Republished by kind permission of the author. Lin Yangchen’s original article can be read on his website here.

History, graphic design and typography of the iconic coconut-palm stamps of Malaya

There is one stamp design in British Malaya that witnessed its convoluted transition from a pre-war British colony, through the Japanese Occupation and post-war British military rule, to the Cold War era leading up to independence. It is the only design to have been adapted for use throughout the Malay peninsula including Singapore, and even saw action beyond Malaya’s shores in World War II. It features a pair of the coconut palms that grow prolifically throughout rural southeast Asia, framed in the corners by the stylized thatched roof of traditional southeast-Asian dwellings comprising leaves of the attap palm (Nypa fruticans). The design symbolizes the idyllic kampong (village) life of bygone days in the tropical paradise where the author had grown up, and serves as a window to the world before our time.

A closer examination of the stamp reveals that an even more evocative and appealing atmosphere of sunset is subtly created through the use of white space near the ground, giving way to increasingly closely spaced lines in the upper part of the sky. The remarkable diversity of this series of stamps is immediately obvious from the astonishing colour palette spanning the entire colour wheel but goes far deeper, into subtle tweaks in design and into the proliferation of typography over its many years of service and the use of a different portrait for each state encapsulating not only its administrative but also its cultural identity. Surprisingly, for its significance in the postal history of the Malay peninsula, this design does not have a name; the author henceforth refers to it as the coconut definitive.

Actual width of the stamp is approximately 2 cm. Selected specimens from the author’s personal collection photographed (©) by the author.

King George V (1865—1936), himself an avid philatelist (Royal Philatelic Collection). Australian sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal had designed the bust of the king in 1910, and the printing die of the portrait was possibly engraved by John A. C. Harrison. Issued on 1 February 1936. Postmarked in Singapore.
Rather than defining a combination of a given geographical region and a given time frame as the starting point and focusing on all stamps that fall into that window, the approach in this article starts with a particular stamp design and explores the way in which that design has straddled boundaries in space and time.

Abbreviation used in this article:
BPMA, British Postal Museum & Archive

The design evolved from six essays prepared in 1933—1934 by the Survey Department of the Federated Malay States and Straits Settlements (Norris 1985) during the reign of King George V, for stamps to be used in the Straits Settlements. For the very first time, ‘MALAYA’ appeared on the stamps of the Straits Settlements, marking a historical turning point and foretelling the future administrative unification of a culturally heterogeneous Malaya that would kindle the astonishing diversification of the coconut definitives. These ‘protostamps’, presented in at least seven different colours in imperforate blocks of six duplicates (two rows by three columns), were generally more cluttered, differing from the production version in various graphical and typographical details (see illustrations). Furthermore, these essays had background shading filling the entire sky behind the palm trees from ground up, lacking the magical sunset lighting that would eventually distinguish the final design as described at the beginning.

fig-3-malaya-essay fig-2-malaya-essay
Two of the rejected essays, featuring the king with robes and crown, a white margin around the medallion, and other differences from the final design. The currency was spelt out, which was eventually abandoned due to the excessive length of ‘DOLLAR’. The bicolour essay was printed using two separate blocks making it easy to change the denomination or update the monarch.

fig-6-malaya-essay fig-5-malaya-essay fig-4-malaya-essay
Rejected essays with oblique profile of king, crown atop medallion, cross-hatched background in medallion, slightly different typeface for ‘STRAITS SETTLEMENTS’ (closer but not identical to the typeface eventually used), and other differences from the above. In the bicolour essay a virtue of the medallion’s double rim becomes apparent—it accommodates a margin of error in the placement of the separately printed medallion. In fact this was a widespread ‘safety’ feature on bicoloured British colonial stamps. The third essay (right) has ‘MALAYA’ printed dark-on-light.

After the design was finalized, the stamps were letterpress-printed in sheets of 100 (10 by 10), with gum arabic backing and comb-perforated (perforation 14), by security printing giant De La Rue at Bunhill Row in London using two separate dies, one (‘key plate’) for the oval medallion in the centre and one (‘duty plate’) for the surrounding design. There were two key plates: plate 1 for all values except 1c, 40c and 50c; plate 2 for 1c, 2c, 5c, 25c, 40c and 50c. Occasionally, pieces of grit lodged in the duty plate produced stray dots amid the STRAITS SETTLEMENTS inscription. Due to the very short period of production, there was little or no variation in colour associated with multiple printings, unlike some of the later issues.

In the production version of the coconut definitive, the medallion touches the rest of the graphic, a daring departure from the norm of leaving ample white space around medallions to allow for imprecise positioning. The designers should also be credited for omitting the elaborate regalia of the king, which match neither the simplicity nor the cultural flavour of the rest of the design (in contrast, see the lavishly illustrated Malay sultans below). Even the crown is omitted; it is very rare for the British monarch to appear on stamps without the crown. Despite its visual simplicity, the design was complicated enough to thwart forgery. The printing pressure or viscosity or quantity of ink can apparently vary, perhaps across colours; in this example the palm fronds have lost some fine detail (also see the $1 and $5 on coloured paper, in the Japanese Occupation section below) compared to the other examples shown in this article, illustrating the potential drawback of letterpress printing compared to the more expensive recess printing. Issued on New Year’s Day 1936—the day the coconut definitive was born, capturing the image of King George V only 19 days before his death.

