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Singapore island names

Singapore island names:
what they mean and how they were derived

(Updated 1 Dec 08)

I originally compiled this list by asking members on the nature-singapore mailing list. Subsequently members from the heritage-singapore mailing list also responded. Habitatnews has the original post

Many thanks to all those who replied, including Hedwig Anuar, Anwar Hadi, Chim Chee Kong, Chua Ai Ling, Ivy Lee, Ngiam Shih Tung, Timothy Pwee, Ilsa Sharp, Bonny Tan, Ria Tan and Chen Sien. Most of the island names have a Malay origin, unless indicated. Commonly occurring words include pulau = island, terumbu = reef, ayer (also Air) = water.

Island names (in alphabetical order)

Pulau Ayer Chawan (also spelt Pulau Air Cawan)
Literal translation: “Ayer” means water, “chawan” means cup. Apparently housed a small fishing village up to the 1960s, with villagers living in Malay-style wooden stilt houses on the palm-fringed island. Then Esso, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, decided to house their facilities there. The island, along with its neighbours, was reclaimed into what is now Jurong Island.

Pulau Ayer Limau (Pulau Merlimau?)
Literal translation: “Limau” means lime in Malay and the prefix ‘mer’ suggests that its fruits are similar, but not identical to lime. “Merlimau” is a species of tree, Gelonium spp., also known as the false lime. The island houses the Singapore Refinery Company, and is now part of Jurong Island.

Pulau Ayer Merbau
I have no literal translation for “merbau”, but it is a species of tree, Intsia spp. Its wood is one of the most valued timbers throughout South East Asia, being stronger than Teak and very decay-resistant. Apparently the bark and leaves have been used medicinally and the seeds are edible. Dye can also be extracted from the wood. The Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore facilities are located here, but the island itself no longer exists; now being part of Jurong Island.

Pulau Blakang Mati (Sentosa)
Literal translation: “Blakang” means behind and “mati” means dead, thus “Island where Death Lurks from Behind”, also “Island Beyond Death”. Sentosa means “tranquility”, a modern name chosen by public poll.

Edit: Also see this write up by Budak: http://budak.blogs.com/the_annotated_budak/2011/09/back-from-the-dead.html

Pulau Biola
Literal translation: “Biola” means violin, presumably “Violin Island”, because of its shape.

Pulau Biskol

Pulau Bismut

Pulau Boain (Pulau Buaya?)

Pulau Bukom
Literal translation: “Bukom” means tail-less. The island was originally a mangrove swamp, and a source of fresh water for ships. Shell has been associated with the island since 1891, when the company used the island to store kerosene. It now houses their refinery complex, which is being expanded – when completed, Pulau Bukom, Terumbu Bayan and Pualu Busing will be one landmass.

Pulau Bukom Ketchil
Literal translation: “Ketchil” means small, is a smaller island adjacent to Bukom, on which Shell has a refinery. It is joined to Pulau Bukom by a bridge.

Pulau Buloh
Literal translation: I am told “buloh” means bamboo, so there must have been a lot of bamboo in the area at one time. It is now part of the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Pulau Busing
Literal translation: The meaning of “busing” is not known, perhaps a corruption of the malay word “pusing” which means to turn, or “besing” meaning noisy.

Pulau Brani
Literal translation: “brani” means brave, thus “Island of the Brave”.

Pulau Damar
No idea what the name means. It houses several cement companies.

Pulau Jong
Literal translation: “jong” (arabic origin) meaning junk, or a light sailing canoe with outrigger boom. A local story tells of a Chinese junk that was attacked by Malay pirates one night when the island now is. Just as the pirates were about to board the junk, the captain awoke, and uttered such a frightful yell that the sea spirit turned the whole junk into an island. Interesting.

