by Lin Yangchen
   Coconut Correspondent

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

On 22 September 1952, the Students Saving Scheme was launched across Malaya (Lin 2020b). Cards were printed with a large modified coconut definitive on the front, showing three students standing in the vignette holding a sign saying success | security | sufficiency (see Newman 2019, McClellan 2020). The thin outer frame and wide denomination tablets indicate that the design was lifted from one of the Malay state variants. A phonetic transcription of 'Malaya' in Jawi characters (Lin 2021c) takes the place of the state name at the bottom. McClellan (2020) says these cards are "by far the most attractive" compared with savings cards from the Japanese occupation and the 1970s. Students had to paste coconut definitives on the printed boxes on the back of the card. There were cards for different denominations such as 10 cents and 50 cents. Once the card was complete the bank would accept it as deposit.

The coconut design has been reincarnated at least five times on commemorative stamps issued by Singapore in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in what Singapore Post calls the “stamp-on-stamp design concept”. Clockwise from upper left: London 1980, designed by Paul Wee Hui Hong; 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (1995), designed by Chua Ban Har; 150 years of stamps (2004), designed by Sylvia Tan. There were also the commemoratives for the opening of the Singapore Philatelic Museum (1995, designed by Poh Siew Wah) and the opening of Singapore’s new General Post Office (2017, designed by Wong Wui Kong)—see below. Interestingly, Malaysia has never reproduced the coconut definitive on its stamps (catalogues inspected until March 2019), 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.

Printed by Secura Singapore.

The 1980 commemorative carries the earliest 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 glyphs are 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 offset lithography that produced this stamp. 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.

Printed by Koninklijke Joh. Enschedé.

For the war commemorative, care appears to have been taken to select coconut stamps with almost perfectly centered BMA overprints. But the centering of the coconut stamp design with respect to its perforations was not so good. The designer and/or 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.

The Singapore Philatelic Museum commemorative features watercolour paintings of coconut definitives on one of the stamps and on the presentation pack. Owing to the difficulty of articulating fine lines with the brush, the king looks like the grandmotherly Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. It is debatable whether watercolour is an appropriate medium for depicting this kind of subject matter. The stamps were printed by the National Printing Bureau of Japan.

Offset lithography detail of the 2004 issue, with characteristic squished halftone dots.
Printed by the Beijing Stamp Printing House.

The 2017 issue, showing a cover bearing BMA MALAYA 10¢ and 15¢ stamps, affixed to a postcard with first-day cancellation on World Post Day on 9 October with stamp booth cachet. I have never seen these commemoratives in actual postal use, although there surely must have been a few. All the examples I have seen are on first-day covers, presentation packs, eBay mint sets and other philatelic merchandise. The stamps were offset lithographed by Secura Singapore.

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.

The commemorative is a very different stamp from the coconut definitive. It is larger and more cluttered with pictures and small text. 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.

The Universal Coconut Duty Plate has also starred in a few non-postal philatelic roles in modern times.

In 1999, it was the cover page of the 40th-anniversary issue of the journal of the Malaya Study Group. Interestingly, it exhibits the differential focus of the two coconut trees that I discovered on some BMA MALAYA 10¢ stamps (see plate flaws). Reproduced with permission of the editor of The Malayan Philatelist.

In 2016 the coconut design was used as an invitation card and event banner for a “Philately Night” organized by Singapore Post. It appeared to have been derived from a 20-cent blue KGVI stamp with some digital touch-up. The MALAYA at the top was changed to PHILATELY NIGHT (banner) and “8 JULY 2016” (invitation card) in computer-generated sans serif font. The banner, as tall as a man, was probably the biggest coconut print ever made.

In 2019 the coconut definitive was a prominent element in a bus advertisement for the 36th Asian International Stamp Exhibition (SINGPEX).

Fantasy stamp by the author, inspired by the 1990 Double Head Machin commemorating 150 years of postage stamps. This artwork was featured on the cover of the November/December 2020 issue of the Collectors Club Philatelist.


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