Black on emerald paper, one of the most enthralling colour schemes. Issued on 1 September 1936. There are three different typefaces on this stamp (see later issues for even more typefaces). At the top is a humanist ‘MALAYA’ with variable stroke width not commonly seen in sans-serifs, possessing a calligraphic hand-cut quality that complements the artisan embellishments in the corners. Contrastingly, the realist ‘STRAITS SETTLEMENTS’ at the bottom recalls the all-capitals of uniform stroke width in engineering drawings, enunciating administrative authority, franked on both sides by the urban architectural ‘brutalism’ of the denomination tablets. The typeface within the tablets is highly utilitarian as well, being decidedly angular to maximize space utilization. For the first time in Malaya, a sans-serif typeface was used for the denomination. A special trait of this typeface takes the form of slanted cuts at the ends of strokes (exemplified by ‘5’ and ‘c’ here). This makes the glyphs easily distinguishable even in cramped quarters by increasing the perceived gap between strokes without shortening the strokes too much. The dot below the ‘c’, signifying abbreviation, is a nice touch that earlier definitives did not have. The types in the coconut definitive have been carefully designed and honed to perfect harmony with their surroundings, not only in the type itself but also in the spaces within and around every glyph and in the thickness of the borders that enclose the text. The meticulous effort becomes obvious when one compares the issued stamps with the rejected essays illustrated earlier. Typographically, the coconut definitive is highly refined compared to many others with generic typefaces which, if beautiful in their own right, feel as if they have been ‘copy-and-pasted’ into the design.

Chalk-surfaced paper, being stiff, reflective, and fluorescent under ultraviolet radiation, was usually used. This kind of paper was less prone to reuse, since the coating was degraded when immersed in water. It also produced more vivid print colours. The paper bore the multiple script CA (‘Crown Agents’) watermark impressed on the pulp using a dandy-roll. Two booklets were available: twenty of 5c; ten each of 5c and 8c. Postmarks inscribed NAVAL BASE, R.A.F. BASE, ‘Pulau Blakang Mati’ and ‘Pulau Brani’ are of military origin. The stamps were also used on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

The multiple script Crown Agents watermark used throughout the tenure of the coconut definitive, featuring the Imperial State Crown symbolizing the British monarch’s sovereignty. Image reproduced with permission from

George VI (1895—1952) ascended the throne in 1937 after the death of King George V and abdication of Edward VIII. Portrait based on a photograph taken on 15 December 1936 by Bertram Park and possibly engraved by John A. C. Harrison. The coconut definitive is a rare example of King George VI facing the right; most photographs and stamps and banknotes of Britain and her territories showed him facing either forward or left. The 1c was issued on New Year’s Day 1938; some other values had been issued in 1937. This would turn out to be the last stamp series of the Straits Settlements. This specimen has a misaligned medallion ‘levitating’ above the ground. If one observes closely, one will see that the background lines in the lower portion of the medallion are slightly slanted downwards from the back of the head towards the front of it. The same thing happens in the King George V issues, but nowhere else (rejected essays, later coconut issues featuring Malay state sultans and Queen Elizabeth II, or stamps of other British colonies around the world). The origin of this aberration is unknown to the author but, as far as he is concerned, it adds to the handcrafted appeal of the stamp.

In the King George VI issues, there exists an occasional flaw in the form of a dot between ‘L’ and ‘A’ of MALAYA. The 5c was used in Trengganu in 1938 due to a shortage of local issues. Killer oval (nine-bar) cancellations are the consequences of Penang philatelists affixing stamps on envelopes during the Free Postage period following the Japanese surrender. Same booklet configuration as before. $1, $2 and $5 exist with initials and SPECIMEN written diagonally in red. Perforations 13.75 by 14.

Subsequently, some highly used monochromatic denominations were printed using a more cost-effective single die (Die II; the earlier setup was known as Die I), although the author supposes that the denomination tablets, if they had been interchangeable, remained so; the medallion and its surrounding artwork now do not overlap (see illustration of 2c orange below). Thin, rough ordinary paper was used for the 3c, 8c scarlet and 15c. The 2c orange exists with inverted watermark. Perforations were now more variable, possibly indicating the manufacture of multiple perforating machines as production throttled up: 8c scarlet 13.75 by 14; 15c 14 by 14.5, others 14.75 by 14. Forgeries exist of the SPECIMEN perfin applied on the Straits Settlements stamps in an inverted U shape. Perfins otherwise served as antipilferage devices. Used examples exist of the unissued 8c scarlet, which was supposed to supersede the 8c grey in the new colour scheme of the Universal Postal Union.

The coconut definitives would live through the reigns of three British monarchs from 1936 to 1957, seeing three different currencies over time—the Straits Dollar, the Malayan Dollar and the Malaya and British Borneo Dollar (ringgit). Variants in design detail, colour, denomination, watermark, paper, perforation, overprint and other parameters ran into the hundreds. Catalogue listings can be found in Tan (various editions) and Proud & Rowell (1992, for Japanese Occupation). For postage rates and postmarks, refer to Kearney (1990) and Proud (2000).

The effects of World War II on the postal service in Malaya were felt before the war came to its shores—the Straits Settlements 2c was distributed in Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor (which at the time had been using their own non-coconut stamps) in 1941 (Proud 2000) to compensate for shortfalls resulting from the destruction of De La Rue’s premises in London in a German blitz on 11 September 1940. The Straits Settlements 30c is also known to have been used in Perak during this time. After the bombing of De La Rue, the firms of Harrison & Sons, Bradbury Wilkinson and Williams Lea helped with printing (comm. by R. C. B. van den Brink).

