SINGAPORE: In the age of Facebook, Whatsapp and emails, messages are instantly sent and received with a click of a button. But for the early residents of Singapore back in the mid-1800s, it was a lot more complicated.
All eyes would be on Fort Canning as people waited for the sight of a hoisted flag by day or the sound of a cannon fired by night. These signaled the arrival of ships from Europe, America or China that would dock at the Singapore River.
And after months of waiting, people would rush down to a small office where the Asian Civilisations Museum now stands, where letters from the other side of the world awaited them.
The ships carried correspondences of all sorts, from personal missives to business documents, after a complicated sea-and-land route. Often, it meant crossing parts of Europe, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and a stop-over at India, before finally reaching Singapore – a journey that would take two months.
“It was a big thing for them because it meant communication from home. There was no handphone back then,” quipped Chua Mei Lin, a curator at the Singapore Philatelic Museum (SPM).
Playing an integral part to this tedious process was the humble stamp. And a new exhibition at SPM, which is jointly organised with the Association of Singapore Philatelists, looks at the role it played in connecting the country to the world and how it shaped Singapore’s own history.
Beginning Friday (Sep 1), a rotating four-month exhibition of stamps and other philatelic paraphernalia will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of Singapore’s first postage stamps. SingPost will also be launching a new commemorative stamp on the same theme that day.
It was in 1867 when the Straits Settlements – which comprised Singapore, Melaka and Penang – shifted from being under the British East India Company to being a Crown colony under the British.
As the new seat of government, Singapore also took charge of the Settlements’ postal affairs and the issued its own stamps to replace the existing Indian stamps that were previously used.
Among the artefacts on display are the stamps and letter cover dating back to Sep 1, 1867, of a letter sent to Switzerland.
According to the museum’s general manager Tresnawati Prihadi, the history of the stamps in Singapore is closely linked with its own story as a hub for the region.
“It’s another way to tell the Singapore story. We were the centre of trade, and mail from different parts of Asia had to come to Singapore first before it got sent to places such as England, Peru or Thailand.”
Senior curator Lucille Yap added that at that timse, Singapore’s stamps were the only ones in the region that were internationally recognised, which meant mail from the region had to go through its post office.
“If people wanted to send mail, say, to the US, it had to come here and be added with the Straits Settlement stamps in order to go out.”
Such old stamps can also reveal much about what life was like back then.
Yap said because of the mercantile character of the burgeoning settlement, it was a melting pot of cultures, especially from Europe.
“A lot of them are in German, French and other European languages. The Chinese had their own arrangements, because there were clan associations through which they usually sent their mail. But eventually, they were also told to use stamps.”
For serious stamp collectors such as Richard Tan, who is president of the Association of Singapore Philatelists and will also be lending some of his pieces to the show, clues as to what life was like back then can be gleaned, not just from the old stamps and letter covers but from the actual letters.
“Some of them are very interesting. There was one from the 1800s that criticised lawyers for charging them an exorbitant price during that period, calling them ‘bloodsuckers’!”