The Singaporeans Whose Names Others Can’t Seem to Get Right
Top image: Helen Huang / RICE file photo

Singapore is full of names—in English or otherwise—that are so common that we’re compelled to denote them based on their surnames or other identifying characteristics. 

And so it might go: David Tan (work), David Tan (friend), David Tan (insurance). In Singapore, it’s normal to have common names. It’s also common to have names we’ve long understood as ‘normal’.

For those born with names that are a little more difficult to pronounce or spell, however, the basic essence of our identity might perplex those around us.

It can be maddening for those who have it to go through the experience in school. Weirdly enough for some people, it still exists in the workplace or at parties. Sometimes, having to correct others doesn’t seem to work. We ask those who’ve had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of this (frankly) easy-to-avoid faux pas.

“When I was in primary school, a classmate kept making fun of my name. He was calling me ‘veggie’ and ‘daddy’ (my name is pronounced as ‘there-dre’) constantly. One day, I snapped and pushed him into the school pond. It was rather funny because we were waiting for our swimming lessons and we were already in our swimming costumes. I do feel bad about it now, though.

I also remember the time when I was to be mentioned in a speech at the Istana by former president Halimah Yacob. Her team was kind enough to ask me how I preferred to have my name pronounced. She ended up pronouncing my name perfectly during the speech. I was so happy.

Some people do put in the effort to clarify the pronunciation of my name, but when there is no chance to, or people assume they know how to, they often mess it up. I’m an undergraduate at  Nanyang Technological University studying Public Policy and Global Affairs, so whenever there is a class discussion, my name gets completely changed. 

I’ve heard my name pronounced as ‘Diardre’, ‘they-dre’, ‘they-dra’ and this is only to name a few. I’ve had my name spelt incorrectly on certificates, in my report books, and even in emails and text messages (where I properly introduce myself beforehand).”

– Deirdre

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE file photo

“My name has been on a perpetual rollercoaster of misspellings for as long as I can remember. I’m usually pretty chill about it if someone mispronounces or misspells my name when they’ve only heard it in passing conversation. 

But when my name is right there in black and white, and they still manage to fuck it up, I swear it’s like they’re taking a joyride on my last goddamn nerve. 

It’s even worse when there’s no apology or correction. The ‘edit’ button is right there! It’s not rocket science, eh? It’s basic decency. 

The worst part is that my name isn’t even that complicated. ‘Kannan’ only sia. That’s it. So why do people spell my name like they’re solving a Rubik’s cube and gave up halfway?

Okay lah. To be honest, I’m genuinely not that mad about it, but I’ve started a catalogue to document the audacity of you lazy assholes.”

– Kannan

“When my mum was expecting me, she and my brother were watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which featured a character named Dulcea. Mishearing it as ‘Darcel’, my mum thought it sounded sweet, which is how I got my name. 

Most people tend to mispronounce my name. It is a French name, and the correct pronunciation is ‘dar-sell’. However, almost everyone calls me ‘dar-cel’’, rhyming with ‘parcel’. Some have even thought my name was ‘Theresa’, or they have tried to tell me that my name is ‘wrong’ or tell me I’m mispronouncing my own name.

When I was in primary school, quite a few of my schoolmates would tease me, suggesting that my name was either ‘da xiao’” or ‘da sao’, which translates to ‘big small’ and ‘sister-in-law’ in Chinese. Before meeting me, many teachers and classmates would mistakenly assume I was a Malaysian boy because it’s common for Muslim males in Malaysia to have ‘A/L’ in their names, which stands for ‘anak lelaki’ in Malay, meaning ‘son of’. Some people have also assumed I’m Arabic.

In Singapore, where Western surnames are less common, many would amusingly assume that Anthony, my surname, was my given name and that I was a boy until they met me in person. Then, some would ask why my parents gave me a male name.

These cases still happen, but I’ve never gotten angry. Some of the mispronunciation cases are funny, and lead to forging new friendships over something we can both laugh at. Other times, I feel that certain jokes about my name have a slightly racist tone to it. Nevertheless, I try to be patient and help people pronounce or understand my name. If they still find it hard, I’ll be given affectionate nicknames, which I enjoy too.”

– Darcel

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE file photo

“My experiences with it haven’t been terribly troublesome (male friends getting weird looks for calling me by name, the mad dash to complete the OAS sheet during PSLE, having to explain to people that Burmese people don’t have family names, some weird reactions because of that newly-debuted K-Pop idol). But maybe there’s a conversation to be had there about diversity and visibility!

I’d say the most frustrating experiences about my name have surrounded the pronunciation of my full name: Nang Theint Hanni. 

I was a bit of an overachiever in primary school, so I was there for a lot of the annual award-giving ceremonies to receive one prize or another. Every time, without fail, the emcee would have to approach me to check the pronunciation of my full name.

It’s completely fine and attentive even, considering all the other instances where people didn’t bother checking, and I walked onstage as my name was mispronounced for the hall. (Not that I’ve received many awards after primary school.) 

At the end of the day, having to go through some extra steps when telling people your name is far from the worst experience you can have as a minority in Singapore. But sometimes you wish there wasn’t so much to explain. Or that it wasn’t so easy to look you up online.”

– Hanni

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