Z is for Za’aba

by Sam Pei Ying

Pendeta Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Ahmad, also known as Za’aba, was born on 16 September 1895 in Kampung Bukit Kerdas, Negeri Sembilan. He was a writer, philosopher, linguist and politician. He is known for his pursuit for Malay independence through his writings and his works are still vividly remembered by most.

At a young age, Za’aba learned to read and write by practising on banana leaves, using twigs as his pencils. Seeing this, his father gifted him a writing slate and Za’aba learned to sharpen his writing skills further with his father’s encouragement.

At the age of 12 years, he started school at Sekolah Melayu Batu Kikir. Shortly after, his father transferred him to Sekolah Melayu Linggi so he could expand his knowledge in both the Arabic language and Islam, in hopes that his son would further his studies in Egypt or Mecca, eventually returning as an ulama.

However, in 1910, he continued his education at St. Paul’s Institution, and he was the first Malay who passed the Senior Cambridge test in 1915.  Subsequently, Za’aba began his career as a teacher instead. He became a teacher’s assistant at Johor Government English College before transferring to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in 1918. When he was serving as a teacher in MCKK, he started collecting Malay words written in Jawi and consolidating the Malay spelling system, which at that time had various spelling systems. He also incorporated English grammar and Arabic words into the Malay language. He published Pan Malayan Malay Literary in an effort to standardise Jawi spelling.

His work, ‘Pelita Bahasa Melayu’, became a major reference book for the community who wished to learn the Malay language at the time. He also contributed to Journal of Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) in his efforts to introduce the Malay language to foreigners. Suffice to say, Za’aba was a person who devoted himself in expanding the Malay language and literature beyond Malaya and Sumatera.

Image source: Universiti Malaya Library

As a writer, he started questioning the backwardness of the Malay community under the British colonial government. As such, Za’aba’s writings went beyond to other fields such as economics, religion, and the attitude of the Malays themselves, which was largely influenced by colonial powers. He wrote about poverty and touched on how to overcome the economy of the Malay community. Za’aba’s first article was published twice by Utusan Melayu, titled ‘Temasya Mandi Safar di Tanjung Kling’.

Following Za’aba’s expertise in language, he served as a translator to assist British officers in preparing school textbooks for Malay schools. During the Japanese Occupation, he was transferred to the Department of Information as translator for the Japanese to write books, which were used in Malaya and Sumatera. After the Japanese surrender, Za’aba returned to Kuala Lumpur and continued his work as a translator and interpreter for the Malay language dictionary.

A portrait of Za’aba at the National Museum, Malaysia.

The Malayan Union was established when the British returned to Malaya, but it was resisted by the Malay community. The resistance was led by Dato’ Onn Jaafar and subsequently, he established the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in an effort to unite the Malay community. At that time, Za’aba was elected as the first Secretary-General of UMNO, but he did not hold the position for long as his passion was in writing.

Undoubtedly, his interest in writing continued after leaving UMNO. He began to translate books from English to the Malay language such as stories written by William Shakespeare and these books were published in Singapore.

He later became a lecturer for Malay language at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1947; while teaching, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Malay and Arabic studies in 1953.

After returning to Malaya, he held the position as Senior Lecturer and became the first Head of the Department of Malay Studies at University of Malaya, Singapore in 1953. Together with Ungku Aziz, they established ‘Pertubuhan Bahasa Pelajar’ and ‘Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu’ Universiti Malaya, an association to uphold Malay language and literature.

Za’aba’s contribution to Malay language and literature shall not be forgotten easily. He was a teacher, a translator, and one of the individuals responsible for planning school curriculum. He was the source of inspiration that illuminated darkness of poverty in the world of Malay education.

 Za’aba died at the age of 78 on 23 October 1973.


  1. ‘Ketokohan Za’ba Bermula dari Penulisan di atas Pelepah Pisang’, Malaysiakini, 25 July 2020. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/536028 (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  2. ‘Zainal Abidin Bin Ahmad (Za’aba)’, Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia, 8 October 2019. Available at https://www.yadim.com.my/v2/zainal-abidin-bin-ahmad-zaba/ (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  3. Hussain (2000) Pendeta Za’ba dalam Kenangan, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

Y is for Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA)

by Casper Kaun


Malaysia is unique among the countries of the world as it adopts the constitutional monarchy system through a parliamentary democracy. The Head of State in nine of its component States is a constitutional monarch, a Malay ruler, known as Sultan, Raja (Perlis), or Yang di-Pertuan Besar (Negeri Sembilan), while the other four states (Melaka, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak) are represented by a Yang di-Pertua Negeri, or Governor.

The nine royal houses of Malaysia are Kedah, Perlis, Selangor, Perak, Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. At least one of the nine royal houses can trace its lineage as far back as 800 years. Malay kingship can be traced to the pre-Islamic period when they had systematic system of governance.

The birth of the modern Malaysian Monarchy followed the inception of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. This united the nine Malay states and the former straits settlements of Penang and Melaka and was the stepping-stone to independence in 1957. It was at independence that the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA), or paramount ruler, was elected as the Head of State, from and by the Malay rulers for a five-year term.

The first YDPA was Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Almarhum Tuanku Muhammad of Negeri Sembilan, and the current YDPA (16th YDPA to date) is Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah of Pahang.

This appointment is systematic and each of the nine Sultans has the opportunity to ascend the throne of YDPA based on his turn in the cycle. This arrangement has been important in playing a substantive role in forging national unity.

Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Negeri Sembilan, the first YDPA of the country. Image attribution: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Role of the King

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is a symbol of unity. His role is that of a constitutional monarch. The extent of his powers as the Federal Head of State is defined in the Federal Constitution and Parliamentary Acts.

