Spelling out inconsistent names

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003

Is it “Melaka ” or “Malacca ”,“Penang ” or “Pinang ”?A lively exchange addressing this conundrum is going on via an Internetdiscussion list. While no direct answers have been offered,there are eye-opening suggestions,writes AGATHA MATAYUN. 

IT began when Dr Margaret Sarkissian, an associate professor with the Music Department of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, posted a query to an academic counterpart, Dr Paul Kratoska, associate professor with the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. 

“I’d love to know what the general wisdom is regarding the Penang/ Pinang, Melaka/Malacca debate, because I never know what the right thing to do is,” she wrote. 

“I wrote my PhD thesis using Melaka throughout, but ever since then reverted to Malacca for one reason. It is the spelling used by English-language publications in Malaysia. When The Star starts using “Melaka”, then I'll rethink, but until then, it seems that Malacca is the locally-recognised English-language spelling.” 

When he received the query, Kratoska, who specialises in South-East Asian history and does quite a lot of research on Malaysia, decided to send a request for information through an Internet discussion list called H-SEASIA, which has 600 subscribers living in 34 countries.  

“By sending a request for information out to the list, I was able to reach a wide range of scholars,” explains Kratoska via e-mail from Singapore. 

“A listserv discussion list has a subscription list. Messages sent to the list come to me as editor, and if they are relevant to the purposes of the list (in this case, South-East Asian Studies), I re-post them and all members automatically receive a copy.” 

Responses began to come in, even from as far as Australia and Britain, and postings were also received from academicians in local universities. 

Prof Wang Gungwu, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and a well-respected historian responded: “I am not consistent. Pinang is correct when used with Pulau as in Pulau Pinang. But as a historian, I prefer to use Penang except when referring to official sources and quoting from authors where they insist on calling the place Pinang. As for Melaka, I am more willing to adopt that for modern state and town, but still use Malacca whenever I write on anything historical. The inconsistency in my modern use of Penang and Melaka has not troubled me. I hope to get away with that for a while yet.” 

From the University of Melbourne in Australia, Amanda Whiting, co-editor of the Australian Journal of Asian Law, wrote: “For what it is worth, the Malaysian constitution, art 1 (2) lists the names of the states as “Penang” and “Malacca”.”  

Throwing in another fodder for discussion (Johor/Johore), Dr Tan Chee-Beng at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Anthropology, wrote: “My opinion is that the proper term in English should be Penang. The proper name in Malay is Pulau Pinang, not just Pinang, unless a good reason can be given. 

“Because of my work on the Baba of Melaka, I encountered the issue of Melaka and Malacca. To my knowledge, Malacca is still the acceptable name in English writing, but the Malay name Melaka is acceptable, too, if used consistently. That is true also of Johore and Johor, although nowadays scholars generally use Johor.” 

In their book, A History of Malaysia (first published in 1982), co-authors Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya consistently used the spelling “Melaka”. In the first edition, the authors stated in their preliminary note that “The spelling of place names follows current practice; for example, Melaka and Kuching.” 

Information Malaysia Yearbook 2000, by Berita Publishing, uses the spelling “Melaka”. For Penang, the state governor’s title reads TYT Yang Dipertua Negeri Pulau Pinang, and “The state consists of the island of Penang (239 sq km) and a strip of land on the mainland opposite known as Province Wellesley or Serberang Prai.”  

The Reader’s Digest Illustrated Atlas of the World (1997 edition) uses the spelling “Melaka” to refer to both state and town and Pulau Pinang to refer to the state of Penang. However, the straits retained the spelling “Malacca”.  

Meanwhile, various maps produced locally show “Melaka” for both state and town, but the usage varies for Penang. Some show Pulau Pinang to mean the whole state while others use “Penang” for the state and “Pulau Pinang” specifically for the island.  

Perhaps the Department of Survey and Mapping needs to take note of these comments? An officer this writer talked to said he would look it up, but did not manage to come back with anything before press time. 

And finally, via the Internet where the discussion is still going on, one can get to information about both states quite easily no matter which spelling one uses. 

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