Pulau Hantu
Literal translation: “hantu” means ghost, presumably “Ghost Island” or “Island of Ghosts”? Update Sep 06: During a dive the the Hantu Bloggers, I was told by Debby that she spoke to someone who used to stay on Pulau Hantu (imagine that – Hantu used to have people staying on it). Apparently there used to be lots of owls on the island and the Malay name for owls is “burong hantu”. Hence, Pulau Hantu.
20111002_Hantu lagoon_Jeff

Pulau Hantu (Pulau Keppel)
Not to be confused with the Pulau Hantu above, this island is just north of Sentosa, and is probably better known as Pulau Keppel.

Pulau Merambong

Pulau Pawai
Literal translation: “pawai” means cortege, procession or parade or suite of the raja, presumably the retinue of the raja stayed there for some reason?

Pulau Pisi (Pulau Pesek?)
Literal translation: “Pesek” means ‘flat’ (but often used to describe a nose with a modest bridge). One wonders how this island got its name. Mobil has its facilities here, and the island is now part of Jurong Island.

Pulau Sakeng (Pulau Siking)
Literal translation: “sakeng” means heavy, greatest. This island has since been lost to the Semakau Landfill development (in 1997). The receiving station for the landfill is built on what used to be Sakeng.

Pulau Sakijang Bandera (St John’s Island)
Literal translation: “sa” means one, “kijang” means barking deer and “bandera” is a flag, so presumably “Island of One Barking Deer and Flags”? “St John’s Island” could have been derived from when it was used as a quarantine for (infectious diseases).

Pulau Sakijang Pelepah (Lazarus Island)
Literal translation: “sa” means one, “kijang” means barking deer, “pelepah” is a palm frond, so presumably “Island of One Barking Deer and Palms”? Why it was renamed to Lazarus Island is not known (perhaps something to do with Lazarus who was raised from the dead in the bible?). A recent email from Harold Somers adds an interesting twist to the story.

Pulau Salu
Literal translation: meaning of “salu” is not known, but could be a corruption of the malay word “salur” or “salor”, meaning watercourse or channel.

Pulau Satumu (Raffles Lighthouse)
Literal translation: “satumu” means one tree, thus “One Tree Island”. Alternative theory is that it is the misspelling of the malay word “temu”, meaning favourable or suitable.

Pulau Sakra (Pulau Sekra)
This island is now part of Jurong Island.

Pulau Sebarok (Middle Island)
Literal translation: meaning of “sebarok” is not known, but “baroh” means lowlands.

Pulau Selegu (Pulau Selugu, Sarong Island)
The island used to be owned by Ms Christina Lee, the maker of the famous SIA Singapore Girl perfume and ex-wife of the late Cathay cinema magnate Loke Wan Tho. It’s probably been reclaimed as part of the Sentosa development.

Pulau Semakau
Literal translation: meaning of “semakau” is not known, but “semak” means scrub or undergrowth. The eastern side was reclaimed for development of the Semakau Landfill, the sole remaining landfill in Singapore, which began operations on 1 Apr 1999. There’s a lot more information on this island in these Wikipedia pages.

Pulau Sembilan

Pulau Senang (Barn Island)
Literal translation: “senang” means easy or comfortable, so it was presumably an island of comfort, given that the “procession of the raja” (Pulau Pawai) was next to it? The island also used to be a prison for hardcore prisoners, and “senang” could be an ironic term for the island.

Pulau Serayah (Pulau Seraya)
I don’t know the meaning of “serayah”, but it is the location of the Pulau Seraya Power Station, Singapore’s first offshore power station, which was built in phases since 1982. Seraya is a species of tree, Shorea curtisii, a dipterocarp, which has fruits that are two-winged, and dispersed by the wind. The tree produces a light hardwood with fine grain which has medium/deep red heartwood (dark red meranti), which is suitable for furniture manufacture, interior finishing, flooring, paneling, doors, veneers and in plywood production. A resin can also be obtained from the tree.

Pulau Serimbun

Pulau Seringat
Literal translation: meaning of “seringat” is not known; however “ingat” means to remember.

Pulau Subar Darat and Laut (The Sisters)
Literal translation: “Subar” means fruitful; not sure how that relates to the pirates and sisters in the legend.