  1. Appointments
    • The YDPA has the executive power to appoint the Prime Minister. With the Prime Ministers help and advice, the YDPA appoints the other members of the cabinet. He also has the power to dissolve the cabinet and elect the members of the election commission.
    • The YDPA also appoints the Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governors), of the states of Penang, Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak, at his discretion, after considering the advice of the state’s Chief Minister. The YDPA also appoints the Mayor and City Council of Kuala Lumpur, which is a Federal Territory.
  2. Head of Islam
    • Under the Federal and State constitutions, the YDPA and the Rulers of the Malay States are the heads of Islam, the religion of the Federation.
  3. Safeguarding Malay and Indigenous Rights
    • The Rulers also have the constitutional responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities. The indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak are afforded the same special position as the Malays under the guardianship of the YDPA.
  4. Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces
    • The YDPA is the Supreme Commander of the Federation’s Armed Forces.As Supreme Commander, the YDPA appoints the Chief of the Armed Forces Staff alongside the service heads of each of the three branches of the military forces.
  5. Judiciary
    • The YDPA also has the power to grant pardons and appoints the Chief Justice of the Federal Court.
The Oath of Office of His Majesty, the XV Yang di-Pertuan Agong

Appointment of the King

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is formally elected to a five-year term by and from among the nine rulers of the Malay states (nine of the thirteen states of Malaysia that have royal rulers), who form the Conference of Rulers known as Majlis Raja-raja. After a ruler had served as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, he may not stand for election until all rulers of the other states have also stood for election.

In the event of a vacancy of the office (by death, resignation, or deposition by a majority vote of the rulers), the Conference of Rulers elects a new Yang di-Pertuan Agong as if the previous term had expired. The new Yang di-Pertuan Agong is elected for a full five-year term. The position rotates among the nine Rulers. The selection of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong initially followed an order based on the seniority (calculated

The Letter of Appointment of His Majesty, the XV Yang di-Pertuan Agong

Coronation of the King

During his coronation, he will be presented with a Quran, to symbolize that he is the head of Islam of the country. The Prime Minister will read a proclamation of installation whereupon the newly appointed YDPA will be given a long royal Kris as a symbol of his commitment to the protection of the Malays and to serving the interests of the nation as a whole. Then the YDPA is presented with an oath that he will read and sign in the presence of all the rulers and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will then read a message of felicitation and pledge of loyalty to the new YDPA on behalf of government and the people.

Queen Consort

The Queen Consort is known as the Raja Permaisuri Agong. She represents Malaysian women at the highest level. According to the Federal Constitution, the Raja Permaisuri Agong shall take precedence next after the YDPA over all other persons in the Federation. Just like the YDPA, the Raja Permaisuri Agong is not allowed to hold any appointment carrying any remuneration or actively engage in any commercial enterprise.

Deputy YDPA

The Deputy YDPA, also known as Timbalan Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is to assume the role of the YDPA during a vacancy in that office or under any other circumstances enumerated in the Federal Constitution. There have been a few circumstances in which the Deputy YDPA had to assume the YDPA’s office throughout the years. The Deputy YDPA holds office for five years and may resign from office by writing under his own hand addressed to the Conference of Rulers.

Conference of Rulers

The Conference of Rulers, also known as ‘Majlis Raja-Raja,’ began with the first Durbar that was first held to convene British Officers and the Rulers of the Federated Malay States (FMS). The states are Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. The Durbar initially served as a type of consultative and advisory council; it also served to improve relations between the Malay Rulers and the British Officials. The Durbar was later replaced by the Conference of Rulers where the first meeting took place on 15th February 1948.

Today, the Conference of Rulers includes the nine Rulers of the Malay States and four Yang di-Pertua Negeri. However, the four Yang di-Pertua Negeri are not involved for matters relating to the election of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, his removal and so on. The chairmanship of the Conference of Rulers rotates among the rulers. These Rulers are each accompanied by their respective Chief Minister (Menteri Besar). On the second day of each meeting, the YDPA is accompanied by the Prime Minister.

According to the Federal Constitution, the Conference of Rulers plays an important role in the constitutional process. The main functions and power of the Conference of Rulers are: electing the YDPA and Deputy YDPA; agree and disagree to any religious Acts religious observances or ceremonies to the Federation as a whole; consenting or withholding consent to any law and giving advice on any appointments that requires the Conference of Ruler’s consent; appointing members of the Special Court (court of justice for offenses committed by the YDPA or any Malay Rulers); and granting pardons, reprieves, and respites, or remitting, suspending, or commuting sentences.

Any amendments to the constitution that affects the Ruler’s privileges, position, honour or dignities will not become law without consent of the Conference of Rulers. The Conference of Rulers provides and effective forum for consultation, participation, and in some cases sanction of the Federal-State relationship, thus reinforcing the concept of Federation.

Tengkolok diraja (royal headdress). The headdress worn by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong follows the design of ‘Dendam Tak Sudah’ (Unending Vengeance), but it is black with gold embroidery.


The Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia plays a unique role, as he is the embodiment of the nation’s history and tradition. His Majesty not only plays an important role in national unity, but also shapes the relationship between state, people and law.


The Rulers of Malaysia, Editorial Advisory Board chaired by Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid

Display at Gallery D, Muzium Negara.


DZULKIFL, F. Z. & MOHD ZAMERI, N. D. 2010. The Functions of Constitutional Monarchy in Malaysian Political System: Th e Perceptions of Malay Community. Proceedings Seminar on Nasional Resilience (SNAR 2010) “Political Managements and Policies in Malaysia”, 353-369.

Ampun Tuanku: A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government, Zaid Ibrahim, 2012

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

X is for Xing Bao

by Dennis Ong

A star was born on Saint Valentine’s feast day in 1890 – the Xing Bao (also Sing Pau, Sing Po or Sing Poh), literally Star Newspaper, or Xing Newspaper – “Xing” as in Xing Jia Po or Xing Zhou (variations of the word for Singapore in Chinese). The first issue of this eight-page spread came hot off the press at the Koh Yew Hean Press located at Nos. 100, 101 and 102 Teluk Ayer Street, Singapore.

Published daily, except on Sundays and public holidays, the newspaper’s political agenda has been described as either vague or unclear, although it did take on a pro-China political stance while retaining its commercial interests as a business. Politically strategic and functional at the same time, it displayed three dating systems on its front page – the imperial calendar showing the regnal calendar of the Chinese emperor, the lunar calendar, and the Gregorian calendar. From this, we are able to take a learned guess of the composition of its target market and the general cosmopolitanism of the area in which the newspaper was circulated.

