Spirit of Malaya - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen
   Coconut Correspondent

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Within a tiny space, a stamp must establish national identity, indicate its value, contain usefully suggestive symbolism and needs high visual impact…without compromising the dignity of the issuing authority.

—Stephen Bayley, British design critic

laser engraving on stainless steel

The coconut definitive is an enduring transcultural masterpiece of graphic design in which Malayan elements were built into its fundamental structure, rather than conveniently inserted as scenery framed by a generic decorative template as was done in many stamp designs. As Holley (2010a) put it, the coconut definitive was "not made to milk collectors or just adorn albums", compared with more recent times of "blatant exploitation".

Its woodcut quality exudes the old-world charm of traditional Malay woodcraft, and makes it look even more old-school than the 19th-century classics. It exploits the incisive detail and perceptual shade gradation of line art, yet retains the kampong simplicity and roughness—in fact, simpler than most of its highly embellished small-definitive contemporaries throughout the world. Gentleman (1972) thought letterpress was clumsy at such small scales, but I think it is a blessing in disguise. Indeed, it wouldn't have been out of place on the letters of rugged guerrillas prowling the jungles during the Malayan Emergency.

It unifies nature and architecture in the coconut tree, striking a mesmerizing balance between rustic tranquility and imperial grandeur. The abstinence from superfluous embellishment liberates the raw beauty and harmony of rectangular and elliptical geometric forms that remain recognisable from a distance. Moreover, it stands out among the world's classic imperial portrait-centric stamps in incorporating scenic elements without sacrificing its air of administrative authority.

Eminent stamp designer Eric Gill lambasted the British offerings of the early 20th century for what he saw as excessive ornamentation. The ideal design in his mind was a purely functional one bearing only the denomination, the word "postage" and a mark of the stamp's origin, such as the monarch (Rosenblum 1999a). Meanwhile his equally eminent nemesis Edmund Dulac criticized the controversial Edward VIII issue for looking as though it had not been designed at all. To Dulac, a stamp should advertise its country to the world. Mackay (1997) detailed the controversy. As for the coconut design, I daresay it would placate both Gill and Dulac.

The coconut design is so iconic that it has been reproduced and adapted several times.

From the 1930s to 1978 (Chris Wong comm.; National Library Singapore), savings cards each printed with a different stamp design were produced for students. One of them was illustrated with a modification of the Singapore 10¢ coconut definitive, showing three students standing in the vignette holding a sign saying success | security | sufficiency. Students had to buy and stick 10¢ stamps on the reverse, which was printed with blank boxes. Once complete they could hand it over to the bank as a form of deposit.

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The coconut design has been reincarnated several times on commemorative stamps issued by Singapore in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These ones are in what Singapore Post calls the “stamp-on-stamp design concept”. In the two larger reproductions shown here, care seems to have been taken to select coconut examples with almost perfectly centered BMA overprints. The postal authorities seemed to have a soft spot for the green-and-red $2, BMA purple-and-orange and 15-cent blues among many possible colour choices.

Interestingly, Malaysia has never reproduced the coconut definitive on its stamps (catalogues inspected until 2011), although it has reproduced some of its colonial stamps on several occasions. This may have something to do with the coconut definitive being the design for the very first stamps inscribed Singapore but not for Malaysia.

[image coming soon]

This is the earliest (1980) and so far largest official reproduction of the coconut definitive on another stamp. At first glance it seems no more than another straight copy of the $2, but the more you look at it the odder it becomes. The denomination is slightly distorted, different enough from the actual that it’s not a direct photographic reproduction, yet similar enough that it’s somehow lifted from the original or at least trying hard to be faithful to it. And there’s a uniform gap between the vignette and the surrounding design, where there should instead be overlapping lines for the double-plated $2. The lines are smooth and clean throughout with somewhat uneven spacing, as if drawn by a fine pen rather than engraved. I have a theory for the strange appearance: it could be an artifact of the printing method, which was probably offset lithography. One might be seeing a combination of deliberate “refinement” and “spontaneous distortion” of the details when the coconut design was being reproduced on the lithographic plate.

[image coming soon]

In 2008 the coconut definitive concept became the inspiration for a commemorative set marking 150 years of postal services in Singapore. It was redrawn with raster gradients and pictorial vignettes by designer Sylvia Tan. The colour schemes appear to be based on a selection of issued and unissued colour schemes of the original definitive.

