On the money trail, from Straits dollar to Malaysian ringgit

Malaysia’s new currency notes presented to the public in 1967 by Tan Siew Sin (then finance minister) and Ismail Ali, the first Malaysian to be Bank Negara governor.

PETALING JAYA: With internet banking and e-wallets becoming more prevalent in the Covid-19 era, many people are moving away from carrying cash.

Yet our nation’s first banknote was a key foundation stone in the formation of Malaysia, bringing together Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak.

Wan Muhammad Danial Wan Omar, curator of the Numismatics Gallery of Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery, sat down with FMT to recount the rich history of Malaysia’s first banknote.

Malaya’s early currency was the Straits dollar, which was replaced by the Malayan dollar using banknotes and coins issued by the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya, formed in 1938.

After the UK Colonial Office took jurisdiction over Sarawak, British North Borneo (now Sabah) and Labuan, the board was replaced by the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo in 1952.

Currency notes issued were for use in Malaya, Singapore, British North Borneo, Sarawak, Labuan and Brunei.

The first series of the Malaysian ringgit. (Bank Negara pic)

Both the words ‘dollar’ and ‘ringgit’ featured on the banknote design for each denomination. The word ‘dollar’ appeared in Roman text and ‘ringgit’ in jawi lettering.

Even after Bank Negara was set up in 1959, the banknotes and coins issued by the currency board remained in circulation until they ceased to be legal tender on Jan 16, 1969.

Muhammad Danial explains: “Bank Negara Malaysia had, since 1961, been making tentative arrangements to take over the issue of currency from the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo.

“The idea of Malaysia, to be formed by the amalgamation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei, had begun to take root.”

However, with Brunei and Singapore later becoming separate independent countries, Malaysia had the task of producing its own currency notes.

Muhammad Danial said this involved working with British banknote printers Bradbury, Wilkinson and Company as well as Thomas de la Rue and Company to come up with a design.

Bank Negara now has a virtual tour called “For the Nation: 60 Years of Central Banking”. (Bank Negara pic)

What followed was the creation of the iconic geometric patterns alongside an image of Malaysia’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, which is still seen on today’s ringgit notes.

He drew attention to a key provision in the amendments to the Central Bank of Malaysia Ordinance passed in 1966, whereby BNM assumed the authority to issue Malaysia’s very first banknote on 12 June 1967.

Five denominations were issued that day: $1, $5, $10, $50 and $100 – followed by a $1,000 note the following year, something unheard of by Malaysians today.

The currency symbol was later changed to RM on Dec 1, 1992.

Another element of those original banknotes was the old spelling in Malay, which presented RM10 as “sa-puloh ringgit,” RM50 as “lima puloh ringgit,” and RM100 as “sa-ratus ringgit.”

This changed after the new spelling system for Bahasa Malaysia was officially implemented five years later, said Muhammad Danial.

“Bank Negara Malaysia began using the new spelling system in the printing of its banknotes but retained the designs.”

Fifty-three years since it came into existence, the ringgit note has undergone four series of changes and its original form is now hard to come by.

For those who wish to see the banknotes’ initial designs in person, Muhammad Danial said they can still be found in the BNM MAG.

Besides its Numismatics Gallery which houses over 2,000 artefacts, the public can also get an exciting close-up look at all four series of banknotes in the RM1 Million Ringgit Tunnel in the Children’s Gallery.

While its doors remain temporarily closed due to the pandemic, its virtual channels are still open to the public who wish to experience BNM MAG through virtual tours and online educational programmes.

Those keen on these virtual tours just need to click www.museum.bnm.gov.my