Layout and components of the newspaper’s front page.
Source: NUS Digital Libraries, https://libportal.nus.edu.sg/frontend/ms/sing-po/index

Through Huang Nai Siang’s contribution as chief writer of Xing Bao, readers had for themselves a medium through which they could be informed and ponder about the current affairs in China while better understand their civic roles within the local Chinese community. Alongside him was Lin Hengnan (a.k.a Lim Kong Chuan), founder and editor of the newspaper. Lin, who was also the father-in-law of Dr Wu Lien-Teh and Dr Lim Boon Keng, both distinguished personalities in Malaya-Singapore, likely envisioned Xing Bao to share the same entrepreneurial optimism he had for Koh Yew Hean Press. This press had been well known for its respected printing and publishing repertoire, such as the Tong Yi Xin Yu, a Chinese-Malay dictionary published in 1877, which secured a reprint in 1883 as Hua Yi Tong Yu; the first volume of the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1897; and the second edition of Hikayat Abdullah in 1880.

A spread of the Xing Bao newspaper dated 4 November 1890.
Source: NUS Digital Libraries, https://libportal.nus.edu.sg/frontend/ms/sing-po/index

From the song ti font of the individual Chinese characters and the meticulous, strict typesetting in the content, we can very certainly tell that Xing Bao was printed using the letterpress printing technique – a technique that although was mechanised still relied on the skilful and tedious attention of the printer to align the letterpresses, to say the least. On the other hand, a striking visual contrast is conjured in its branding where a thicker kai ti font is used for the newspaper’s masthead. Content wise, it was evidently written in relatively modern classical Chinese style. Characteristic of classical Chinese literature, Xing Bao’s contents boasted no punctuation marks albeit with sparring section breaks between titles and sections, with vertical and horizontal lines, white spaces or with advertising visuals. Helpful to one while navigating the pages, the newspaper came with a simple table of contents.

The story of Xing Bao cannot be disassociated from Koh Yew Hean Press, which remained in business for over a century until 2006. The last reported owner of the Koh Yew Hean Press was Zhang Gensong, who revealed that the 70-80 year-old business had been managed by his family – his father and grandfather. Over the course of over a century, the business had put up its book press, hand press, lithographing machines, cutting, perforating and rolling machines, and English and Chinese type for auction at least two to three times. By comparison, Xing Bao was short-lived, being in circulation for roughly nine years until 1898 and succeeded by Rixin Bao of the same Press, for just four years. While the peak of its daily circulation at 970 in 1896, beating Lat Pau, it was Lat Pau (founded in 1881 by See Ewe Lay) that fared better at the endurance category, having lasted in business for 52 years. Be it Xing Bao or Lat Pau, these newspapers played a crucial role as a source of information and a vehicle to transport ideas, not only for those in the past but also those in the present, in a way, they are our time-machines.

Koh Yew Hean Press when it was located at No. 18 North Bridge Road, Singapore. Source: PictureSG, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/pictures/Details/0f0f51b9-c15c-4ed4-9355-c097eaa4b711

You can access digitised copies of Xing Bao in the digital realm here: https://digitalgems.nus.edu.sg/collection/1524


Jaime Koh, Koh Yew Hean Press, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2016-04-06_161840.html

Bonny Tan, Lat Pau (Le Bao), https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_33_2005-01-11.html

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

W is for Wickham

by Fazlin Azrimi Abu Hassan and Dennis Ong

The history of planting rubber trees or Hevea brasiliensis in the Malay Peninsula does not date back very far. We think of rubber when we talk about British botanist Sir Henry Wickham. There was a time when demand for rubber was elevated by industrialisation and the rubber business boomed when British inventors Charles Macintosh and Thomas Hancock figured out how to make good raincoats from rubberized fabric.

A photograph of Sir Henry Wickham.
Source: Library of Congress, USA

Later, due to the properties of rubber, which melted in hot weather and was stiff in the cold, an American inventor named Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation process by accident in 1839 after dropping some latex in sulphur. The vulcanisation process essentially allowed rubber to become more durable and elastic, thus making it more attractive for commercial use. While capitalists and inventors saw great potential, the biggest problem with rubber, however, was that there was still a scarcity of the material. At the time, the world’s rubber was mainly harvested in South America and Africa.

That was about to change in 1876 when about 70,000 rubber seeds wrapped in banana leaves arrived in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. Collected by locals at its source in the hills and plateau in Boim, Brazil, the seeds were purchased at a price of £10 per 100. The expedition was financed by the government of (British) India, and led by Wickham who was then 30 years old.

A sketch of Wickham as a young man.
Source: http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Bearing the responsibility to re-establish his family’s fortune after his father’s death due to a cholera epidemic, the option to become a planter during that time was one of few viable options to get rich. Finding rubber trees in the Amazon for Britain proved to be promising. Wickham had experience in the Amazon prior to Boim. At 20 years old, he embarked on an exploration in Central America and spent nine months collecting exotic birds whose feathers had been sold and appropriated for millinery use. Subsequently, he returned home and revisited the Amazon where he tapped wild rubber trees as part of his adventure. One can very much see that Wickham had an appetite for thrill and exploration.

Life happened and he married a woman named Violet. It is commonly believed that the publishing business Violet’s family ran helped make Wickham’s travels possible. Wickham’s interest in the Amazon evinced in the first book he published, which has a rather long title: Rough Notes of a Journey Through the Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cataracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro.

A back profile of a woman believed to be Violet, whom Wickham had sketched in some of his journals. She was in Wickham’s company to Boim whence the rubber seeds were collected. Source: http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Britain’s intention was simple – to germinate the seeds and plant them for rubber. Soon enough, botanists at Kew successfully germinated some 2,800 seeds. Most of the lot was sent to Ceylon, Singapore, and Java. Then came H.N. Ridley (aka “Mad Ridley”), a botanist at the Singapore Botanic Gardens who zealously propounded the idea of planting rubber as a cash crop. Although there were supplies of seeds, no planters took up cultivation with the exception of Thomas Heslop Hill in Negeri Sembilan. In 1897, the price of rubber shot up. This coupled with recommendations by experts in Ceylon and elsewhere led many planters to begin planting rubber trees. Convinced by Ridley’s proposal, Tan Chay Yan started the first rubber plantation in Malaya with seven million seeds.

Despite the thriving industry in the Far East, Wickham suffered significant drawbacks in his life. This included having to pay his debts from loss of possession during his period in Queensland where he planted tobacco and coffee. He then clinched a position as a civil servant in British Honduras. Wickham’s constantly wandering mind yet again got the better of him when he was slapped with a legal problem, which forced him to sell his property, upon which, he returned to Britain. Undeterred, he ventured into other prospects but failed. During these times, Wickham continued to suggest recommendations cultivating rubber trees and even proposed several tools for rubber tapping. However, his ideas were deemed either unsuitable or as impractical failures.