Where the pre-war coconut definitives had been printed, as seen after the bombing of 1940. Photographer unknown. Source: De La Rue.

The invasion of Malaya began on the night of 8 December 1941 with Japanese beach landings at Kota Bahru, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbour, and ended with the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. The large stock of Malayan stamps and the wide geographical extent of Japanese conquests bred a profusion of overprints constituting a typographical gold mine. Some stamps were used unoverprinted. Unofficially overprinted values (request stamps) and errors in the application of hand chops were often obtained through bribery of postal officials. The 4c, $2 and $5 were intended only for fiscal purposes.

Bachok beach in Kota Bahru (July 1941), one of the possible Japanese landing sites that saw the start of the first major offensive of the Pacific war. Growing in abundance are the blissful coconut palms immortalized in the coconut definitive. Source: Australian War Memorial via Wikipedia.

The earliest overprint was known as Chop I or Gunsei-bu double-frame overprint (not shown), containing the expression ‘Malaya Military Government Division Postal Services Bureau Seal’ in Kanji characters (read from top to bottom, right to left) enclosed within a double rectangular frame. It was applied using hand-carved wooden chops. There were three genuine forms of the chops, and forged chops exist. Straits Settlements stamps were recalled to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for overprinting. The overprints were applied by hand using a mixture of ground lead oxide and wood oil or foreign inking pads which were much more common. Overprint size varies with the pressure exerted and the amount of ink used. Quantity overprinted: 1c, 10000; 2c, 19000; 3c, 8300; 8c, 10500; 15c, 4300. One sheet of the 15c with sideways overprint was sold at Nee Soon Postal Agency. Valid throughout Malaya but used mostly in Singapore from 16 March 1942 when postal services resumed. The 2c and 15c were used in Malacca in May 1942 while none was used in Johore since the post offices there were not yet open. On sale until 15 July 1942.

Chop II (Gunsei-bu single-frame overprint), similar to Chop I but with a single rectangular frame, was the first overprint used in the entire peninsula except Trengganu (before September 1942). Initial supplies were produced in Singapore from 3 April 1942 using steel chops and red ink. There were two forms of the chop. Some of these were issued in Johore and Malacca. The 5c was used only in Malacca (and Sumatra). Subsequent stocks came from Kuala Lumpur where seven other forms of the seal were applied in violet (3 April 1942), red (April 1942), brown (April 1942) and finally black (May 1942) ink. A reddish violet variety resulted from the mixture of inks, while the brown version was due to sedimentation of ink. The 30c was from Kuala Lumpur only. Stamps overprinted here (except those in violet) were also sold in Perak and Malacca. Entire sheets of some low denominations were overprinted in Singapore with an inverted Type 1 chop for a Japanese general (Proud & Rowell 1992). Douglas Ross, a post office clerk in Singapore, overprinted half a sheet of the 10c upside down, not being able to read the Kanji script. This was issued in Medan. The 1c, 2c orange, 5c, 10c, 12c, 15c, 40c, 50c, $1, $2 and $5 (red overprint) and 30c, 40c and $5 (black overprint) were used in Sumatra (10c, 40c, 50c and $1 exclusively).

fig-14-malaya fig-13-malaya
Type 1 (Singapore) of Chop II on the psychedelic $1 on blue paper. This and the $5 (below) inherited their print and paper colour schemes from earlier Straits Settlements definitives. Bearing an attractive postmark with dashed circumference and dotted grid dated November 1942, originating from Tandjong Balei on the Karimun islands in the Netherlands East Indies. This datestamp was used from 28 November 1942 to 22 November 1943 (Proud & Rowell 1992). The lower part of this postmark, off the stamp, reads ‘KARIMON’. The dent on the upper rim suggests that the chop had been dropped. This and other datestamps in the Netherlands East Indies were replaced with Katakana datestamps in 1944 (Proud & Rowell 1992). The highly magnified image (right) shows the surface pitting characteristic of chalky paper.

The rare combination of Chop II (Type 1, Singapore) on the beautiful $5 on green paper was for fiscal use only. Before the war, the $1, $2 and $5 (the largest denomination) had chiefly been for air mail.

fig-16-malaya fig-17-malaya
Probably Type 3 (Kuala Lumpur) of Chop II. This denomination (40c) was used exclusively in Sumatra which was not geographically part of Malaya. The Palembang postmark is typical of those in general use in Sumatra at the time, with a central grill of vertical bars. The highly magnified image (right) shows uneven surface pitting that might have been caused by overheating of the chalk suspension before it was evenly spread over the paper (comm. by R. C. B. van den Brink).

The Okugawa Seal, introduced in Penang on 30 March 1942, was the personal seal of Akira Okugawa, Chief of the Treasury Section of the Penang Government, with three forms made of ivory or rock crystal. Only 79 specimens of the $5 were overprinted, many of which were used fiscally with punch cancels.

Type II of the Okugawa Seal (1942) on a beautiful brownish grey medallion on emerald paper.

