“CEPAT pergi beratur. Orang dah ramai tunggu kat luar tu.” (Line up quickly. There’s already a large crowd waiting outside.)
The car has hardly come to a halt when my friend and avid stamp collector, Yusni Azman, urges me to join the snaking queue. Today’s a very special day for him, as too other stamp collectors throughout the nation.
This year marks the 150th anniversary since the first stamps were issued in this country. To commemorate this momentous event, Pos Malaysia recently issued a beautiful set of stamps bearing the images of all nine postage stamp denominations released on Sept 1, 1867.
By rough estimation, I gather there are at least 20 people waiting in line ahead of me. Thanks to the favourable position of the early morning sun, all us are safely within the shadow of the imposing Alor Star General Post Office building on Jalan Stadium.
A quarter of an hour later, the front doors swing open and the line progresses forward several metres before stopping again. The person at the head of the line must be at the counter by now. Craning my neck above the sea of heads, I try to spot Yusni who had dashed into the building as soon as it opened. Unfortunately, he’s nowhere in sight.
Moments later he emerges with a wide grin on his face, waving a rolled up piece of paper jubilantly in my direction. “You got the stamps?” I ask as soon as he comes within earshot, hoping he had capitalised on his close relations with the post office staff. Shaking his head, Yusni nullifies my aspirations of prematurely abandoning my place in the queue.
“They’re very strict today as the event has created a lot of public interest,” explains Yusni before unfurling the scroll in his hand. “I’m lucky to get my hands on this promotional poster. It has so much information about the new stamps and will definitely form part of my collection,” he adds before pointing out that the commemorative postage stamps are sold in three denominations: 60 sen, 80 sen and 90 sen.
Taking a closer look at the stamps, I remark that the postage stamps that were first sold in the Straits Settlements 150 years ago were actually those issued in India with additional overprints. Lauding my keen sense of observation, Yusni decides to regale me with the history behind the formation of the Straits Settlements first.
A lesson in history
Over the next few minutes, my friend embarks on a brief history lesson starting with the British East India Company’s successful cession of Penang from Kedah in 1786. Another foothold was secured 33 years later, in 1819, when Stamford Raffles founded a settlement in Singapore in the name of the Company. Melaka, previously occupied by the British in 1795 and restored to the Dutch in 1818, came under British rule again by virtue of the Treaty of London in 1824.
Within two years of the Melaka reoccupation, the three settlements were amalgamated under a collective name, “Straits Settlements”, with a Governor residing in Penang. Then, in 1836, the seat of government was transferred to Singapore. Despite the presence of a functional local administrative hierarchy, the Straits Settlements Governor still answered to the British East India Company which at that time wielded power from the Indian subcontinent.
It’s because of this fact that, according to Yusni, when the time came to introduce adhesive postage stamps in 1854, Indian stamps were shipped over for use in the Straits Settlements. “At that time, the conversion rate was 3 cents per anna or 2 cents per penny sterling. Things were quite chaotic as the postal staff tried their best to grasp this novel introduction. Occasionally, you can find envelopes with the clerk’s rate calculations on them!” he adds, chuckling.
“Hello Encik. Boleh saya tolong?” (Hello Sir. May I be of assistance?) The postal assistant’s gentle greeting reminds Yusni and I that we’ve finally reached the head of the queue. My friend, who began collecting stamps since his childhood days in Ipoh, promptly places his orders for the stamps and First Day Covers.
While making our way to another counter at the opposite end to have the stamps postmarked with the special cancellation, Yusni points towards the early 19th century map of the Malay Peninsula which forms part of the First Day Cover design and shares: “On April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements became a British Crown colony. This made the new colony answerable directly to the Colonial Office in London instead of having to go through India like before. With this newfound status came, among others, autonomy with regards to postal affairs.”
In order to reflect upon this change and while waiting for the permanent issues to arrive from the Crown Agents in London, post offices in Penang, Melaka and Singapore began selling Indian stamps that were overprinted with a crown at the top and surcharged with new values in cents at the bottom.
The overprint and surcharge of these provisional issues were applied by De La Rue and Co., the same London-based printers who produced the Indian stamps. There were nine different surcharges in all and the new values ranged from 10 cents. to 32 cents.
