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Road signs, road science and road sighs

I refer to the Malaysiakini report Role swapped in Penang, but not mentality .

The live telecast of the Penang state legislative assembly signifies a new direction for the state government. However as reported, hitches in adjusting to the drastic role reversal between the government and the opposition are to be expected.

Therefore it is not surprising to see Barisan Nasional members still displaying their arrogance and ingrained gangster-like attitudes despite being in the opposition and the new government leaders still trying get rid of their opposition mentality.

After many decades of Barisan Nasional's lording over the state assembly and DAP's continuous defensive streak, it might take a while before both sides settle down in their new roles.

After catching a glimpse of the broadcast over the Internet, I must say that the proceedings went on quite well. Of particular note are the quality of speeches by Lim Guan Eng, Chow Kon Yeow and Lim Hock Seng who each spoke with purpose and direction in eloquent Bahasa Malaysia. Let us hope they continue to do a good job and lead Penang back on the road to success and prosperity.

However I am a bit concerned about the government's latest decision to put up street names and road signs in multiple languages at heritage areas here for the benefit of tourists and visitors. I agree that multiple language sign boards are helpful in giving directions to tourists and a short historical account of the road would add more colour to our heritage sites.

But I hope the government is not proposing to cramp four or five versions of a street name on one single metal plate. Any road sign should be large, clear, correct and direct so that drivers and pedestrians can recognise it at one glance. Road signs are not meant to be pieces of Shakespearean literature which require squinting and scrolling before we catch the meaning.

Perhaps the government should first consider these arguments below before putting up the new signs.

Size of the sign

The size of street signs should be standardised to maintain uniformity and recognition. The current street signs with white letters on green background are quite practical. The Bahasa Malaysia version of the street name dominates the plate and the English version and the area postcode are displayed below.

Putting a few more languages on that small sign will defeat the purpose of putting it up in the first place. Not only will visitors be lost, but the locals will even find it hard to decipher its meaning.

The only possible solution is to maintain the current bilingual street signs and erect another unobtrusive sign next to it to include the various translations.

This sign board should be elegantly designed to complement the surrounding area and it should also contain a historical description of the road and how the name came about.


All road signs and street names should be clearly spelled out. Multi-language signage is actually geared towards tourists and visitors who only know one language. I can see the government's logic behind this move.

But we must understand that the majority of tourists nowadays are multilingual and most of them understand English at the very least. Even the Arab tourists whom I have come across so far are proficient in English.

Putting too many languages on a sign board will confuse the reader. This is especially true when the government intends to introduce the local name for the road which at most times, are totally different from the English version.

Take for example the famous Campbell Street which is known to locals as ' Sin Kay ', which literally means 'new road'.

If you are a bilingual tourist from China who knows Chinese and English, you will be totally confused because Campbell is the name of a person, whereas ' Sin Kay ' would mean 'new road'.

Then we have Cintra Street which is also known as ‘ Jee-pun Kay ’ which in turn means Japanese Road. Do you know why it is called that?

According to elderly people in Penang, Cintra Street used to be lined with seedy brothels servicing the Japanese army during World War Two and the word ' Kay ' does not mean 'street' but 'chicken', a word which the locals use to refer to prostitutes.

Now, wouldn't it be embarrassing if we have to explain this to our guests from all over the world? Heaven forbid! And I have not even started talking about what goes on in Lorong Gaharu (Incense Street) and Kampung Pisang (Banana Village)!


Before we add more languages into our street signs, the government should make sure that the spelling of streets and places are correct and standardised first. For years, we have been in a quandary as how some of these places are spelled.

Should it be Tanjung Bungah, Tanjung Bunga or Tanjong Bunga? Is Ayer Itam correct or should it be spelled Air Hitam? What about Batu Ferringhi which is sometimes spelled without the letter 'H" as Batu Ferringi?

If we locals are confused, imagine what sort of nightmares tourists will encounter.

Get the names correct first. Hold a dialogue with locals and experts if necessary. Organise a conference to get the names straight once and for all. This is what we should have done years ago.

Quick Glance Test

A street sign is only trustworthy if you can read it within one second of glancing at it. If it takes longer than that, you will end up hitting a trishaw across the road or run over a motorcyclist. I foresee many accidents in the near future if our sign boards are cluttered with multiple languages.

I believe the government's decision to erect the new street signs are mainly to provide better directions for tourists and locals.

However I am sure it is also part of their effort to fulfill DAP's election promise and to respond to Gerakan's latest taunt, in which the latter put up their own Chinese language road signs in various places.

Let us put politics aside and stop littering our beautiful city with unnecessary road signs and signboards. I have seen signboards that are so big that they hide the whole building they are supposed to highlight.

Then there are signboards which are hidden by tree trunks and municipal council rubbish bins. I am sure many have encountered road signs being used to hang clothes for drying.

If at all it is necessary to have street names and road signs with multiple languages, then it should be done professionally and aesthetically.

As I have prescribed above, we should keep the current bilingual street signs as they are and erect a non-obtrusive sign board beside it to provide the various translations and a short historical significance of the road.

A general map of Georgetown can also be incorporated in the sign board to show the tourist where they are and what's in store in the surrounding area.

A proper road sign should be more of a 'road science' and less of a 'road sigh'.

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