A Brief History of Money in the Malay Peninsula

By Enzo Sim

September 2021 FEATURE
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The second series of Ringgit Malaysia issued in 1982 in the denominations of RM10 and RM1, with the portrait of Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Iconic national landmarks are featured on the reverse side, including the National Monument on the RM1 note and the Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station on Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin on the RM10 note.

BEING A PLACE where the winds meet, the Malayan Peninsula has witnessed the use of many types of currency. For example, the Malacca Sultanate made use of wang pitis in the early 15th century. These were coins made from tin and gold, and moulded in the shape of crocodiles, roosters, elephants or turtles. They were called jongkong timah and jongkong emas, the latter being more highly valued. After Sultan Muzaffar Shah (1446-1459) came to power, wang pitis was phased out in favour of silver coins.

Following the Sultanate's collapse in 1511, a monetary system was put in place by the Portuguese. Tin coins bearing the Portuguese coat of arms and the royal insignia of King Emmanuel (1495- 1521) and later, of King João III (1521- 1527) were issued.

The obverse side of Japanese Occupation banknotes issued from 1942-1945 in the denominations of $100, $10 and $5. A village hut in a plantation estate is depicted on the $100 note. On the $10 note are banana and coconut trees, while coconut trees are also shown on the $5 note. Printed on all the notes are kanji characters that read as "Imperial Japanese Government". The reverse side of the banknotes. On the $100 note shows a farmer with his buffaloes on the river banks. Coconut trees line the coast on the $10 note, with a steamship in the background. On the $5 is the enlarged numeral "5".

When the Dutch took control of Malacca in 1641, Johan van Twist, their first Governor, ordered the minting of coins bearing the insignia of Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company.

Pre-WWII British Malayan banknotes issued by the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya on July 1, 1941. Printed on the banknotes is the portrait of King George VI, with the Board Chairman, L.G. Corney's signature.

In the 1800s, Spanish "Reals" were widely used throughout the region. In 1898, the British, now well entrenched on the Malay Peninsula, introduced banknotes known as the Straits Dollar, along with coins that had been in circulation since 1867. These banknotes, printed with the portrait of King George V and the words "Straits Settlements", came to be used in all the territories controlled by the British, i.e. the Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States, Sarawak, British North Borneo and Brunei, effectively replacing the Spanish Real and the Indian Rupee.1 The Straits Dollar remained in circulation until 1939 when a new currency, the Malayan Dollar, was issued.

The Malaya and British Borneo $1 note was issued by the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo, and was used in the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo, Brunei and the Riau archipelago until 1967 when Malaya left the Currency Union. The reverse side of the note features a sailboat and the state emblems of each of the territories where the note was legal tender.
Post-WWII Malayan and British Borneo Dollars in the denominations of $10 and $1, bearing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the signature of W.C. Taylor, the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo on March 21, 1953. The banknotes are the first to have the letter "A" prefixed before the serial numbers.
RM1 from the first series of Ringgit Malaysia banknotes issued by Bank Negara Malaysia in 1967. The portrait of Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, graces the obverse side, which bears also the signature of Ismail Mohammad Ali, the central bank's second Governor. The reverse side of the note features the Bank Negara logo, the Kijang Emas.

In October 1938, in order to standardise currency issuance for British Malaya, the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya was established. In July 1941, banknotes in denominations of $1, $5 and $10 and square- and round-shaped coins were minted for shipping to Malaya. But these came to little use. Malaya was occupied by the Japanese five short months later. The Japanese instituted their own currency, known as "banana money", but its overprinting led to hyperinflation and to its total loss of value.

In 1952, the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo was formed following an agreement between the administrations of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak North Borneo and Brunei to be included in a single currency union.

The third series of banknotes issued in 1996, in the denominations of RM10, RM2 and RM1, also carrying the portrait of Tuanku Abdul Rahman. The reverse side of the RM10 note features depictions of Malaysia's Vision 2020, foretelling the country's transportation and logistical achievements. On the RM2 note are the KL Tower and Measat II satellite, while Mount Kinabalu is pictured in the background and the wau on the foreground of the RM1 note.

A new series of banknotes were issued in 1953, carrying the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1959, a new series of $1 and $10 notes came into being and remained legal tender in British Malaya, British Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei until June 12, 1967 when Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei introduced currencies of their own.

Bank Negara Malaysia issued the first series of Ringgit Malaysia banknotes on June 8, 1967, portraying the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman. A second series followed in 1982, a third in 1996, and a fourth in 2012.

  • The Indian Rupee had previously been in use in the Straits Settlements.
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.