We’re fortunate as there’s no one at the special date stamp counter. After cancelling the trio of stamps on his first day cover with the special cancellation, Yusni points out that the Indian postage stamps used in the Straits Settlements from 1854 until 1867 could be identified by their own unique postmarks.
“Numerical postmarks were introduced early in 1856. The numbers assigned to Singapore, Penang and Melaka were 172, 147 and 109 respectively. Each of these postmarks also had a four-lined octagon enclosing a capital letter “B” over the numbers,” explains Yusni before showing me several images stored in his phone as we exit the building.
Designs on stamps
The first stamps from the permanent issue began appearing in post offices in December 1867, exactly at the time when the provisional overprinted Indian stamps were running out of stock. The design of these new stamps was distinctly different from their predecessors.
Most notable was the inscription “STRAITS SETTLEMENTS POSTAGE”. Apart from that, these new postage stamps had Queen Victoria’s head within a double circle or rectangle and enclosed within a frame. The corners were decorated with different types of ornaments while the values appeared in letters or numerals at the base.
Back in his car, Yusni whips out a rather thick stamp catalogue as he confides that he never leaves home without his Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue. Expertly flipping the well thumbed pages, he arrives at the intended page almost immediately. He then gestures towards a comprehensive list of Straits Settlements stamps issued. There’s a seemingly endless list of stamps with a myriad of values and colours issued.
This plethora of stamps issued in the Straits Settlements was the result of changes in postage rates and stamp shortages. Further “chaos” arose when the Straits Settlements joined the Universal Postal Union in 1877. This led to regular postage rate changes, which were necessary to conform to international charges. As a result, the local postal authorities had to quickly produce stamps with the required value when they got wind of the rate change. Their remedy was to surcharge existing stamps at the Government Printing Office in Singapore.
I continue studying the stamp catalogue while Yusni carefully backs the car out of the parking lot. Subsequent pages reveal that the use of postage stamps was closely related to the spread of British influence in the Malay States.
Influence of the British
After the formation of the Straits Settlements, the British generally adopted a non-intervention policy with regards to the native states. This, however, didn’t last for long. The British were forced to intervene when internal strife and civil wars in the Malay Peninsula began affecting their trade with those troubled states.
Perak was the first to come under British protection when Andrew Clarke, governor of the Straits Settlements, sat in conclave with the Perak princes and chieftains for three days on Pangkor Island seeking a solution to their succession dispute. In the end, Clarke managed to persuade the local leaders to accept and sign the Engagement of Pangkor Treaty where a rightful heir to the Perak throne was duly accepted and recognised.
A greater and more far-reaching importance of that treaty stipulated that the Perak princes and chieftains agreed to have a British Resident installed in the capital whose advice would be sought and taken by them on all administrative matters except those related to the Malay religion and customs.
After Perak, the other states like Selangor, Sungai Ujong (Negri Sembilan) and Pahang came under British influence in quick succession. Their respective Residents began initiating Western-style administration systems which, among others, included a modern postal system aimed at improving communications with the rest of the world.
The Residents soon realised that starting a postal system from scratch was not going to be a walk in the park. The incident in Perak was a classic case in point. Initial teething problems, which included complaints about inconsistent mail delivery service led to the Resident at that time, Hugh Low, to write a pleading letter to the Governor of the Straits Settlements for funds to better equip the existing half a dozen post offices at Taiping, Batu Gajah, Parit Buntar, Port Weld, Kuala Kangsar and Durian Sebatang.
Post offices set up in the Malay States during those formative years sold provisionally overprinted Straits Settlements stamps while awaiting the arrival of new postage stamps featuring the names of their respective states from London.
The sale of Straits Settlements stamps bearing the image of Queen Victoria ended with the death of the British monarch in 1901. The Crown Agents in London were then tasked with preparing a new set of postage stamps bearing the head of her son and successor, King Edward VII.
The new stamps were put on sale in April 1902, says Yusni, as his car slowly glides to a stop in front of my house. Before alighting, I thank him for making me realise just how fascinating our country’s philatelic heritage is. This morning’s lesson is a poignant reminder to me that there’s still so much about our illustrious past yet to be unearthed.