But it is a very different stamp from the coconut definitive. It is larger and more densely packed with pictures and small text, which deprives it of a strong focal point to catch the eye. Small ornaments have replaced the distinctive fascia corners; the ornaments are harder to make out and do not arouse in the author a vernacular atmosphere in the way the original fascia evoke traditional Malay houses. The coconut trees are no longer architectural columns but thin “flag poles”. An unexplained clump of leaves a third of the way up—perhaps a space filler—disrupts the sensation of height.

The other vital ingredient is typography. Like many modern stamps of Singapore and other countries, this issue uses, or gives the impression that it uses, off-the-shelf fonts in computer word processors. The main inscriptions are in Copperplate Gothic, an all-uppercase font widely used in the branding and stationery of highly paid professionals such as lawyers, doctors and bankers. This gives the stamp a somewhat aristocratic look, in contrast to the artisanal handcrafted MALAYA on the original coconut definitive. But even more important than what font it is is whether the font goes well with the rest of the design. The Copperplate isn’t perfectly at home because the subject matter depicted on the stamp is quite a different industry from law, medicine or finance. In the original coconut definitive, on the other hand, the text and imagery feel as if they are one organism.

photograph by August E. Kaulfuss, pre-1914
printed in Germany

Times had changed by the twilight years of the coconut definitive. People were developing a taste for more pictorial designs (Stanway 2009). The world was becoming increasingly mechanized, and popular culture was taking hold. The 1960s saw a philatelic "industrial revolution" with the photogravure technique, a fundamentally different kind of printing with multiple colours.

Andrew Gilmour, who chaired the government’s Stamp Design Committee in 1951, later wrote in a Singapore Stamp Club report that he felt the Crown Agents were resistant to new designs and took too long to approve them. When King George VI died in 1952, the Crown Agents simply asked printers to replace his portrait on existing stamps with the Queen’s.

In 1956, a Mr Tay Chee Siong from Johore Bahru wrote to The Straits Times imploring the authorities to introduce new pictorial stamps to "sell Malaya to tourists". He said the coconut definitives were "the most uninteresting and unimaginative. The design is stereotyped, inappropriate and misleading…" He feared that foreigners might think that Malaya was "a country of swaying coconut palms".

A year earlier, Singapore had already ditched the coconuts for a new series featuring ships and planes. These designs by Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill were praised by Gilmour as having been very successful and popular. But the amount of "design" that went into them is debatable. The main subject might be intrinsically beautiful and has been artfully drawn, but it and the other elements of the stamp appear to have been conceived as independent modules and dropped into a rectangular canvas. It looks not unlike the controversial Edward VIII definitive shown earlier. Perhaps the new design was meant to accentuate the individualism of the fundamental components that made up a postage stamp. Perhaps the intention was to juxtapose them against one another to emulate industrial-age dissonance and disorganization just as in some contemporary art movements.

Nevertheless, great stamps die hard (pun intended). The coconut definitives of Johore were still being printed as late as 1958, and a 1959 order was cancelled only because Sultan Ibrahim died (Stanway 2009). The last coconut definitives were finally invalidated on 1 November 1966 (Stanway 2009), nine years after independence and a year after Singapore separated from Malaysia.

Even then, it wasn't all over yet. The coconut definitive was given one final overprint, an almost forlorn “date stamp” in loosely typeset letters with a rickety makeshift frame, as it entered its death throes. The perforated adhesives were already gone, but the coconut definitive held out for a while longer on surplus postal stationery cards repurposed for official use. These cards were used to remind addressees to collect their parcels, or to send messages between postal departments and headquarters, or for other purposes. Coconut cards were recorded passing through the post as late as 1967 (Cheah 1977). The mystery is what purpose the overprint served, when an obliteration of the invalidated stamp seems more appropriate as was done using thick black bars in other batches of cards. Could it have been a tongue-in-cheek substitute for an actual date stamp?

Maximal geographical extent of the issuance of the Universal Coconut Duty Plate, sprawling across tropical seas west of the Wallace Line on the biggest archipelago in the world, created by the submergence of the Sunda Shelf in the present interglacial. Cartographed by Lin Yangchen with shoreline data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Universal Coconut Duty Plate was a classic but remarkably future-proof design that saw Malaya through some of the most tumultuous chapters in its history. Its diversity and longevity was choreographed by no mastermind. superb design and a little luck that gave it resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity and the tides of change. It was truly a stamp that took Malaya by storm.

The Monastery of St. Nuciferus in Bukit Timah, Singapore, consecrated by the author in 2018. Two splendid coconut palms, Cocos nucifera, adorn the stained-glass windows high above the ambulatory. ©Lin Yangchen


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