The origin of the town name Kangar, just 8 km from the border with Thailand is shrouded in mystery. One version is that the name is derived from a species of hawk named kangkokorkor spizaetus limnaetu. Another is that it is derived from the kangar tree of the teak family.
Kangar is capital of the nation’s smallest and most northerly state Perlis whose name is also shrouded in similar mystery. Perlis was originally part of Kedah, although it had earlier come under Siamese rule. Hence one controversial version is that the name may have been a shortened form of the “peroleh” (obtain) as the state was a “gift” from Kedah before becoming a state on its own.
Historian, Mohd Yusuf bin Adil aka Buyong Adil going further back in time has indicated that the name comes from the Thai phrase “Phra Loi” (Maphrau Loi) which means kelapa hanyut (coconut washed ashore) since there were many coconuts found on the shores of Kuala Perlis. Locals then shortened the phrase until it sounded like “pereleh” or Perlis.
Another historian, Ahmad Ismail, has attributed the name to a tree of the same name. Yet another version suggests that the name Perlis is from the northern Malay dialect word “perelus” which roughly translates as “foot falling into a crack”. This is because the land comprising the state is muddy land (ideal for rice growing!) whereby the feet of people will “terperlus” and go into the ground when they step on it.
Finally, a more exotic story has it that the name is from the French word “perlite” which means “rock”. According to this version there was a huge rock nearby Sungai Perlis and people kept referring to the place as “perlite” until it eventually became “Perlis”. This is not an implausible explanation as there is evidence of a distant French connection for the state that goes all the way back to 1780s at the time of early European interest in the Peninsular. According to the French ambassador to Malaysia.
It is a little known fact that Kuala Kedah served as the first landing point on the peninsula for French Catholic missionaries, who created more than 100 schools in Malaysia, including in Kedah. These include Convent schools like St Nicholas in Alor Star, St Anne in Kulim and Father Barré in Sungai Petani, and La Salle schools such as St Michael in Alor Star, St Patrick in Kulim and St Theresa in Sungai Petani.
Whatever the origin for its name, the state was an important part of Kedah since an earlier period. Thereafter, following the Siamese conquest of Kedah in 1821, Perlis alternated between Siamese and Kedah rule and finally was incorporated into British colonial control of the Peninsula by the Anglo Siamese treaty of 1909. A British resident was installed at Arau and the beginnings of a modern state as part of the British Unfederated Malay States can be said to begin from this period. Perlis was returned to Siamese control during the 2nd world war but was restored to British rule, and ultimately independent rule in 1957 with Merdeka.