Another example of Type II of the Okugawa Seal, and an example of single-die (Die II) print of the underlying stamp (see text about King George VI above) on the thin striated paper used during wartime (the 2c orange was first issued in October 1941 when all-out war was already ravaging Europe). The striated paper is recognizable from the dark horizontal bands faintly visible on the upper left of the orange outer rim, the coconut palm on the left and the king’s hair. Japanese-made postmark dated 2 September 1943 (2603 in the Japanese calendar) at Serangoon Road, Singapore. This particular chop was used from 30 April 1942 to 1 October 1943 (Proud & Rowell 1992).

A full-name version of the Okugawa Seal also existed, in which the first name Akira was included. Introduced in 1942 for fiscal or revenue purposes.

The Uchiburi Seal (1942), the personal seal of Nobuharu Uchiburi, Okugawa’s cashier, was borrowed and used concurrently with the Okugawa seal due to the time-consuming efforts of applying the overprints by hand. A Mr. Miyazaki Masukan, overseeing the government’s general matters, authorized the use of both seals.

The first machine chop (5 by 5), bearing the inscription DAI NIPPON 2602 PENANG in Romaji script, replaced the Okugawa and Uchiburi seals on 15 April 1942 in Province Wellesley and on 18 April on Penang island. DAI NIPPON means ‘Great Japan’, and 2602 is the Japanese equivalent to 1942 in the Gregorian calendar. Stamps were overprinted at a Chinese printing press at Chulia Street in Penang. Initial imperfections were amended in later releases. Mishaps: missing I in NIPPON (position 18); resemblance of A in PENANG to inverted V (positions 13, 18, 63, 68 affecting 10c, 12c, 15c, 40c, $1, $2); thin I in NIPPON (positions 33, 38, 83, 88 affecting 10c, 12c, 15c, 40c, $1); first P in NIPPON having curved vertical stroke tapered towards I (positions 44, 49, 94, 99 affecting 5c, 8c, 10c, 12c, 15c, 40c, $1, $2).

The PENANG overprint was succeeded by the DAI NIPPON 2602 MALAYA overprint (not shown). Although produced from 7 July 1942 (Perak; 27 July in Selangor), the date of issue was 17 August. Applied by machine with a setting of 100 in Gothic instead of the Roman type of its Penang predecessor. The 2c with double overprint, one inverted, is philatelic. The 8c and 15c were used in Sumatra.

The SELANGOR EXHIBITION DAI NIPPON 2602 MALAYA overprint (not shown) was introduced with a special cancellation on 3 November 1942 for the First Agriculture & Horticulture Exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. Available only in Selangor, it was withdrawn when the exhibition closed.

On 23 April 1942 the Malacca Chop (not shown) was introduced, featuring the State Secretary Mr Shiramoto’s wooden Seal of the Government Office of the Malacca Military Department in Kanji characters covering four stamps. The bigger of the two existing chops was used much more frequently. The Japanese ink pads, upon drying out, were replaced by British vermilion ink. The Malacca Chop was replaced by Chop II on 6 May.

In Labuan, which had been administered as part of the Straits Settlements before the war, Kanji characters of Dai Nippon Teikoku Seifu (Brunei Imperial Japanese Government), reading from right to left, were engraved on steel handchops and overprinted (not shown) on coconut definitives in Kuching and Sandakan. Released on 1 or 2 October 1942 for a few months.

In December 1942, some coconut definitives overprinted with Chop II or DAI NIPPON 2602 MALAYA were given an additional ‘Dai Nippon’ overprint in large Kanji characters enclosed in a horizontal rectangle and issued on the east coast of Sumatra.

Following a decree to eliminate the use of English, the machine-printed Kanji Overprint was introduced in December 1942 and used until the end of the war. The characters translate to ‘Great Japan Postal Service’. The steel Katakana datestamp on this specimen, from Bandar Bahru in Kedah (see Proud & Rowell (1992) for translation keys), was introduced in the later part of the occupation; pre-war postmarks had been used initially. A second character rotated on its side in position 53 in the first typesetting was corrected in the second which had a length of 17.5mm. The unusually small second character appearing in twelve positions including the ninth in the third setting was amended in the fourth which had a length of 18mm. The 40c with the Kanji Overprint was used in Thailand.

On 1 October 1944, Kanji-Overprinted stamps with an additional TRENGGANU overprint were issued. The TRENGGANU overprint was a marker identifying the point of origin of the many different British- and Japanese-issued base stamps that were being used in Trengganu.

On 16 December 1944 only, stamps with machine-printed surcharges (not shown) intended for use on Red Cross letters bearing correspondence from refugees and prisoners-of-war were sold in Singapore, under the auspices of International Red Cross in Geneva. The Head Post Office in Kuala Lumpur subsequently turned down the idea, opting instead to use surcharged stamps of Selangor.

Overprinted Malayan stamps were issued in Medan, Padang and Palembang in Sumatra (administered from Singapore from 31 May 1942 until 1 April 1943) and the Netherlands East Indies post offices of Dabo Singkep (Lingga), Puloe Samboe (Rhio), Tanjong Batu (Rhio), Tanjong Pinang (Rhio, from 30 April 1942), Tandjong Balei (Karimun islands) and Terempa (Anambas islands), which were administered as part of Malaya throughout the occupation. To serve civilians working on the Death Railway, a Malayan post office opened in Thailand from October to 31 December 1943.