H.N.Ridley with an assistant posing next to a rubber tree tapped using the herringbone method. Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Henry_Nicholas_Ridley

Necessity is the mother of invention. The herringbone method for tapping rubber trees was introduced by H.N. Ridley. It left V-shaped channels on the trunk, removing only a thin layer of bark each time, thus allowing a smooth flow of latex. The methods became so efficient that latex can be collected three times a day. On the flip side, this also meant that labourers in the industry were at the mercy of ensuring efficiency and productivity. They were also subject to potential risks at the workplace. To say the least, the industry was reliant on a constant stream of labour to maintain its processes.

Three photographs depicting Indian labourers who made up the majority of the manpower of the rubber industry in Malaya. These labourers were recruited based on the Kangani system and were largely subject to unfair exploitation. The subject of class and employment power structure often form the crux of the historical debate in topics relating to colonial economy.
Source: https://aliran.com/thinking-allowed-online/the-real-story-behind-those-faded-photos-of-tamil-plantation-workers-in-malaya/

At the end of 1905, there were 40,000 acres of planted rubber trees in the Federated Malay States and more than 85,000 at the close of 1906. By January 1907, there were 10,000,000 trees planted. The output of dry rubber was about 130 tons in 1905 and three times as much in 1906.

By 1910, Malaya was one of the biggest producers of rubber. Expectedly, the combined production of rubber across Britain’s colonies exceeded that of Brazil’s, causing it to lose its monopoly in the rubber industry.

A fun fact about the rubber tree cultivated for latex.
Source: Wonder Book of Rubber, 1947.

However, there has been a debate about whether Wickham’s actions qualify as an unethical act of smuggling or an act of formal exchange between governments. Laying out the facts, sources have described that Wickham had misrepresented his cargo as ‘exceedingly delicate botanical specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s own Royal Gardens at Kew’ in order to be granted permission to export.

Notwithstanding the trials and tribulations in Wickham’s life, he was knighted for “Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East”. Wickham passed away in 1928, regretfully perhaps, with an unfulfilled dream for enterprise.

Bust of Wickham at Muzium Negara.


Bouncing Balls. (n.d.). Sir Henry Alexander Wickham. Bouncing Balls. http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Schurz, William Lytle; Hargis, O.D.; Manifold, Courtland Brenneman & Marbut, Curtis Fletcher. (1925). Rubber Production in the Amazon Valley (p. 169). Washington, Govt. Print. Office.

Sims, Shannon. (2015). The Rubber Thief of Brazil. OXY. https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/the-rubber-thief-of-brazil/60424/

Veloo Saminathan. (2020). The real story behind those faded photos of Tamil plantation workers in Malaya. Aliran. https://aliran.com/thinking-allowed-online/the-real-story-behind-those-faded-photos-of-tamil-plantation-workers-in-malaya/

Wright, ArnoldCartwright, H. A. (1908). Twentieth century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company, Limited.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

V is for VOC Plate

by Daniela Barrier

From Portuguese carracks to Japanese kilns, the power of a company logo

This blue and white porcelain plate is showcased in Gallery C of the National Museum, Malaysia. It sits on a marble-topped wooden table, a typical furnishing of a Dutch family home in Melaka during the Dutch occupation (1641-1795, then 1818-1825). The so called “VOC plate” itself was probably part of a complete porcelain service. These services were used by officers of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC) throughout their colonies, imparting status to the owner and contributing to the dissemination of the VOC’s brand image.

The VOC plate at Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

Surrounded by flowers, fruit and deer motifs, the VOC monogram stands out in the centre – a lean capital V with a superposing O on the left and C on the right. It was perhaps the contrast of its clear, simple lines (one could say, almost contemporary) with the exuberant details of the baroque style monograms of the time, which turned the VOC logo into one of the first worldwide recognisable company labels. It was applied with no parsimony to most VOC possessions and everyday objects, from building facades and canons to swords, coins and plates such as the one in Gallery C. [1]

VOC logo on various objects
top-left: VOC logo on a sword. Musée de l’armée, Paris, France.
top-right: Façade of the Castle of Good Hope, South Africa. Image credit: Martinvl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-left: VOC logo on a coin, circa 1760. Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-right: Canon with VOC logo, 1764, Port of Dejima, Nagasaki, Japan. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers have written extensively on the VOC’s innovative business model, considering it the forbearer of modern corporations (the VOC was the world’s first formally listed public company). The VOC’s idea of producing porcelain services with its own mark on them, however, might have been borrowed from the Portuguese and from a different type of company: The Society of Jesus (or the Jesuit Order, founded in 1540).

Jesuits are thought to be at the source of the introduction of new techniques and of European scenes on Chinese porcelain, in particular under Emperor K’ang Hsi (1654-1722), who held Jesuit priests in high regard (one Father Thomas Cardosa was a personal friend of the emperor and was appointed a mandarin of the highest rank). During this period, it became more and more fashionable in Europe, amongst nobles and high-level clergy, to have their coat of arms painted on their porcelain services and to order specific designs from potters in China. Huge quantities of undecorated porcelain began to be shipped from Jingdezhen (Ching-te-chen) kilns to Canton where they were painted under the supervision of European agents and re-fired.

From left to right:

  • Pedro de Farias bowl, 1541, captain major of Melaka. Portuguese nobles had their coat-of-arms painted on Chinese porcelain.
  • Jesuit Chinese Vase with Company of Jesus monogram, circa 1800. Image credit: Nicolas Fournery.
  • Late 18th century plate in European style with VOC ships. White painted porcelain from Jingdezhen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Kraak porcelain from Japan

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, with more and more Dutch trade ships anchoring in Asian ports, the Portuguese monopoly on porcelain trade was broken. In 1602, the Portuguese carrack Sao Tiago was captured by the Dutch and its porcelain cargo taken back to Holland for the first time. The carrack Santa Maria suffered the same fate in the Straits of Melaka a year later, its cargo being sold to European royals, including Henri IV, king of France, and King James I of England. The Dutch named them kraak porselein because the Portuguese ships in which they were found were called carracks.

Between 1602 and 1682, VOC ships delivered three million pieces of porcelain to Holland and over 12 million were distributed over the Dutch East Indies, of which approximately eighty percent were blue and white wares (kraak) [2].