Pulau Sudong
Literal translation: meaning of “sudong” is not known.

Pulau Tekukor (also known as Pulau Penyabong)
Literal translation: “tekukor” means turtle dove or spotted neck dove, so presumably “Turtle Dove Island” or “Island of Turtle Doves”? Meaning of “penyabong” is not known. In the past, this island was the fighting arena of competing warriors, thereby earning it the name of ‘island of deadly duels’.

Pulau Tembakul (Peak Island, Kusu Island)
Literal translation: “Tembakul” means mudfish. Why it is called Peak Island is not known. Kusu means “tortoise”, thus “Tortoise Island”.

Pulau Ular
Literal translation: “Ular” means snake, presumably “Snake Island”?

Terumbu Bayan
Literal translation: “Bayan” means clear, presumably “Clear Water Reef” or “Reef in Clear Water”? This patch reef is largely covered by reclamation works expanding Pulau Bukom for future refinery development.

Terumbu Bemban
Literal translation: “bemban” means to roast, is a kind of fish trap, shrub whose stems used to make baskets – perhaps this was a place for fishing or used to have the plants in abundance?

Terumbu Pandan (Cyrene Reefs)
Literal translation: “pandan” means screw pine; “cyrene” means a wall; coldness; the floor; also a city (now Tripoli) in Upper Libya, North Africa, founded by a colony of Greeks (B.C. 630). Presumably “cyrene” was seen as a “wall” to ships navigating the channel?

Terumbu Pemalang
Literal translation: meaning of “pemalang” is not known, perhaps a corruption of the malay word “permatang” meaning sand hill? Alternative: “malang” is Javanese for hidden reef.

Terumbu Pempang Darat, Tengah and Laut
Literal translation: “Terumbu” describes a reef that is visible at low tide; the meaning of “pempang” is not known, perhaps it is a corruption of the malay word “bemban” meaning fish traps; the 3 reefs were further distinguished from each depending on their relative position to land (ie “darat” near shore, “tengah” the middle reef, and “laut” the reef nearest the open sea).

Terumbu Raya
Literal translation: “Terumbu” means reef, “raya” means great or large, presumably “The Great Reef”, due to its size?

Pulau Ujong
Literal translation: “Ujong” is edge, or corner, and is apparently the earliest reference to Singapore Island.


Notes on names of places in the island of Singapore and its vicinity. Journal of Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society Vol.XX pp.75-82.

Stories of the Islands of Singapore and Malaysia / Qiu Min Call number: Y R SING 398.209595 QM

Toponymics : a study of Singapore street names Authors: Victor R Savage & Brenda S A Yeoh Publisher: Eastern Universities Press, 2003. ISBN: 9812102051

Tales from the Islands of Singapore / Ron Chandran-Dudley Call number: Y R SING 398.2095957 CHA

InfoXpress at http://ix.lib.gov.sg (search for Pulau)








1. The origin of the name “Lazarus” Island? « Compressed air junkie - 23 Oct 2008

[…] Singapore island names […]

2. cat64fish - 28 Apr 2010

Came across this article on Singapore’s “lost” islands. http://chuashuyi.wordpress.com/the-lost-islands-of-singapore-2/

3. frozzbytes - 10 Nov 2015

Hi. Here’s something I found:

Pulau Sakeng:

This island was formerly called Pulau Kelapa because of the numerous coconut trees found on the island. The island’s name, Sakeng, is said to emanate from local legend. It is said that a woman called Keng had landed on the island, and was referred to as Mak Meleking or Yang Leking, as she helped islanders battle pirates in the area and healed those who fell ill from drinking water drawn from poisoned well. The island’s name is probably a corruption of the pioneering founder of the island, the lady Kelengking. There is a keramat (shrine) on the island honouring her memory. Kelengking is supposed to be a descendent of a pirate and she herself was a pirate.

Reference: “Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics” by Victor R.Savage and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, published 2013.

I know it’s a little late, but I kinda came across your article recently and decided to share what I know. Do drop me an email or comment here if you wanna know the etymology of other islands.

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