Singapore's mini Myanmar

SINGAPORE - In the mid-1990s, a Straits Times article recalled how a former MP was hard-pressed to explain the origins of his ward's name: Moulmein.

Sure, there was that short-lived Channel 5 TV series, Moulmein High. But Moulmein is actually a colonial British bastardisation of Mawlamyine, the fourth-largest city in Myanmar, a bustling trading centre located in the south of the country.

Perpendicular to the main artery of Balestier Road are a series of short roads with Burmese names, including Pegu Road, Akyab Road and Mandalay Road, with Moulmein Road furthest south, running beneath the Central Expressway.

This concentration of roads - from Rangoon Road right to the doorstep of the Burmese Buddhist Temple in Tai Gin Road (next to the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall) - has always intrigued my husband and me, especially because he is from Myanmar and we have a strong personal connection to the country. So when we were invited to craft a walking tour for Jane's Walk, we leapt at the chance to explore this slice of Burmese heritage in Singapore.

Jane's Walk is an annual movement of free, volunteer-led walks held around the globe in memory of the late American urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006. She was a strong proponent of a community-based approach to city building, and that city-dwellers should have a say in how their neighbourhoods developed.

We loved the idea of having an emotional stake in this city, of not taking our streets for granted and unearthing the stories behind these names.

Last Sunday, after several weeks of research, we stood nervously at Farrer Park MRT station, holding up a bright pink shoebox cover we had recycled as a signboard. We had been told that our walk was completely full. There was a waiting list. Wow, we thought, people are actually excited about this obscure little walk - despite its lack of food options (unlike the foodie trails in Joo Chiat) or "star" heritage attractions (such as Bukit Brown).

At under 4km, the actual stretch of the walk wasn't particularly long or arduous. But our little jaunt, with more than 30 people in tow, took more than 21/2 hours as we discussed everything from the difference between "Burma" and "Myanmar" (a debate that could be the subject of a whole new commentary) to feuding drug warlords.

There are several theories as to how these roads got their names. One posits that the roads were named in the 1800s during the Anglo-Burmese Wars when the British attempted to conquer Myanmar, and that each time soldiers captured a city, a new road was named. This doesn't seem likely because the British invaded Myanmar from the south and not in the haphazard fashion the order of road names would suggest, leaping all over the Burmese map.

There's another theory that shows greater promise: the influential Burmese resident U Kyaw Gaung, who moved to Singapore in the late 1800s, might have suggested these names to the authorities. He was the trustee of the Burmese Buddhist Temple and responsible for transporting the beautiful 10-tonne white marble Buddha statue from Mandalay to the temple here in 1921 (with the help of Aw Boon Par of Tiger Balm fame, who was also Burmese).

The huge statue is still in pristine condition and there were gasps of awe when our group encountered the filigreed temple and its sacred contents for the first time.

As much as our immigrant roots are reiterated over and over again in the course of our formal education, I think we often forget how much of our country has been - and still is - shaped by the ebb and flow of people coursing through this island, and the hidden treasures they bring with them.

Singapore would not have had its Tiger Balm success without Myanmar and it can now also boast the only Burmese Buddhist temple outside of Myanmar built in the traditional Burmese architectural style.

Woven into Singapore's colourful tapestry are millions of threads with origins in other countries and cultures, reaffirming how much of South-east Asia is knit together in ways both large and small. And sometimes, these connections leave behind physical imprints, like these 14 road names.

And these connections surface in the most unexpected places: One of the Singaporeans on our walk had a grandfather from Mergui, a sweeping archipelago of hundreds of islands on Myanmar's southernmost tip - there is a Mergui Road just off Rangoon Road. Another has a sister who relocated to Yangon (Rangoon). Yet another was from Myanmar, having moved here 25 years ago, just a year after the bloody pro-democracy uprisings in 1988.

Even if Singapore is one, no man is an island - and every road name is yet another key to the fabric of stories our richly diverse ancestors have left behind.

This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.