©Lin Yangchen

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Occasionally, one encounters a piquant juxtaposition of the agrarian and the industrial: the woodcut design of the coconut definitive, perforated with machined holes reminiscent of the punch cards in early computers, as if heralding the dawn of the digital age.

The so-called perfin, standing for perforated initials or perforated insignia, is in fact a security marking used by companies and government departments to deter unauthorised use of their stamps. They were originally known as spifs for stamps perforated with initials of firms (Alderfer 1999). Stamps were legal tender and could be misused by greedy employees to buy goods like bread, cheese and ale (Alderfer 1999).

Compared with true dot-matrix print, perfin letters have fewer dots and a more primeval character, as the latter's holes do not conform to a grid. They imbue the coconut definitive with a touch of elegance and add another dimension to its typographic diversity. And as symbols of diverse companies, they embody the globalism and cosmopolitanism of Malaya. Yet in their heyday, perfins were regarded by philatelists as mutilations that made stamps worthless (Dewey 1971).

Malaya is not particularly speciose in perfins. There were about 110 official and private perfins, including different versions from the same company, counting the entries in Turnbull (2022). In contrast, private perfins alone numbered 2700 in Australia (Mathews 2002) and 25,000 in Britain (according to philatelist Peter Simpfendorfer).

Samuel type d21 perforator (1940) of De La Rue (Cockburn 2010), which was individually applied to stamps (Freeland 2010). The word specimen marks a stamp provided to postmasters and postal administrations as a reference sample, and invalidates them against postal use. Perfins have a drawback here: the numerous holes may coincide with important design or print details. On the left is a philatelic conformer with nicely centered strikes of both the perfin and the multiple script ca watermark, while on the right is its rebellious cousin.

The conventional way of displaying perfins is to show the back of the stamp over a dark background, but the stamp's design cannot be seen in relation to the perfin. In the imaging technique developed by the author, however, uniform illumination from under the stamp "spotlights" the perfin amidst a darkened but visible stamp design.

Boustead & Co., an asset management and corporate finance company established in Singapore in 1828 that has grown from strength to strength with the country to this day. It was also the most prolific user of perfins (Peter Cockburn comm.). Left, a die used by the Singapore office (Turnbull 2022); right, a larger, scruffier die used by the Penang office (Turnbull 2022). A perfinned stamp is viewed less favourably on the market if the perfin cuts into the sides, but the author sees beauty in the human touch of perfin production.

The Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland (Netherlands Steamship Company) had a motto with the same initials: Semper Mare Navigandum (“Always Sail the Seas"). It later merged into Nedlloyd, which in turn became part of the world's largest container shipping line, Maersk Line. The perfin's holes are too large for the font size, making the strokes indistinct and distorting some of the letters.

Stamps carrying the perfin of Bin Seng Co. Ltd. (Peters 2008a) glow like a 15th-century perforated Egyptian mosque lamp. Some of the perfins are upright, some are inverted, and the one at bottom right is inverted and reversed. One is a perfect hit, the second from left in the bottom row, and it shows that it is the perfect size for the small-format definitives of the British Empire. The perforator seems to have been single-set and hand-held. The two 2×2 blocks of unseparated stamps (upper left and upper centre) appear to have been punched one stamp at a time instead of being folded and punched all at once. Perhaps this small company did not have too many stamps to punch per day. It looks as if the two stamps in the right-hand column of a given block were punched first, upright, and the block rotated in the hand to punch the remaining two stamps, which would explain why their perfins are upside down. If the block had been flipped instead of rotated, the perfin orientations would be different. The person who did this was probably a right-hander holding the perfin machine lever in the right hand and the stamps in the left. There are four possible orientations of a perfin with respect to the stamp design, assuming no 90° rotations. The author hasn't seen a Malayan perfin with 90° variants.

I initially thought this perfin belonged to the powerful Borneo-Sumatra Trading Company (Turnbull 2022), known in its home language as Borneo-Sumatra Handel Maatschappij or Borsumij. Its headquarters were at The Hague, and branches were scattered throughout the Netherlands East Indies (Grove & Sugiyama 2013). Singapore was its only branch in Malaya. The office was presumably housed in the Borsumij Building on 41 Robinson Road. An advertisement of office space boasted of an electric lift and “all modern conveniences”. Borsumij traded widely on steamships and dealt extensively with Chinese merchants (Campo 2002). It monopolized commodities in the region, from coal and rubber to tobacco to fish and forest products (Campo 2002, Grove & Sugiyama 2013). Using smaller vessels, its agents ventured as far as the upper reaches of remote Bornean rivers.

Damar penak, a resin, was one of the Malayan forest products traded by Borsumij. It was tapped by minimalist native climbers from the tree Balanocarpus heimii (family Dipterocarpaceae) for use as varnish (Meinwald & Messer 1990). Damar from other species of dipterocarp was used for various purposes like sealant for burial jars and fuel for lamps (Meinwald & Messer 1990, Mahdi 2007).

British and Dutch competitors Shell Transport & Trading Company and Royal Dutch Petroleum Company set up a joint venture called the Asiatic Petroleum Co. in 1903 to develop markets in the Far East. Their joint perfin comes with different hole sizes and with letters in varying states of deformation. Turnbull (2022) illustrates an even more deformed example. The lowermost perfin includes what could be a small control hole or code hole in the lower left corner denoting a specific machine, although control holes are usually of the same type as the regular holes. Len Stanway has suggested that it could have been for a pin to align multiple stacked sheets or blocks for punching.

Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which was closely allied with British colonial trade in Asia. It merged with the Standard Bank in Africa in 1969 to become Standard Chartered with headquarters in London. The perfin comes in three different sizes, from (left–right) Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. The Singapore version has stops and in this example exhibits a transitional phase between embossing and perfin, showing spectacular "solar eclipses" of partially punched-out circules (new English word coined by author in 2017) of paper. The rubber stamp was probably added to make it clearer who the stamp belonged to. You don't often see two different security markings on one stamp.

Another variety of the CBI rubber stamp. During the war, the bank’s branches were bombed and used by the Japanese secret police Kempeitai to torture people. When BMA took over, the bank overcame its difficulties, honoured all deposits plus interest and paid eight months’ salary or more to staff who had survived the war (Alan Teh, New Straits Times).

Two different punch dies (see computational analysis) of the perfin of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. The hsbc was involved in the management of colonial government accounts in Penang and Singapore. See McClaren (2004) for more background on the bank and its perfin.

Part of the h in an hsbc perfin. Stamps perfinned in folded blocks sometimes leave their punched-out bits in other stamps facing the opposite way when the block is separated.

The Yokohama Specie Bank had numerous branches in Japan, London, New York, China, India and southeast Asia and was a foreign exchange heavyweight (Yamazaki 1992). Perhaps because of that, it was the paymaster of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II and became the Bank of Tokyo in 1946.

As befits a major international bank, YSB perfins are immaculately punched most of the time, judging from some 30 pieces in the author's collection (see computational analysis). They tend to be nearer to the left side of the stamp, perhaps because of some kind of handedness in machine design or human behaviour.

Ysb perfins on cover, travelling between the Singapore and London branches of the Japanese bank in 1936. Relationships would be complicated by war five years later. (The address lines were made by an addressograph, with perfin-like dot type and small caps.)

Imperial Airways was set up to improve communications with the colonies in the Far East and other regions. It later became part of British Airways.

Perfin-style lettering is sometimes used to project a glitzy image, like the façade of the The Ritz in London. The perceived font size and weight can be tuned by changing the number of dots in a letter. Photo: Lin Yangchen for Agence Coconut-Presse.

McAlister & Company started in 1857 as a pearl auctioneer, but expanded into an agent for everything: wine, cement, pharmaceuticals, fire engines, life insurance. It was acquired in 1971 by and lives on as part of United Engineers Limited.

Perfin of Law Yew Swee & Co., dealer in a wide variety of goods from wines and tobacco to fashion to hardware, construction materials and stationery. Law (1881–1954), born in Penang, set up his business after several years as a civil servant in Kuala Lumpur, which now has a street named after him. These stamps, spanning the reigns of three monarchs, would have been privy to the day-to-day gossip of the company, perhaps from the vantage point of a secretary's drawer. The perfin on the QEII stamp is missing a hole.

The bilateral symmetry arising from the punching of a folded pair.

Security marking of C. K. S. & CO., LTD. on a red coconut definitive reminiscent of an oriental seal on a scissor-cut, hand-typed receipt unlike the usual chits with details written in on pre-printed templates. Hopefully the old piano helped tide its new owner through the war years with the sonatas of Beethoven and the études of Rachmaninoff.

Royal Dutch Shell, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. In 1945, Shell's Danish headquarters in Copenhagen, at the time being used by the Gestapo, was bombed by Mosquitoes from the Royal Air Force. In the 1950s Shell was the first company to use a computer in the Netherlands.

Even today, multinational companies have a hard time negotiating the nooks and crannies of the Malay archipelago. In 2018 Reuters explosively revealed that $150,000,000 of oil had been stolen from Shell over the previous four years. The story was reproduced on the Business cover page of The Straits Times (above). Just imagine what it was like during BMA.

Rubber stamp of the United India Life Assurance Company, on a life insurance certificate—probably not a bad thing to have in the days of BMA. The expression UNITED INDIA was ironic. India suffered the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946, and was soon destined for a split into India and Pakistan.

Municipal Commissioners, Penang. It was in use throughout the Malayan Emergency, despite matching the acronym of the Malayan Communist Party. See the security markings of the Singapore Municipal Commission.

The author was chowing down on a mixed grill at Bosphorus Kebabs in London's South Kensington district when he noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had the same number and arrangement of holes as the letters in the smc and apc perfins. Perhaps this is governed by some universal law of thermodynamics.

One of the last perfins was that of the Singapore Improvement Trust set up in 1927 to clear slums and improve sanitation. The SIT oversaw the construction of Singapore's very first flats to house the growing population. Blocks built in four architectural styles remain standing at Dakota Crescent. The trust was superseded by the Housing Development Board in 1960. On the stamp is the your vote is secret handstamp made for the 1955 general election. It features Latin, Tamil, Chinese and Jawi scripts representing the four main races in the local community that came to live together in the new sit flats. The People’s Action Party was only a year old and Lee Kuan Yew was in the opposition.

See Dewey (1971), Hall (1986, 1987), Giffen (1989, with corrections in The Perfin Society Bulletin (1991) 254:9–10), Lavender (2002), Peters (2008a), Cockburn (2016c) and Turnbull (2022) for documentation of Malayan perfins, Michel Houde's website for an online catalogue, Hill (2015) for a review of perfin production methods, and Lin (2021a) for computational analysis of Malayan perfins. Documentation of Malayan perfins remains incomplete while primary sources are eroding with the passage of time. Forgeries are by no means unknown in the perfin world—some have even been made using the original machines—and it is impossible to be sure without a complete reference of dies and settings. Moreover, it is not clear whether the pins in perfin machines could have been bent or lost with wear and tear, further complicating perfin taxonomy.

I am grateful to Peter Cockburn for comments that improved this article.


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