Fiscal use. Stamps were also overprinted with a variety of fiscal chops: ‘DAI NIPPON 2602 MALAYA FISCAL’ (2c orange); Kanji + ‘FISCAL’ (2c); ‘Tax’ (2c); ‘DAI NIPPON 2602 MALAYA Tax’ (2c); ‘Dai Nippon 2602 Malaya FACSIMILE’ (rubber handstamps on 50c black/emerald from 1942 to 1944).

The coconut definitive is probably the single design with the greatest variety of Japanese Occupation overprints and postmarks, owing to the strategic importance of Singapore which led to territory outside Malaya being administered from Singapore by the Japanese. For more information on Japanese Occupation stamps in southeast Asia, see the collection of Masayoshi Tsuchiya, which won the Grand Prix at the Japan Philatelic Exhibition 2011.
(under the direct command of Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia)

By the end of the war, approximately 56,500,000 Straits Settlements stamps in mint condition remained in stock in London, Kuala Lumpur and Sydney (or Melbourne?) where they had been diverted during the invasion of Malaya. The stamps were to be overprinted BMA MALAYA (for British Military Administration) at the rate of 0.035d per stamp under a tender issued by the Crown Agents on 23 March 1945 and accepted on 27 April, several months before the Japanese surrender, with the condition that the stamps should be repacked in the original cases as far as possible if these were sturdy enough to withstand rough handling and beach landings. Triplicates of the 1c and 2c sheets were the only proofs, which were submitted on 14 June 1945. De La Rue was instructed to manufacture three plates of which two were sent to Kuala Lumpur (via India) and Sydney/Melbourne. Two copies of the Sydney/Melbourne master plate were produced.

fig-23-malayaThe 1c, 2c, 3c, 6c, 8c, 10c, 15c and 25c were available in London; after processing they were delivered to Singapore via Ceylon (where they were delayed) by air. The 1c, 5c, 8c grey, 10c, 12c, 15c and $5 (only 11877 copies; the presentation pack distributed at the Paris Universal Postal Union Congress in 1947 excluded the $5), constituting a total of 4,273,000 stamps which had been standing untouched by the Japanese in Kuala Lumpur, were overprinted at the old government printing office under the supervision of Captain H. Holland between the arrival of the plate on 11 October 1945 and the end of the administration in early March 1946. Initial problems with inks in Kuala Lumpur resulted in a magenta overprint on the 1c. 4,930,000 stamps (2c, 6c, 8c, 15c and 50c) which had spent the war in India were later sent to Kuala Lumpur for overprinting. The 15c (black overprint) was unique to Kuala Lumpur. In Sydney/Melbourne were the 1c, 2c, 6c, 8c, 10c, 25c, 30c, 40c, 50c and $2.

The 15c was the only Die II denomination with red overprint. This blue variant was printed in 1947 and has ‘MALAYA’ engraved more closely than usual to the top of the frame, apparently a subtle feature of the plate used in the 1947/1948 printings that distinguishes it from that of 1945/1946 (observation by the author).

One or two sheets of the overprinted 8c grey (on orders to be destroyed to avoid confusion with the 6c grey) survived, of which a few were used philatelically. 1c, 2c Die II, 3c blue-green, 6c, 10c purple Die I, 15c (red overprint), 25c and 50c also exist on thin striated paper. In addition, the 50c (black on green paper) was forged by dyeing green the paper of the black 1c and altering the face value. The suspect was a clerk in the National City Bank of New York in Singapore; since the stamps were forged individually there was insufficient time for mass production. The forged stamps were used on parcels.

At least one sheet of the 2c Die II with inverted watermark was overprinted. An uninked plate resulted in some 1c and 15c (black overprint) having an albino overprint in addition to the normal. The approximately 30 copies of the 25c with double overprint make it the rarest of BMA stamps. The error was caused by a stray piece of paper adhering to the plate, obscuring the majority of the stamps from the first overprint. Due to post-war disorganization and constant changes of policy, orders for stamps were unrealistically small, creating a fertile breeding ground for variations, errors and forgeries.

Due to short supplies of prewar stocks (Proud 2000), the Crown Agents ordered De La Rue to print more stamps of various denominations. These included CA order number 11/1 for the new colour schemes of the $1 and $5, the print colours of the $1 being the same as before the war but printed on white instead of blue paper. Forgeries which emanated from France were produced by applying a forged overprint on stamps used before the war.

fig-25-malaya fig-26-malaya
One of the relatively small number of Straits Settlements stamps printed after the war to supplement pre-war stocks, issued in December 1945. The $5 took on a new but short-lived colour scheme (perhaps conveniently) inherited from the pre-war 30c which was now no longer in use. It also heralded the end of a glorious era of opulent coloured papers (see above) as the world descended into austerity after the war. This specimen is remarkably messy, with medallion and postmark both misplaced. The $5 (both old and new) was of sufficient value to serve as currency in exchange for rice and cigarettes. The highly magnified image (right) shows the craquelure-like texture of the surface of the so-called ordinary paper.

The BMA stamps were used throughout Malaya and on Christmas Island beginning shortly after British forces returned in September 1945, and were phased out as local issues took over (see below). Some stamps were used unoverprinted after they were declared to be valid by the authorities on 5 November 1945 (Proud 2000). Rare examples exist of BMA-overprinted stamps with Japanese occupation-period cancels. From 14 March to 11 April 1947, erroneous SNIGAPORE cancellations appeared. As with the original Straits Settlements issues, forgeries exist of the SPECIMEN perfin applied on the BMA stamps in an inverted U shape.