Kraak blue and white porcelain were thus mostly associated with the Dutch East India Company. They were made of fine porcelain with cobalt blue decorations under a shiny and slightly bluish glaze, and had central themes which included flowers, birds, insects and deer, as well as having the well and the rim of the dish treated as one and divided into panels that were mostly filled with flowers and symbolic motifs.

Like European royals, Japanese tea masters also ordered kraak pieces (called fuyode ware in Japan) from China, which were transported to Japan on VOC ships. These ended up being copied by Japanese artisans and sold all over Europe, often for higher prices than the Chinese originals. However, there was one design the Japanese only produced for the Dutch India offices: it was overall similar to other karrak designs, only it had the VOC logo in the centre. These wares were usually small – less than twenty centimetres in diameter – but some pieces were larger and measured fifty centimetres or more across. That is very likely the provenance of the VOC plate displayed at the National Museum.

VOC plate produced in Japan, late 17th century. In the collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

[1] In The Portuguese Porcelain Trade with China, by Jorge Graca, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

[2] In Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company, by T. Volker, cited in Chinese Ceramics carried by The Dutch East India Company, by Effie B. Allison, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

U is for UMNO Kuala Kangsar’s Letter

by V. Jegatheesan

Achieving independence from the British was a significant moment in Malaysia’s history. The three political parties, United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), had formed the Alliance Party and won the first General Election on 27 July 1955. This was a clear mandate given by the people to the Alliance to fulfil their commitment to gain independence within four years.

On 1 January 1956, the then Chief Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, leading a large delegation, sailed to Karachi from Singapore and then flew to London. Negotiations began on 18 January 1956 and it is remarkable that the negotiations ended after just three weeks on 8 February 1956, with Britain agreeing to independence for Malaya, as it was at that time. The agreement was signed on 11 February 1956. The delegation then flew directly to Singapore arriving on 19 February 1956.

It is common knowledge that Tunku Abdul Rahman went to Melaka the next day on 20 February 1956 to announce that Malaya had been given independence. In front of a rousing crowd on Padang Bandar Hilir, recorded as 100,000, he announced that Malaya’s Independence Day would be 31 August 1957.

Tunku Abdul Rahman at Dato’ Sir Tan Cheng Lock’s house before leaving for Padang Bandar Hilir, Malacca

But why Melaka and not Kuala Lumpur, which was the Federal Capital? The average Malaysian will assume that Tunku decided on this himself. However, this just may not be the case.

Among the various images on the information boards about Malaya’s Road to Independence in Gallery D – beside the picture of Tunku with Dato’ Sir Tan Cheng Lock’s family and just above the glass cases with newspaper clippings – is a letter from UMNO Kuala Kangsar. Dated 14 January 1956, the letter is from the UMNO Secretary of the Kuala Kangsar Branch to the Secretary General of UMNO Malaya. The subject is ‘Return of the Independence Delegation from England’.

The following is a translation of the letter.

The Working Committee had an urgent meeting on Friday 13 January 1956 and an agreement was made as follows:

This branch has resolved that the UMNO Malaya Headquarters urgently send a wire (telegram) to London, requesting that when the delegation headed by Y.A.M Tengku Abdul Rahman Putra brings along the date of independence of Malaya from England, they should arrive in Malacca.

This resolution has been made after carefully weighing considerations and taking into account the politics in respect of the history of Malacca as follows:

(a) Raise the status of the history of the Malay Empire of Malacca.
(b) The statement “Never will the Malays disappear from this world” was originated in Malacca by Laxamana Hang Tuah, a gallant and mighty Malay warrior who fought for the nation and homeland.
(c) It was in Malacca that western colonisation was enforced in our homeland on 11 July 1511. 
(d) It was on the collapse of Malacca that the soul of our independence awoke, according to a Malay leader, Dr. Burhannudin Al-Hilmy in 1946.
(e) UMNO had 100% in the General Elections resulting in Y.A.M Tengku Abdul Rahman Putra to be sent to England is also the decision of the Emergency General Meeting of UMNO Malaya in Malacca
(f) For these reasons, let the date of independence be brought to Malacca

However, UMNO Branch Kuala Kangsar is confident that this suggestion will receive support from UMNO all over Malaya.

The letter is signed by Haji Meor Samsudin, Secretary of the UMNO Kuala Kangsar Branch.

Tunku would surely have been informed of this letter by way of that telegram. But it will never be known if Tunku made this decision based on this letter or whether he had it in his mind all along. Tunku being Tunku, we will never know!

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

T is for Tiles

by Farida Jamal

According to a 2003 publication, 40 Tahun Muzium Negara 1963-2003, construction of the National Museum was initiated in 1958 by the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. It was to be a showcase of the heritage and history of the nation, incorporating Malay architectural traditions and motifs. The third Yang di Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Syed Putra Al- Haj ibni Almarhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail, officially opened the museum on 31 August 1963. Over the years, it has expanded and undergone several renovations. The single-storied original building currently comprises the entrance hall to the four main galleries. Its original tiled floor has also been preserved and is a stunning tapestry in ceramic. Although an integral part of the overall ambience of the museum, the floor tiles speak of their foreign origin.

Exquisitely hand crafted, the eggshell white tiles with azure and ink blue motifs measure 12 by 12 inches. They are laid out in repeated square motifs formed by four tiles and each motif measures 2 by 2 feet. Within the hall, there are thirty- four motifs lengthwise and twenty-four motifs along the width, covering 3264 square feet of the floor. The remaining original stretch of the floor has been incorporated in the landing platform outside of the front entrance. This is a rectangular space, which is partitioned into three sections by two latticed brick- walls. The tiles cover 240 square feet of the floor area, and each section displays twenty motifs. Beneath the two-latticed walls, one can discover the origin of the tiles through marble plaques laid out on the floor, in Bahasa Malaysia and in English. The tiles were a gift from the Government of Pakistan.

Nawabzada General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi was the first High Commissioner of Pakistan to Malaysia (1957-1962). As the construction of the museum began during the same period, it is likely that he was instrumental in facilitating the gift of floor tiles from his government. National gestures of goodwill are a part and parcel of diplomacy, but often involves special people and special relationships. A Google search on Sher Ali Khan Pataudi revealed a remarkable personality and an extraordinary life. Born an Indian prince, he had studied at Sandhurst, was in the Indian armed forces and had opted to move to Pakistan when India was partitioned in 1947. Ten years later, aged 43, Sher Ali Khan retired from the army and he was appointed Pakistan’s first High Commissioner to the newly liberated country, Malaysia.

