Johor's many names

The plaque in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
Did you know that before the reign of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, Johor was once known by obscure names like Lenggiu, Ganggayu and Galoh?  There was a time when the spelling for Johor was Johore – with an “e” – a word believed to have originated from the Arabic word, Jauhar, which means, “gem” or “jewel”.  When you pass the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill, look out for the Jawi rendition of the word, Jauhar which is now preserved there in a beautiful sculpture.

A plaque in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum states that when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor in 1855, he called it Iskandar Petrie, which was renamed Johore Bahru (note spelling) in 1866.  Based on historical records, Johor had various ancient names like Hujung Medini, Ujong Tanah (Land’s End) or Wurawari, a Javanese word that means “clear water.”  The area south of the Muar River to Singapore was known as Ujong Tanah because this region was acknowledged as the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. 

Sacks of raw peppercorns [Left] and gambir [Right]
seen in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, the Chinese in the Riau Islands and Singapore were already successfully cultivating gambier.  In Singapore, the land around Kranji and Sembawang, they fondly called the “Old Mountain,” was exhausted and infertile after being cultivated for 10 to 15 years.  So when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited them to move into Johor to open the land for new plantations, the Chinese were ready to relocate.   

Aware that Johor had an enlightened ruler who understood the Chinese and encouraged them to come to Johor, their interest was aroused.  With a strong pioneering spirit, immigrant Chinese were attracted to the prospect of settling in huge tracts of land, just waiting for them to clear for cultivation of pepper and gambier under the kangchu or River Lord system.  Not long after Iskandar Petrie was established, the Chinese accepted Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim’s grants to establish plantations in Johor and started to arrive by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through Sungai Segget or Segget River, and settled in the nearby area.

Jalan Segget remains a busy thoroughfare today
At that time Iskandar Petrie was only a frontier outpost with a few huts occupied by fishermen and charcoal-makers near Sungai Segget.  It was surrounded by jungle and mangrove forests and a flagpole flying the Johor flag near a police post on a hill represented the presence of a government.  Its capital, Tanjung Puteri, was situated at a coastal site that had the most convenient boat access to Singapore – opposite the end of Bukit Timah Road in Singapore.

If you have been to the former Royal Abu Bakar Museum, housed in the Grand Palace in the Istana Gardens, you will remember some of the Sultan’s hunting trophies preserved in the gallery.  The elephant skeleton and ferocious fangs of stuffed tigers standing in the showcases, gave us a glimpse of the types and sizes of wild animals that once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  In addition to being confronted by wild animals such as these, Chinese immigrants lost lives to strange diseases and the harsh environment as they braved physical challenges to clear the jungles and open up land through the rivers into Johor’s interior.  

Sungai Segget [Foreground] was the main transport
waterway from Singapore in the 1800s
Through the kangchu system, the River Lords could collect taxes and govern Chinese communities in their areas along the rivers. After Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim was succeeded by Sultan Abu Bakar, he continued his father’s legacy in trying to develop Johor into a thriving metropolis.  According to Wu Hua, author of local history written in Chinese, Tan Kee Soon opened up Tan Chu Kang near Kangkar Tebrau while Wong Ah Fook opened up Jiu Soon Kang on the left bank of the Sungai Segget.  Tan Hiok Nee opened a market on the right bank of Sungai Segget while Tan Tua Choon started a public trading post on Jalan Segget. 

To the Chinese, Johor is Yau Fatt Chow (Cantonese) while Johor Baru is traditionally called Sun San (Cantonese), Sin Sua (Teochew) or Xinshan (Mandarin) a name literally translated as, “New Hill”.   Sun San is a name believed to have been coined by the kangchu who had been farming pepper and gambier in Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang in Singapore, when they sighted a hill on their arrival in JB.  This hill – probably Bukit Timbalan – was then known as Bukit Bendera or Flagstaff Hill.

The iconic Sultan Ibrahim on Bukit Timbalan [Background]
overlooks ancient Johor Baru with Sungai Segget
[Bottom Right] bordering the wet market
The literal meaning of the word, san may mean, “hill” or “mountain,” but the word, Sun San may likely be derived from the colloquial Chinese term, sanbah, which used to mean “jungle” or “rural area.”  So to Chinese immigrants, Sun San was in fact, the New Rural Settlement that was attracting them.  The Chinese who settled in plantations were mainly Teochew who were involved with jungle clearing and opening rivers while a large number who came to Iskandar Petrie were Cantonese, mainly from Taishan, with occupations like carpenters and artisans, who contributed to the development of urban settlements.

In 19th century Johor, the Teochew settlement spanned from Jalan Ngee Heng – which used to stretch up to present-day Jalan Tun Abdul Razak – down Jalan Trus to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee while the Cantonese community was centered in Kampung Wong Ah Fook, an area between present-day Jalan Sawmill and the start of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak near Komplex Tun Abdul Razak.  These two centers of early Chinese communities in Iskandar Petrie were geographically divided by Sungai Segget.  The contributions of pioneering Chinese to the development of modern Johor remains a lasting legacy in a state which we now call, Johor Darul Takzim, the “Abode of Dignity.”

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times on 21 April 2013


  1. Keep the awesome job going Peggy.
    You are a rear persistent & consistent in spreading the good of Johor. Ambassador Peggy!! Cheers

  2. Anonymous5/26/2013

    Good work, Peggy

    You are also a rare breed
    This story of immigrants, their enterprising spirit, daring, blood, sweat and tears (of joy and heartbreak) is repeated throughout the country. They together with the natives helped make Malaysia what it is today

    Some politicians should take a history lesson from you if they have some grey matter. "pendatang" it seems