The 1947 bicolour version of the 10c. The medallions of some 10c stamps, the commonest denomination, were reportedly printed with De La Rue’s notable fugitive ink, which discolours with moisture, to prevent reuse.

A telegram (BPMA accession number POST122/7689) dated 15 May 1947 from Sir Edward Gent, Governor of the Malayan Union, addressed to the Secretary of State, Colonies, reads: Governments of Malayan Union and Singapore agree in principle to the establishment of new Local Postal Union to be styled (Malaya) and agree to ask Crown Agents for the Colonies to proceed at once with execution of indent for Singapore stamps and to prepare printing material for Penang and Malacca (in anticipation of receipt of an indent for these issues) based on former Straits Settlements design, but now with (Malaya) in top panel and Singapore, Penang, Malacca as the case may be, in bottom panel.

The stamps for Singapore, Penang and Malacca were ordered in October 1947 (Crown Agents Stamp Bulletin No. 178, BPMA accession number POST122/7689). Sadly, Sir Edward Gent was killed in the Northwood mid-air collision while returning to Britain on 4 July 1948. Less than two months later, on 1 September 1948, the first stamps ever inscribed ‘Singapore’ were issued. These were also used on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Singapore was the only state to issue philatelic first-day covers of the coconut definitives. The stamps of Malacca and Penang followed in 1949. It is perhaps not surprising that the stamps of Singapore were worked on first, given its historical strategic importance.

It is a stroke of luck in the opinion of the author that coconut definitives inscribed SINGAPORE exist at all. Earlier, on 19 June 1946, a letter from Assistant Under Secretary of State Sir John Paskin to the Director of Postal Services (BPMA accession number POST122/7689) stated, ‘It is the intention that in future the stamps to be used in the new Colony of Singapore should bear only the title “Singapore”.’ If this policy had been followed through, Singapore would have been ineligible for membership of the coconut definitive with its MALAYA inscription at the top.

Like the early King George V issues, there was no variation in colour associated with multiple printings, due to the short period of production. Perforation 14 as before. The 25c combined the printing technique of Die I with the duty plate of Die II, giving rise to the unique Die III. Forgeries of the 50c, $1 and $2 exist on unwatermarked paper perforated 14 by 14.5 with genuine postmarks.

Issued on 1 October 1948. This colour scheme was replaced with all blue across all states on 1 September 1952. The resulting 20c blue was the only monocolour species to be printed in two operations since the British Military Administration, the reason being that a single working plate had not been produced.

Issued on 1 October 1948. This colour scheme was used in the 30c and new 35c as well as this 40c, possibly another sign of the frugal post-war period.

Yet another (final) change of colour scheme for the $5, issued on 1 October 1948. The postal authorities might have decided that the purple-and-orange colour scheme that the BMA $5 had inherited from the pre-war 30c really belonged to the ‘middle-class’ denominations, so it was given to the new 25c. The bicolour denominations of the coconut definitive exhibit a comprehensive range of colour combinations, with colour pairs of varying proximities on the colour wheel from near-adjacent to directly opposite, and primary colours paired with either neutral (black) or composite (brown) colours; examples can be seen throughout the article.

Later in 1949 an updated Singapore series was issued, with a thinner outer rectangular rim in some values (see Malay states below for illustrations) and the world’s smallest perforations (17.5 by 18.0) meant to make the stamps easier to separate (see Malay states). It is not clear why this perforation never caught on among the world’s stamps. Both hole size and interhole distance have to be adjusted, while accounting for grain direction and other paper characteristics, in order to maximize ease of separation and minimize risk of accidental tearing; perhaps those parameters were not sufficiently optimized to one another in the coconut definitives.

During the 1950—1952 production cycle a crown dropped off the dandy roll used to apply the watermark. The replacement of a wrong crown (Saint Edward’s crown, used at coronations) resulted in watermark errors in the $1 and $2 and in the Johore 6c (see later). It has, however, seemingly never been clarified as to whether the ‘error’ was intentional, perhaps necessitated by the unavailability of the correct crown.

St. Edward’s Crown watermark error. Source:

In a letter from the Palace Chambers to the postal authorities in June 1947 (BPMA accession number POST122/7689), it was stressed that ‘As you know, we are anxious to dispense with the use of stamps bearing the “B. M. A.” overprint as soon as we possibly can and the production of these new Malayan stamps is therefore a matter of some urgency. This will apply equally to the new issues for the other parts of the Malayan Union about which we will write further as soon as we know whether the Sultans concur in the proposals already made regarding their future design. This should not take long now that we have the decision to re-establish the Malayan Postal Union.’

The coconut definitives for the Malay states, to which the above letter referred, bore exquisite portraits of their respective sultans in traditional dress and headdress (tengkolok) that differed from state to state, accentuating the stamps’ Malayan identity and making them a cultural treasure trove. All states (except Malacca and Penang) used the diminutive perforation and thin rectangular rim introduced in Singapore. Except Malacca and Penang, which were still on the modified old Straits Settlements dies, several other major modifications were made:

1. Front or oblique view of head of state, instead of side profile.
2. Width of denomination tablets increased to give more space to double-digit values, since Jawi state names needed less space.
3. Typeface of dollar denominations changed from serif to sans-serif to be consistent with smaller denominations and making them look less ‘aristocratic’.
4. State name in the indigenous Jawi script (except Johore) now rarely used in everyday life.

