Wednesday, December 19, 2012


It is a technical matter, a small thing that I've never quite bothered to explain. Yet it is distinctive. It is instantly recognisable. My name is composed of four parts and does not conform to the Anglo-Saxon /Western model of First Name-Middle Name(s)-Surname. It is a historical phenomenon, the result of migrant Chinese adopting English names -- and limited to this part of the world. Take the name (I don't want to use mine here) of the President of Singapore: Tony Tan Keng Yam. The first two parts, 'Tony Tan', function the same way as a Western name would: David Cameron, James Joyce, John Doe, etc. But the surname, 'Tan', bridges the first part of the name with the Chinese second part. In Chinese names, say 'Hu Jintao', the surname comes first and the given name of one or two characters follows. Mr. Tony Tan's Chinese name is hence 'Tan Keng Yam' (ι™ˆεΊ†η‚Ž). Some of us then, are given two set of names. And so in our four-part full names we manage to cunningly bridge East and West, like our island-city-nation-state has tried to do for a long time now.

But it's a completely different matters for Malays, of course, who often (but not always) don't use a family name. It's simply a personal name followed by a patronym, like the Icelandic. Take the name of the first President of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak. He had no surname: 'bin Ishak' means 'son of Ishak'. For a woman, it'd be 'binti/binte' (often seen as 'bte'), meaning 'daughter of'.

Hence, academic citation conventions are potentially very insensitive to us non-Westerners. One ignorant of these rules would be tempted to cite Tony Tan and Yusof bin Ishak as:

Yam, Tony Tan Keng.
bin Ishak, Yusof.

And this is why, my friends, I sometimes place my two Chinese names in the middle, making my initials DWJL rather than DLWJ.


Addendum: a good point, raised by a reader. If one is faced with a three-part Chinese name, like our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and one (for some imperialistic misguided reason) wishes to render this Given Name-Surname, then the correct procedure would be to take the last two as one part. Note that although it might seem that way, 'Loong' is not a middle name -- 'Hsien Loong' is a single given name. Hence 'Hsien Loong Lee' would be better than any other way of doing this. Of course, no one would ever dare try that on Mr. Lee. 

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