In one of his books, The Story of Soldiering and Politics in India and Pakistan, the retired general turned scholar described his years as a diplomat. He and his family had made many friends in Malaysia and developed special friendships with YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra and members of Malaysian royalty. Sher Ali Khan does not mention the gift of museum tiles in his book, though. Documents pertaining to the construction of the National Museum at the National Archives may contain some information. In the meantime, the floor tiles of the museum foyer remain a token of this special relationship and continue to delight and surprise visitors.


Farida Jamal. (2016, 18 September). Beyond a Gift of Friendship Plush Heritage, New Sunday Times, pp. 6-7.

Jabatan Muzium dan Antikuiti. (2003). 40 Tahun Muzium Negara 1963-2003.

Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan Patuadi. (1988). The Story of Soldiering and Politics in India and Pakistan (3rd Edition). Syed Mobin Mahumud & Co.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

S is for Sukhothai & Si Satchanalai

by Karen Loh

The Cities

Location of the old cities of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai.
Image credit: Kamarul Shah B. Bakar, Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia.

The old city of Sukhothai is situated along the Yom River, one of the main tributaries of the Chao Phraya River, in the northeastern part of modern day Thailand. The city started out as a small settlement outpost under the Khmer Empire (802-1431 CE), with the design of its temples, building structures and canals very much influenced by Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer empire. The Empire began to weaken in the early 13th century, following the death of their ruler, Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 CE). Seeing a weakened regime, the people of Sukhothai soon started challenging their overlords. Under the leadership of Si Inthrahit (also known as Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao), and together with his friend and ally, Pho Khun Pha Meung, the people of Sukhotai started to gather their forces, rose up and revolted against Khmer rule. They finally succeeded in driving the Khmers out in 1250 CE, thereafter establishing the Kingdom of Sukhothai. The capital city was also called Sukhothai, meaning Dawn of Happiness, and Si Inthrahit was crowned their first king. In Thai historiography, Sukhothai is considered the first kingdom in Thailand.

Sukhothai. Image credit: © Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sisatchanalai or Si Satchanalai was another Khmer outpost located 55 kilometres north of Sukhothai city, along Yom River. This city was formerly called Chalieng, meaning “city of good people”. Si Satchanalai rose to importance as an associated city to Sukhothai after the people’s independence from the Khmers. However, it was not until the reign of the kingdom’s third king, Pho Khun Ram Kham Haeng (1279-1299 CE) that the society, administration, religion and arts in the kingdom of Sukhothai flourished. In addition, the invention of the Thai alphabet in 1283 marked this period as Sukhothai’s Golden Era. Si Satchanalai reached her peak prosperity during the reign of Phra Maha Dhamaraja I (1347-1374 CE).

The 13th Century Thai City of Si Satchanalai. Image credit: Gary Todd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sukhotai & Si Satchanalai: export-oriented pottery centres

Left and centre: Si Satchanalai Celadon dish, and jarlet recovered from the Royal Nanhai shipwreck c1460 CE. Right: Si Satchanalai bowl recovered from the Nanyang shipwreck c1380 CE.
Note: Please refer to L is for Longquan to look at more Si Satchanalai ceramics

The 14th and 15th centuries saw many large potting centres producing Thai ceramics, mainly stoneware, scattered across the northern part of Thailand. During this time, the Thai kilns around the city of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai (also known as Sawankhalok) flourished, exporting ceramics in large quantities as evidence of Thai ceramics can be found across South East Asia and from shipwrecks salvaged around the region. Sukhothai kilns produced mostly underglaze black ware, which were very similar in design and decoration to the pots made in the Cizhou kilns in northern China centuries earlier. Popular designs from the Sukhothai kilns were underglaze black plates decorated with lively fish with an arched back and tail thrown upwards, flower or cakra or starburst motifs, and various upright shapes like vases, bottles, jars with underglaze black fish or flower motifs.

The Si Satchanalai kilns on the other hand produced mostly celadon ware: dishes, bowls, and ring-handled jars in various sizes. At the height of its celadon production, the Si Satchanalai potters were producing high quality celadon ware, decorated with incised lotus petals, lotus blossoms, and chrysanthemum flowers on dishes with foliated mouth rims and similar incised lotus and chrysanthemum flowers on the bigger ring-handled jars. Many of these jars were completed with beautifully carved vertical striations on the lower body.

Other famous kiln sites producing Thai ceramics, mainly storage jars, were situated at Singburi (also known as Maenam Noi) and Suphanburi.

Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai ceramics at Gallery B, Muzium Negara, recovered from the Turiang (c. 1370).
5: Si Satchanalai vase with vertical striations.
6: Sukhothai black glazed decorated flower dish.
7: Si Satchanalai black glazed ring-handled jar.
8: Sukhothai black glazed decorated jar.
9: Si Satchanalai green glazed ring-handled bottle.

The Ming Gap

Questions have been raised on why Thai ceramics only began to be exported towards the end of the 14th century. One of the reasons might be due to the first Haijìn (Ming ban or Sea ban;1371-1509 CE), a policy ordered by Ming Dynasty’s first Emperor, Hongwu in 1371 CE where all exports and private overseas trading were prohibited. The Emperor proclaimed that all merchant ships were to be destroyed and anyone caught smuggling goods out of China would be executed. It is believed that these isolationist policies caused many of the Chinese potters and Chinese shipbuilders to migrate to various cities or towns in Southeast Asia to continue their trade. In her book, The Ceramics of South-East Asia, Their Dating and Identification, Roxanna Brown wrote that the migration of the potters may have actually started earlier, i.e. during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) under Mongol rule, where many Song Chinese sought refuge in the Sukhothai kingdom. Evidence of this could be found through the trade route. She wrote in her book, “It is about this time, the end of the thirteenth or by the middle of the fourteenth century, at any rate, that Sukhothai’s ceramics industry moves from being purely domestic to testing itself on international South-East Asian market. The local potters could not have done this on their own. Somehow they were linked to the Chinese Trade network; and this must have been done by the Chinese. For Thai ceramics appear at the same South-East Asian sites as Chinese wares; the Thai did not forge new trading routes”.