It seems that the glorious diversification of the coconut definitives across the Malay states was nearly asphyxiated. In the same 1946 letter (BPMA accession number POST122/7689) cited above about Singapore, it was suggested that all stamps throughout the former Federated and Unfederated Malay States should henceforth be titled ‘Malayan Union’, the new name of the unified postal administration, although it was also mentioned that ‘no final decision has yet been taken regarding permanent issues’. The coconut definitive very almost died before it had its finest hour.

Sultan Sir Hisamud-din Alam Shah ibni Al-marhum Sultan Alauddin Sulaiman Shah (1898—1960). Issued on 12 September 1949, wearing the sultan’s tengkolok made of handwoven songket fabric. This specimen was the very first of the coconut definitives in the author’s collection, inherited from the author’s mother—where his philatelic odyssey began. The collection was subsequently seeded with specimens given by the author’s late grandfather from the latter’s extensive repository, and further expanded through the author’s own efforts. Notes on the Selangor series: the 12c exists with inverted watermark.

Johore, where the author spent part of his childhood. Issued on 2 May 1949; this specimen postmarked in Mersing. Portrait of Major-General His Highness Sultan Sir Ibrahim ibni Al-marhum Sultan Abu Bakar Al-khalil (1873—1959), the only head of state to be portrayed in western military uniform and who commanded the unique state-level Royal Johore Military Force. The only state whose name on the stamp was printed only in English and light-on-dark. The typeface of ‘JOHORE’ is similar or identical to that in the denomination tablets, particularly the slanted cut of the end of the hook of the ‘J’, but was reportedly not typographed by De La Rue. The Sultan was an ardent Anglophile opposed to the prospect of Johore being part of an independent Malaya; he probably therefore wanted his stamp to look different from the rest. The fibre remnants in the perforations of this specimen are probably a sign of worn-out pins in the perforating machine. General notes: the 6c exists with Saint Edward’s crown watermark error; imperforate pair of 10c exists.

Kedah, where the author’s father was born and raised in a kampong (village) during the Japanese Occupation, was by far the most important rice-producing state owing to its relatively flat terrain. Accordingly, the small denominations showcase a sheaf of rice inherited from pre-war definitive stamps of Kedah. The decision to inscribe the state name in either or both of Jawi and English probably lay with the sultan (see Palace Chambers letter above). The unusually saturated colour of this denomination is prone to smudging when the stamp is wetted. Issued on 1 September 1952.

fig-35-malaya fig-36-malaya
Portrait of Sultan Sir Badlishah ibni Al-marhum Sultan Sir Abdul Hamid Halim Shah (1894—1958) on the higher denominations, and the photograph from which the engraving was derived (source: Wikipedia). The protruding sula or ‘shoot’ at the top of the tengkolok signifies his sovereign position. Issued on 1 June 1950. Notice the radial gradation of the thickness of the background lines in the sultans’ medallions, different from the bilateral gradation in medallions of the British monarchs, to suit the forward-facing portraits of the former. Unusual appearance of a serif typeface, making the coconut definitive a delightful typographical microcosm—and that’s not counting the myriad Japanese and British overprints in yet more languages and scripts.

Tengku Sir Ibrahim IV ibni Al-marhum Sultan Mohamed IV (1897—1960), wearing the tengkolok with the distinctive ‘blooming flower’ top unique to Kelantan. The 50c sported a new colour scheme adopted from pre-war Malay state stamps. This particular denomination was also used in Singapore. Issued on 11 July 1951.

Negri Sembilan (period spelling)
The coat of arms of Negri Sembilan on a brick-wall background. The padi stalks represent the nine Minangkabau districts of Negri Sembilan. The rim of the medallion is slightly different from the others, being finely bevelled like a picture frame. It is not clear why the Yang di-Pertuan Besar (head of state) of Negri Sembilan was not portrayed; perhaps he preferred not to be. Issued on 1 April 1949.

Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Ri-ayatu’d-Din Al-muadzam Shah ibni Al-marhum Al-mu’tasim Bi’llah Sultan Abdullah (1904—1974), wearing the Pahang sultan’s distinctive tengkolok with no downward fold at the front. Issued on 1 June 1950. Postmarked in Kuantan. Interestingly, grey is the only colour not used in any of the bicolour denominations, possibly because it was decided that a bicolour scheme involving grey would make part of the stamp look as if it were in greyscale, rendering the stamp visually incongruent with the rest of the series. Pahang is the gateway to the national park and Gunung Tahan, highest mountain in the Malay peninsula. One of the author’s regrets is that the magnificent tigers engraved on the pre-war issues of the Federated Malay States did not live on in the low-denomination medallions of the coconut definitive, for which the Pahang series would have been a good candidate, in the same spirit as the sheaf of rice of Kedah (above).

Sultan Yussuf Izzuddin Shah ibni Al-marhum Sultan Abdul Jalil Karamatullah Nasiruddin Mukhataram Shah Radziallah (1890—1963), wearing the tall white tengkolok of the Sultan of Perak. Unique features: dashed background lines around headdress to create a luminous aura around it; wider gap between medallion rim and background lines within the medallion, giving it even more of the three-dimensional relief characteristic of a real medallion. The engravers seemed to have been given considerable artistic liberty back then, when the authorities were less obsessed with conformity and standardization. This colour scheme first appeared in the pre-war 30c, went on to the new $5 printed during BMA, and finally to the 25c. Issued on 17 August 1950. This specimen postmarked in Ipoh, Perak. Due to the delay in the release of the Kelantan counterpart, some Perak stamps were used in Kelantan in 1951.

