Singaporean Culture

Naming

Naming practices in Singapore generally differ between . The various practices followed by Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans are outlined below.

 

Chinese Naming Conventions

  • Chinese naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For example, LEE Zhi Hao (male) and TAN Mei Ling (female).
  • The family name (or ‘surname’) is patrilineal, inherited from one’s father and shared with other siblings. It always comes before the given name and is usually a single syllable/Chinese character.
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. It may contain one or two syllables/Chinese characters. 
  • Given names with two syllables/Chinese characters may be written together, hyphenated or divided into two. For example, 美玲 could be written Mei Ling, Mei-Ling, Meiling. However, it is most common for Chinese Singaporeans to write their given name as two separate words (i.e. Mei Ling).
  • There are no spaces between a person’s family name and given name when written in Chinese characters, e.g. 李智豪 (LEE Zhi Hao).
  • Many Chinese characters can be used as both family names and given/personal names. Therefore, it is common practice to write family names in capitals to avoid confusion.
  • Women generally do not change their names at marriage. However, some may choose to place their husband’s family name before their full name. For example, if TAN Mei Ling married LEE Zhi Hao, she may be known as LEE TAN Mei Ling.

 

Romanisation

  • Be aware that Chinese names written in the Roman alphabet have all been transcribed from original Chinese characters. There are many different ways to represent these characters in English, which can result in the same Chinese name being written with many different spelling variations. 
  • In China, the most commonly used romanization system is Hanyu Pinyin. However, many Chinese Singaporean names may be Romanised based on their pronunciation in different Chinese dialects. For example, ‘CHEN’ (Pinyin form) is Romanised as ‘TAN’ in the Hokkien or Teochew dialects and ‘CHAN’ in Cantonese.1,2
  • It is becoming more common for Chinese Singaporeans to modify the Romanised spellings of their names from mainland Chinese spellings. This is often done by separating the given name with a space, and changing the Pinyin surname to reflect the dialect spoken by one’s family. 
  • For example, while the mainland Chinese spelling of the name 张海明 in Pinyin is ZHANG Haiming, the same name may be Romanised as ‘CHONG Hai Ming’ by a Hakka-speaking family in Singapore or ‘TIONG Hai Ming’ by a Hokkien-speaking Singaporean.3
  • Chinese Singaporean names are written in the Roman alphabet on their passport and birth certificate. National Registration Identity Cards will show this Romanised version as well as the version written in Chinese characters. However, the Romanised version is the official spelling of a person’s name in Singapore. 
  • Chinese Singaporeans may have a personal attachment to a particular spelling of their name in the Roman alphabet, as this is their ‘official’ name.4 This differs from China, where the Chinese characters are the official version.

 

English Names

  • Many Chinese Singaporeans have an ‘English name’ that they use on a regular basis, as well as in international and English-speaking contexts. For example, TAN Mei Ling may be known as “Emily”. 
  • This English name may be written on formal documents in a variety of arrangements, e.g. Emily TAN Mei Ling, TAN Mei Ling Emily, Emily Mei Ling TAN or Mei Ling Emily TAN. The order of the English given name, Chinese given name and Chinese family name tends to vary depending on the person’s individual preference. 
  • The name order promoted by the Singapore government is [SURNAME] [Chinese given name] [English given name] (e.g. TAN Mei Ling Emily). This tends to be the mostly commonly used arrangement.5
  • Some people’s English name may be based on a similarity in sound to their Chinese name, e.g. Ming Xuan becomes ‘Michelle’. Other families may choose a traditional Christian name with biblical origins. 
  • Many Chinese Singaporeans prefer to use their English name to introduce themselves and address one another on a casual basis, especially amongst the younger generation. This is often seen as the most convenient name to use in educational and commercial settings, as it is neither overly formal or too personal.
  • Most people will revert to using their original Chinese name whenever writing in Chinese. The family name always comes first in the Chinese language.

 

Names

  • It is common belief that a good name brings luck, and an unfit name may bring bad luck. Therefore, Chinese Singaporeans generally prefer names that embody goodwill, prosperousness or seem auspicious.
  • It is common for parents to see a fortune teller or geomancer to find the luckiest name for a child.
  • Names may be chosen in accordance with a child’s birth date and time, as well as the number of strokes of the name in Chinese characters.
  • Parents also tend to choose names that have a positive or poetic connotation in their meaning and sound. 
  • Many given names symbolise an aspiration for the child in their meaning, e.g. Fu (wealthy), Huan (happiness), Jian (healthy), Mei (beautiful).
  • Female names tend to signify beauty or feminine values, e.g. Zhang Li (beautiful), Wang Jing (quiet). Male names usually signify strength, bravery or an aspiration for success, e.g. Li Wei (great), Wang Yong (brave).6 
  • While many Chinese characters have a gender-specific meaning, it may be hard to assume a person’s gender from their name alone once translated into the Roman alphabet.
  • Parents generally avoid giving their children names that have a similar pronunciation to words with negative or unflattering connotations.
  • It is not customary or appropriate to name a child after their elder or family member.
  • In some families, siblings may share the same character in their personal name – known as a generation name. For example, two siblings may be called CHEN Chang Hu and CHEN Chang Wei, in which case ‘Chang’ is the generation name.
  • Some of the most common Chinese family names in Singapore are CHEN (陈), LIN (林), HUANG (黄), LI (李), WANG (王).7
  • It is often possible to tell which dialect group a person is from based on their family name. For example, most people with the surname ‘HAN’ are from the Hainanese or Hakka dialect groups.8

 