There is an ongoing study on whether the trading of Thai ceramics began before or after the founding the new Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya(1351-1767 CE). It is also interesting to note that there was an absence of blue and white ware from the Thai kilns. A valid explanation may be that cobalt, the blue pigment used by Chinese kilns at Jingdezhen from around the 1320s to produce blue and white porcelain, is a relatively rare mineral. Cobalt may have been difficult to acquire and was expensive, while iron, the black oxide used in underglaze black ware was common and plentiful in Sukhothai. The last of the kilns in the old kingdom of Sukhothai finally closed down after the Burmese invasion in the 1580s. It is reported in the Glass Palace Chronicle of Burma that their ruler, King Bayinnaung (1516-1581 CE) ordered all the artists, artisans, and craftsmen of Sukhothai kingdom to be relocated and settled in Pegu (today Bago).

Stylistic evolution of Si Satchanalai dishes from four shipwrecks arranged in chronological order (from the Kildegaard Galbo collection):
a) Turiang c1370 CE
b) Nanyang c1380 CE
c) Longquan c1400 CE
d) Royal Nanhai c1460 CE
Image credit: Sten Sjostrand, Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia.


Brown, Roxanna M. (2000). The Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification. Art Media Resources.

Brown, Roxanna & Sjostrand, Sten. (2004). Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia. RECCEX Sdn Bhd.

Miksic, John (Ed.). Southeast Asian Ceramics, New Light on Old Pottery (pp. 27-33). Editions Didier Millet, 2009.

Siripon, Nanta (ed), Thai Heritage – World Heritage. Thailand, Graphic Format Ltd, 2000.

Tan, Heidi (Ed.). (2012). Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia, Innovation and Adaptation (pp. 23-29). Asian Civilisations Museum.

Vecchia, Stefano. (2007). The Khmers, History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. WS White Star Publishers.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

R is for Rebab

by Rose Gan

This colourful rebab is a stringed instrument more than eighty years old, part of the gamelan orchestra of the court of Kelantan that accompanied traditional wayang performances. In the same vitrine there are also examples of Kelantanese wayang kulit figures. A rebab is similar to the medieval lute. It originated in the Middle East by the eighth century CE, if not much earlier, where it is widespread in many regions.  From the Arab world, this early instrument travelled both east and west along Islamic trade routes, In Europe, the rebab was the ancestor of the lute, the rebec, and ultimately the guitar, having been introduced in Spain during the medieval Islamic period. In each region, the rebab developed its own particular characteristics.

Rebab at Gallery B

Left to right:
Medieval rebab player c 1250. Image credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Medieval rebab by unknown artist from 13th century. Image credit: https://miguelmorateorganologia.wordpress.com/introduccion-a-los-cordofonos-compuestos-o-familia-de-los-laudes/
Persian rebab player. Image credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/436708495107772315/

The rebab reached South East Asia with the coming of Islam to Sumatra, Java and the Peninsula, and bears marked similarities to the early Persian version. It is a singularly difficult instrument to play because it has neither fingerboard nor fret, and its bow is loosely strung, unlike the taut bow of the violin. It also has a limited range of little more than one octave. In a gamelan orchestra, the rebab acts as an ornamentation to the basic melody, but it also has a function as the main accompaniment in other cultural traditions of the peninsular East coast, particularly Main Puteri, Mak Yong and Tarek Selampit.

K.P.H. Notoprojo, Javanese rebab player. Image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In South East Asia, the rebab has a distinctive and unique shape, indicating that it evolved significantly from its earliest Arabic origins. Traditionally, the structure of the rebab represents a stylised human form with triangular crowned head (kecopong), long thin neck (leher) and a round body resting on a spiked foot (kaki).   The head is adorned with a brightly painted pucuk rebung motif (bamboo shoot), a typical design found on batik and songket textiles; the top is oddly stupa-like, which may be a throwback to decorative forms of an earlier time. Three pegs (pemulas) can be observed on the upper part of the neck; these are the tuning pegs connected to the strings that are sometimes referred to as ‘ears’ (telinga).  In Java the rebab has two strings, but in Kelantan it has three.

Malay Rebab. Background Image credit: Asza, https://www.asza.com/graphics/Gallery/irebabMalay.jpeg; annotations by Rose Gan.

The body, here hidden beneath a decorative fringing, was originally made of a coconut shell and later wood, with a piece of buffalo intestine or bladder stretched tightly over the front face.  Fabric is used to cover the back.  There is a small moveable bridge on the body. A ball of beeswax (susu), attached near the bridge, mutes the sound reverberations. A wooden foot (known as the spike) protrudes at the base; rebabs of this type are sometimes known as ‘spike fiddles’ in English. The rebab is played upright (like a cello), and is secured on the ground by the ‘foot’.  The bow was originally strung with coconut fibres, but now nylon is used; the strings are coated with resin to smoothen the intricate bowing. The South East Asian rebab may also have been influenced by the Chinese erhu, a similar two-stringed spiked fiddle of very ancient origin; its sound is similar.

Main Puteri was an ancient healing tradition of Kelantan conducted by a bomoh (shaman), involving trances and other ritualistic practises accompanied by the rebab. There was a time when it was even performed in hospitals on the East coast to ensure a safe recovery!   Tarek Selampit, a traditional story telling form in Kelantan, was also accompanied by the rebab. Mak Yong, however, is perhaps one of the most notable Kelantanese traditions connected to the rebab. An ancient dance and drama theatre performed in Kelantan and the Pattani region of southern Thailand, the heyday of Mak Yong was in the 19th- early 20th centuries, although its roots probably stretch back to a much earlier time. The tales performed in Mak Yong theatre reflect very ancient myths and legends, many with roots in the Hindu-Buddhist past. In fact, some believe that Mak Yong may even have originally represented the rice goddess Dewi Sri. During a performance, the rebab is the main instrument that accompanies the dancers, singers and the spoken word, although the orchestra also includes drums and percussion. Today Mak Yong is no longer performed in Kelantan but performances are sometimes held at ASWARA (The National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) and Istana Budaya (The National Theatre).


Hood Salleh (Vol. Ed.). (2006). The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia Volume 12: Peoples and Traditions. Archipelago Press.