Syed Harun Putra ibni Al-marhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail (1920—2000), Raja of Perlis. Yet another variation on the design theme, with English state name inserted above the medallion, probably because the Jawi state name was too complicated to be squeezed into a smaller space as with Kedah (see above). Issued on 26 March 1951. Due to the remoteness of the state, there was no variation in colour associated with multiple printings.

Trengganu (period spelling)
Sultan Sir Ismail Nasiruddin Shah ibni Al-marhum Sultan Zainal Abidin III (1907—1979), wearing the Trengganu sultan’s tengkolok with a characteristically narrow downward fold on the front rising towards the top. Issued on 27 December 1949. Note the change from serif (pre-war) to sans-serif typeface in the denomination tablets of the dollar values. Printer’s proofs exist on ungummed unwatermarked paper.

With the ascension of Elizabeth II to the throne in 1953, coconut definitives were issued in Penang and Malacca printed using completely new dies. Singapore was excluded presumably because it had become a Crown Colony with its own stamp designs. The portrait of the queen was derived from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding. These were the final sets of the coconut definitive, marking the end of a classic but remarkably future-proof design that had seen Malaya through some of the most tumultuous chapters in its history.

Queen Elizabeth II (1926—). Penang, issued on 1 September 1954. On some specimens of the 1c, a mark resembling a cigarette end appears near the Queen’s mouth.

Malacca, issued on 5 January 1955. The square denomination tablets of the early Straits Settlements issues have been retained, now combined with the second-generation thin outer rectangular rim introduced in 1949. The print has taken on a more sterile machined look, leading one to think that the engraving was now being done with the aid of more sophisticated precision tools. The ground on which the palms stand has changed to a more homogeneous, almost carpet-like texture, with the medallion cut into it rather than resting naturally on it. The background lines behind the palms are no longer more closely spaced together towards the top, sacrificing some of the realism of the sunset sky. The gradation of the background within the medallion is hardly noticeable now, perhaps because it was desired eliminate any chance of the background lines overlapping at their thicker sections (see the overlaps on some of the old Straits Settlements stamps above). Ironically, subtle hand-adjusted details can greatly enhance such a simple design as the coconut definitive. Their neglect here heralds the dawn of automation and the digital age.
The coconut definitive is a masterpiece of graphic design, its woodcut quality exuding the old-world charm that titillates the senses much like a vinyl record. Exploiting the incisive detail and perceptual shade gradation of line art, it strikes a mesmerizing balance between rustic simplicity and antique intricacy, and between the earthliness of nature and the grandeur of quasi-architectural symmetry. Even more importantly, the design is unique among the world’s classic imperial portrait-centric definitive stamps in incorporating scenic elements of its country’s cultural and natural history without losing its formality. The longevity and ultradiversity of the coconut definitive was choreographed by no mastermind. It was superb design and a little luck that gave it resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity and the tides of change.

BPMA accession number POST122/7689 (correspondence between London and Malaya in 1946 and 1947 regarding postal administration and stamp design after the war).

Kearney, P. N. 1990. Japanese Occupation Postmarks of Malaya. Christie’s Robson Lowe, London.

Norris, A. 1985. Malaya: the Survey Department Essays of 1933—34. Malaya Study Group.

Proud, E. B. and Rowell, Lt. Col. M. D. 1992. The Postal History of the Occupation of Malaya and British Borneo 1941—1945. Postal History Publishing Co., Heathfield.

Proud, E. B. 2000. The Postal History of Malaya 2nd ed. (in three volumes). Proud-Bailey, Heathfield.

Stanway, L. C. 2009. Malaysia and the Federation of Malaya: Their Stamps and Postal Stationery Volume 1. Malaya Study Group.

Tan, S. 1991. Standard Catalogue of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei Stamps and Postal Stationery. International Stamp & Coin Sdn. Bhd., Kuala Lumpur.

Wood, F. E. 1981. The Postage Stamps of the Federated Malay States, Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Straits Settlements, Sungei Ujong and Trengganu 2nd reprint. International Stamp & Coin Agency, Kuala Lumpur.

I did most of the historical research in my early youth. The curator of the Singapore Philatelic Museum kindly granted me access to the museum’s literary archives, and the manager at the Singapore branch of Stanley Gibbons very graciously allowed me to browse books on the shelves and take notes. Even so, many of the documents I referred to were not primary sources. More recently, access to primary historical material at the BPMA in London and the Philatelic Collections of the British Library have yielded valuable insights. In this age of information, the role that Wikipedia, the stampboards forum and the Internet at large have played in supplying fascinating snippets of general knowledge illuminating my story of people and places that coexisted alongside the coconut definitive should be recognized as well. In particular, I appreciate the discussions with fellow stampboards members that have given me ideas I would not have obtained from passive consultation of literature. Although I have exercised the utmost care in taking accurate records throughout, my aspiration is for this article to fire the reader’s passion in the subject rather than to be an authoritative treatise. Nevertheless, I would be grateful to be contacted about errors or bibliographical omissions.

Additional resources:
Philatelic Society of Malaysia
Malaya Study Group (United Kingdom)
The Royal Philatelic Society London