Addressing Others

  • Be aware many Chinese Singaporeans have several names that they may use interchangeably to identify themselves across different circumstances. For example, they may have a social name, married name, business name, school name or an English name (see above). People will usually tell you which name to refer to them as.
  • People generally address one another by their full name. It is uncommon to address someone by their given/personal name alone.
  • One’s given/personal name is seen as the most intimate way to refer to someone, reserved for family members, in-laws and couples. Therefore, it can be awkward or disrespectful to address a normal friend or acquaintance this way.
  • Many Singaporeans prefer to use their English name to introduce themselves and address one another on a casual basis, especially amongst the younger generation. This is often seen as the most convenient name to use in educational and commercial settings, as it is neither overly formal or too personal.
  • Chinese names are generally preferred in communication with older people and with family.
  • People may use titles if wishing to convey respect, e.g. ‘Hsiensheng’ (Mr), ‘Shih’ (Mrs/Ms), ‘Hsiaochieh’ (Miss). This is common practice amongst strangers and in professional/formal settings.
  • The family name comes before the title in Chinese: [family name] [title]. For example, LEE Hsiensheng (Mr. Lee).
  • It is common to use a person’s title based on their occupation, e.g. Jiaoshou (Professor), Laoshi (Teacher), Laoban (Boss).
  • People may address close friends and relatives by their social status or relationship to one another, e.g. ‘big sister’, ‘second brother’. Such terms often indicate closeness and endearment. For example, someone may refer to friends around the same age or younger than themselves as ‘Xiao’ (small), e.g. Xiao LEE. A person from an older generation may be called ‘Lao’ (old) – e.g. Lao LEE.
  • Close friends may address one another by a Chinese nickname. Nicknames are often homonyms or derived from a person’s appearance or behaviour.

 

Malay Naming Conventions

  • Malay naming conventions structure names as follows: [Given name(s)] [Patronymic noun] [Father’s given name]. For example, Razak bin Osman (male) and Aisyah binte Musa (female).
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier.
  • Children inherit their father’s given name at birth. For example, in the name ‘Aisyah binte Musa’, ‘Musa’ is her father’s personal name.
  • The patronymic noun is the word ‘bin’ (meaning ‘son of’) for men and ‘binte’ or ’binti’ (meaning ‘daughter of’) for women. For example, the name ‘Razak bin Osman’ translates to mean “Razak son of Osman”.
  • Some individuals may use the terms ‘anak lelaki’ (son of) or ‘anak perempuan’ (daughter of) instead of the words ‘bin/binte/binti’.
  • The use of the father’s name is different to the western notion of a ‘family name’ that is shared by all generations within a family. For example, while Razak bin Osman may have a brother named Zikri binte Osman, his father (Osman bin Abdul) and mother (Nor binte Ahmad) have different endings to their names that relate to their own fathers. Therefore, it can be difficult to assume familial relations from a person’s name alone.
  • Women generally do not change their names at marriage. 
  • Most people with Malay names do not list a surname on public records.9 However, some may have a family name that they add to the end of their name.
  • Some individuals may have two or three given names, e.g. Muhammad Khidir bin Ali. If a person’s father has two given names, both are included in their child’s full name, e.g. Muhammad Khidir bin Muhammad Ali.
  • Some Malays may abbreviate the patronymic noun to ‘B’ in written form, or omit it altogether (e.g. Aisyah B. Musa or Aisyah Musa). This can lead English-speakers to mistake the ‘B’ for an abbreviation of a middle name, or to presume that the father’s name is a surname. 

 

Indian Naming Conventions

  • Indian Singaporean names are generally arranged as follows: [Given name] [Patronymic phrase] [Father’s given name]. For example, Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah (male) or Priya d/o Anandarajah (female).
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier.
  • Most Indian Singaporeans do not have family names. Children inherit their father’s given name at birth. For example, in the name ‘Priya d/o Anandarajah, ‘Anandarajah’ is her father’s personal name.
  • The patronymic phrase is either “son of” or “daughter of”, abbreviated to ‘s/o’ and ‘d/o’ respectively. For example, the name ‘Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah’ literally translates to mean “Nagaratnam son of Suppiah”.
  • Some individuals may omit the patronymic phrase altogether and write their name simply as [given name] [father’s given name]. This can lead foreigners to mistake the father’s given name for a family name. 
  • The use of the father’s name is different to the western notion of a ‘family name’ that is shared by all generations within a family. For example, both parents of Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah will have different endings to their names that relate to their own father’s. 
  • Some individuals may also write their name by placing the initial of the father’s name before their first name (e.g. S. Nagaratnam).
  • Ultimately, while a person’s formal name may be “Nagaratnam son of Suppiah”, it may be written as 1) Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah, 2) Nagaratnam Suppiah, or 3) S. Nagaratnam.
  • Some Indian Singaporean women may use her husband's personal name instead of her father's name after marriage. For example, if Priya d/o Anandarajah married Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah, she may be known as Priya Nagaratnam.

 

Religious Variations

  • Indian Singaporeans Sikhs have a religious name that comes after their given name, i.e. ‘Singh’ for men and ‘Kaur’ for women. This is not a family name. For example, Manjit Singh s/o Karamjit Singh.
  • Some Indian Singaporeans Christians may add an English name (or an Arabic-derived Christian name) before their Indian given name, e.g. Michael Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah. 
  • Indian Singaporeans Muslims often have personal names derived from Arabic words.

 

_____________________

1 Lee, 2011
2 Tan, 2001
3 Oey, 2021
4 Tan, 2006
5 Tan, 2006
6 Oey, 2021
7 Lee, 2011
8 Lee, 2011
9 Davidson, 2019

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