Malaysian History as Told by Stamps

By Enzo Sim

August 2019 August 2021 FEATURE
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Other versions of the Merdeka private cover.

It was once dubbed the “King of Hobbies”. Stamp collecting was the craze when postal services were the only way to send letters, but with passing time, interest in the hobby has seemingly taken a backstage.

The value of stamps, however, has not – in 2014 a one-of-akind stamp, the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta, was sold for US$9.5mil. It beat the record of the US$2.2mil rare misprinted Swedish stamp sold in 1996.1

In terms of history, stamps are invaluable. They reflect a country’s history and the important happenings that it underwent, bringing the past back to life through finely printed engravings featuring prominent landmarks, historical figures, monarchs and cultural identity, as well as commemorations of special events.

Local postage stamps, which were non-existent prior to British colonial rule over the Malay states in the late eighteenth century, were first introduced by the British colonial administration in 1854. Unknown to many, British India stamps were first used for postal services in Malaya before the British could set up a centralised postal administration to design and print Malaya’s very own stamps.

Japanese Occupation cover.
Straits Settlements stamps.

In 1867, when the Straits Settlements consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore came under direct British government rule, the first true Malayan stamps, which were British India stamps that were overprinted with the wording “Straits Settlements” coupled with the local currency of Malaya, were introduced and circulated for usage by the postal services department of British Malaya.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the postal history of Malaya reached a new milestone when postage stamps started to be issued by a better-structured postal administration for each and every state, bearing different designs with their own identity, starting in 1871 with the state of Johor followed by the others; these were collectively known as the Malayan states issue.

At this point of time, postage stamps in Malaya reflected the uniqueness of each Malay state which were then independent kingdoms. All issues during this period bore the portrait of the Malay rulers or their respective coat of arms, while stamps bearing the portrait of British monarchs were used for the Straits Settlements.

The number of European settlers – who mostly consist of colonial officers and their spouses, soldiers, traders, and bankers – began to greatly increase as British administration over Malaya began to stabilise and further expand into the east coast of the peninsula, incorporating the states of Kelantan and Terengganu into a entity known as the Unfederated Malay States alongside Kedah, Perlis and Johor. It was also at this time that black-and-white picture postcards depicting street scenes and famous landmarks of British Malaya began to appear. These postcards were mostly based on photos taken by German photographer and German Navy veteran, August E. Kaulfuss, who founded one of the most established photographic studios in Malaya in 1908, after arriving in Penang in 1883.

Decades later, during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, as soon as the Japanese army set up its administration, it began to issue its own stamps using the stamps that were previously issued for the Malayan states, hand-stamping them with the words “Post of The Military in Malaya”.

Other variations of the overprints were also introduced on later issues with wordings such as “Dai Nippon 2602 Malaya” or “Japanese Post” in kanji inscription using red ink. In 1943,

10 definitive stamps were also issued showing only kanji characters on the stamps; these were circulated in Malaya and Singapore.

Following the end of the Second World War, the British forces who returned to Malaya in late 1945 set up a transitional administration to restore social order and, more importantly, British rule over Malaya – temporarily known as the British Military Administration, or BMA. This period saw stamps put into circulation until 1951 using the Straits Settlements issue bearing the portrait of King George VI, with the overprinting of the wording “B.M.A MALAYA” in red or black ink.

Later on, to commemorate the nation’s independence, the first ever commemorative stamp bearing the portrait of Tunku Abdul Rahman was released by the Information Services Department, the predecessor of today’s Pos Malaysia, with official first day covers that were affixed with the commemorative stamps and which were subsequently cancelled on August 31, 1957.

Subsequent issues known as the Merdeka Anniversary covers were also released in the following years and continues to be issued today as a commemoration of Merdeka, with the first series released in 1958 being the most unique; it featured two stamps bearing the portrait of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, who was the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan; and the painting of Stadium Merdeka, which was the venue of the declaration of independence.

Enzo Sim

is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.