like every else. However, at work and at home, the official name gives way to other unofficially given names. I do not feel that I am less recognisable just because hardly anyone calls me by the name which appears on my birth certificate.

Back to the bizarre (at least, it is to me) kiwi naming episode, I have this final advice to the Kiwis:

"Get that official registration thing done and over with. The names have worked well more 200 years and changing it now will only cause confusion. Move on to graver issues such as unemployment and inflation. But if you really must change them, you might want to consider 'Moo Moo' for the North Island and 'Baa Baa' for the South Island, duly named after what you are famous for."

I may sound like I have an issue with the names but I am perfectly fine with the place. I definitely would love to go back to the beautiful 'Moo Moo' and 'Baa Baa' one day.

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