Spirit of Malaya - Lin Yangchen
  • Spirit of Malaya

©Lin Yangchen

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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

The coconut definitive is an enduring multicultural masterpiece of graphic design, its woodcut quality exuding the old-world charm of traditional Malay woodcraft and making it look even more old-school than the classic 19th-century stamps. Exploiting 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. 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, the coconut definitive stands out among the world's classic imperial portrait-centric stamps in incorporating scenic elements of its country's natural history without sacrificing its air of administrative authority.

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

Times had changed by the twilight years of the coconut definitive. The 1960s saw a philatelic "industrial revolution" with the more pictorial photogravure technique, a fundamentally different kind of printing with multiple colours. Great stamps die hard (pun intended), however; the $1, $2 and $5 of the coconut definitive of Johore were still being printed as late as 1960 (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, 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.

The diversity and longevity 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.


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