Tuesday, November 24

Our crestfallen coat of arms

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AS with our Jalur Gemilang, our federal coat of arms has antecedents in the polities that preceded Malaysia, and in the states that constitute it.

In describing the Negeri Sembilan state crest, Mubin Sheppard wrote that “the nine padi stalks and nine-pointed star represent the nine states of the old confederation. The sword and sheath above the shield stand for justice. In between, the Changgai Puteri signifies the dignity of the Paramount Ruler”. Today’s adat officials can delve much deeper into the ancient usage of these symbols, which were also observed by earlier historians and colonial administrators.

When the Federated Malay States was established in 1895, its coat of arms featured a shield that, like its flag, was composed of colours that appeared in the flags of its component states of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, and Pahang. This was surmounted by a crown and supported by two Malayan tigers atop a banner reading ‘Dipelihara Allah’ (Under Allah’s Protection).

This coat of arms formed the basis of that of the Federation of Malaya, established by Agreement at King’s House (now Seri Negara) on Feb 1, 1948 following the failed Malayan Union. In the shield, the four colours remained to represent the four FMS, with five kerises added to represent the Unfederated Malay States, and with Penang and Melaka represented by features from their own crests. The crown on top was replaced by a yellow crescent and eleven-pointed star to represent Islam, the Rulers and the 11 states, and the tigers stood on the motto ‘Bersekutu bertambah mutu’ in Jawi (unity is strength).

This coat of arms remained untouched upon the attainment of Merdeka, but saw significant changes at the creation of Malaysia. Above the shield, three more points were added to the star, while below, the motto now appeared twice in Malay, using the Rumi and Jawi script.

Within the shield, the original FMS colours went from quarters to vertical stripes to accommodate representations of Sabah, Singapore, and Sarawak, again using features from their respective state crests and flags. Today you can occasionally find old sets of cutlery, crockery, and diverse drinkware emblazoned with this coat of arms in government rest houses or our diplomatic missions abroad.

Singapore’s departure in 1965 turned its space into a hibiscus, and over the years many changes were made in other states’ representations, based on changes they made to their own state symbols. Thus Melaka’s A Famosa turned into a Malacca tree; Sabah’s arms holding the state flag (from its state crest) was changed for the entire crest; and the cross from Sarawak’s flag dating back to the White Rajahs switched twice before settling on the hornbill. Penang is unique in having its Prince of Wales’s feathers and crenulations substituted not only for a Pinang palm but also the Penang Bridge, giving our coat of arms the rare distinction of featuring such a feat of engineering. Inverse to their survival in the wild, the supporting tigers became more rampant, too.

Today, our coat of arms is widely cherished by Malaysians and is approvingly evaluated in YouTube videos comparing national symbols from around the world.  Its very design asserts our federal structure – notwithstanding the argument that Sabah and Sarawak should have larger visual representation as equal partners to the Federation of Malaya in the creation of Malaysia – and its metamorphosis tracks the political, cultural, and infrastructural evolution of our country.

More than that, it expresses the aspirations of our nation. The ‘unity’ asserted by our motto was conceived as an homage to federalism; but today it applies equally well in summoning unity across diverse communities of Malaysians defined in other ways, too. And the ‘strength’ that it references encapsulates the institutions that history has given us: constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and a Federal Constitution that our first Yang di-Pertuan Agong called “a charter of our common belief that certain fundamental liberties are essential to the dignity and self-respect of man”.

It is supremely ironic then, that our coat of arms has become a lightning rod of division this week. Much of it has been deliberately exaggerated for political aims, for sure, and caught in the crossfire of taunts, denials and the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act 1963 are the unfortunate authors whose writings were only ever intended to elevate public policy discourse.

Last week, I was glad that statues do not violently divide sentiment here as in the US and UK. This week I am jolted by an ignorance of the history and values symbolised by our coat of arms. Indeed, it has led to a far worse desecration of its dignity than can ever be achieved by its visual defacement.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.