Fiddling Around UK websitehttp://www.fiddlingaround.co.uk/med/Med+mid%20frame.html

JMM. (2014) Koleksi Museum Negara. OMR Press Sdn Bhd.

Matusky, Patricia. (2015). Malaysian Journal of Performing and Visual Arts Vol I:  Mak Yong Music of Malaysia: Negotiating Complex Musical Content Within Periodicity. University of Malaya.

Syed Ahmad Jamal (Vol. Ed.). (2007). The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia Volume 14: Crafts and the Visual Arts. Archipelago Press.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

Q is for Quran

Muhammad Azam Adnan (author), Afidah Rahim (translator)

This article is a translation of an essay written in Malay by Muhammad Azam Adnan and first published in Muzings 2021. You can read the original (in the Malay language) here.

Translator’s Note: There are two copies of the Quran on display in Gallery B. My previous blog article ‘The Quran and the Sunnah’ refers to these artefacts but does not examine the manuscripts in detail. Considering that the Muzings 2021 article ‘Manuskrip Al-Quran Melayu Terengganu’ written by the curator of Gallery B details one of the manuscripts, I have translated the said article below. I would like to express our sincere gratitude to En. Azam for kindly permitting this translation. and for allowing us to use his images. – Afidah Rahim

Terengganu Quran Manuscript

Al-Quran is the Muslim Holy Book, revealed by God through angel Gabriel to prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) during the 7th century CE in Arabia. The revelations occurred gradually over 23 years, since prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was chosen as the messenger of God, responsible for proselytising to his people. The writing of Al-Quran amongst his companions began when prophet Muhammad appointed them to record his revelations and continued up to the rule of Rashidun Caliphs by the followers of the prophet’s companions.

The arrival of Islam in the Malay world as early as the 13th century not only resulted in the conversion of the local population but also placed Al-Quran as an important material culture of the Malays. According to the article written by Annabel Gallop (2007), ‘The Art of the Quran in Southeast Asia’, the writing of Malay Quran manuscripts began at the end of the 13th century CE when the Sultan of Pasai of northern Sumatra embraced Islam. Most 19th century Malay Quran manuscripts are currently held in museum or library collections such as the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), Malay Manuscripts Centre, Muzium Negara and state museums of Terengganu, Kelantan and Melaka. There are also manuscripts in personal collections.

Left: The red cover of this Terengganu Quran is made from goatskin. This cover is no longer in good condition – most of its gold leaf decorations are damaged or missing. Right: Central illuminations of the Terengganu Quran manuscript. The handwritings in black ink on both these pages are damaged. Image credits: Muhammad Azam Adnan

Muzium Negara has owned the copy of Terengganu Quran manuscript on display in gallery B: Malay Kingdoms since the National History Museum closed in 2007. It was registered in 1992 as MSN32.1992. According to Riswadi Azmi (2020) in his book ‘Manuskrip Al-Quran Emas: Warisan Kesultanan Terengganu’ (Golden Quran Manuscripts: Terengganu Sultanate Heritage), the contents of this manuscript has been repeatedly researched by Malay Quran manuscript researchers. Measuring 40cm x 30cm, this is the second largest after Terengganu Quran manuscript IAMM1998.1.3.3427 (43cm x 28cm) kept at the IAMM. Manuscript MSN32.1992 excludes a colophon i.e. a directory at the back listing the scribe, year and location of writing. This is because Quran manuscript scribes believe that these verses are revealed by God and so their role is merely to copy the holy Quranic verses.

Initial pages of the Terengganu Quran manuscript. Image credit: Muhammad Azam Adnan

Manuscript MSN32.1992 is categorised as a Terengganu Quran manuscript since its features reveal its origin. This can be seen by the illumination or decorations on its pages. According to Annabel Gallop (2012) in her article ‘The Art of the Malay Quran’, the Terengganu Quran manuscript was prized by other Malay kingdoms for its exquisite workmanship – shaped like a shining jewel, embellished with fine artwork and gold leaf. In addition, several pages contain double decorated frames, usually only found at the opening pages of Surah Al-Fatihah and initial verses of Surah Al-Baqarah. The decoration of Terengganu Quran manuscripts would also include double decorated frames at its end pages and sometimes, in the central pages. Red, blue and green on manuscript MSN32.1992 also reflect the special colours synonymous with the decorations of Terengganu Qurans.

The gunungan motif used in manuscript MSN32.1992 is also a special decorative feature of Terengganu Quran manuscripts. This motif originally has Hindu influence, symbolising the mountains of the Malay archipelago in Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Even with the arrival of Islam, the gunungan motif remains in Malay artistic culture, including in decorations of Quran manuscripts and woodcarving.

Gold leaf illumination of the gunungan motif on the manuscript. Image credit: Muhammad Azam Adnan

Gold leaf is a special element in Terengganu Quran manuscripts, considering that it is not found in any other Malay Quran manuscripts. Riswadi Azmi (2020) in ‘Manuskrip Al-Quran Emas: Warisan Kesultanan Terengganu’ says that the use of gold leaf is a special decorative feature. The golden yellow colour does not come from turmeric but instead comes from pure gold pressings, which function as ‘finishing touches’ to the beautiful Terengganu Quran manuscripts. Hasnira Hassan (2013) in ‘The Second International Archaeological Seminar, History and Culture in the Malay World’, wrote that gold symbolises the supremacy and might of the Creator.

Several surah (chapters) towards the end of the Quran manuscript. Each surah heading is written in red ink whereas gold leaf is used at the end of each verse within the surah. Image credit: Muhammad Azam Adnan

The paper of manuscript MSN32.1992 is European-made, identified by its two watermarks. The first watermark is a lotus flower symbol above the words ’N Pannekoek’, whereas the second watermark is the Roman numeral symbol ‘VI’. Jelle Samshuijzen (2017) in his book ‘A unique collection of watermarks from the Smoorenburg collection: 165 watermarks on 143 blank paper sheets’  wrote that both these symbols are watermarks from 19th century CE Dutch paper mills.

Watermarks on manuscript MSN32.1992 paper. Image credits: Muhammad Azam Adnan

The Terengganu Quran Manuscript (MSN32.1992) displayed at Muzium Negara is evidence of invaluable legacy from previous Malay society. It needs constant care so that current and future generations may continue to value the artistic legacy of Malay material culture forever more.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

%d bloggers like this: