Ten years ago, Tajuddin Idrus, a tour guide and history enthusiast, could not believe his luck when he caught a glimpse of a prized collectible from Malaysia’s past while he was abroad.
Nestled between a stack of old magazines in a vintage store in Brighton, England was a copy of Time magazine dated April 1963. On its cover was Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. Tajuddin just knew he had to buy the magazine to add to his collection of Malaysian historical memorabilia back home in Kuala Lumpur.
“It is actually one of the most valuable publications that I have in my collection. It is not easy for someone from Malaysia to be featured on the cover of Time magazine,” shares Tajuddin, 52, who was born in Kulim, Kedah.
“The magazine was about the formation of Malaysia. There was more than one copy at the store and I bought all of them,” he adds.
In his home library, there are Merdeka-related publications such as Arkib Negara’s Prince Among Men: Recollections and Reflections On Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Department of National Heritage’s Merdeka – Torch Towards Freedom, which he had been collecting since 2000. He also owns hundreds of books on British Malaya, the Japanese World War II occupation and the Emergency period.
His Merdeka-era keepsakes also extend to an impressive collection of stamps and first day covers (50 covers), which were produced to mark our first National Day on Aug 31, 1957.
“These stamps and covers are 64 years old! During the early days, it was very common to have an official first day cover and private covers. Private covers are envelopes that you designed yourselves and you got them post-marked with the Independence Day’s stamps bearing the image of Tunku Abdul Rahman.”
In philately, Tajuddin explains, stamps with errors, freaks, and oddities tend to send their prices up, especially with “Merdeka” misspelt “Maderka”.
Some of these stamps were bought for less than RM100, but the growing demand for Merdeka nostalgia has seen prices increase. Tajuddin recently paid a local dealer RM250 a piece, for a series with stamp errors.
“When you collect such memorabilia over such a long period, you recognise their value beyond monetary terms. By collecting them, you will understand and appreciate the struggle that our forefathers had gone through,” says Tajuddin, who has been hosting virtual heritage-based events during the lockdown.
His collection has come in handy during some of these sessions, mapping an era through unique memorabilia, when he wants to hold discussions on the history of early Malaysian stamps. A collector's passion in piecing together history and forgotten stories, they say, is just as important as the official narratives in a Government archive.
“It is important for the younger generation to understand how the nation has transformed over the years and to have a look at the memorabilia produced to mark Merdeka Day. It's a starting starting point, we can then discover many other stories about the country as we connect with others,” says Tajuddin.
Songs shared by a young nation
Paul Augustin, co-founder and director of Penang House Of Music, has numerous vintage records from the Merdeka days and even more stories just waiting to be told.
In his care are some early versions of our national anthem, including Terang Boelan; a version by The Merdeka Choir, accompanied by pianist Tony Soliano; an English version of the song, titled Malayan Moon; and a Hokkien version called Nanyang Night, which has a keroncong rhythm.
“The Merdeka Choir with Tony Soliano’s recording of Negaraku and Malaya – Tanah Ayer Ku is one of the highlights in the collection. I have heard many versions of Negaraku and it is usually done with an orchestra or a big band, but this was the first time I heard the song by the choir accompanied by a solo pianist. It opened up my mind to this question: was this the first recording of the song?” he says.
Our national anthem was originally the state anthem of Perak, which was adopted from a popular French melody titled La Rosalie, he notes, which is an interesting tidbit for sure.
But Augustin isn’t too fussed with a strict categorisation of “Merdeka” items, noting that the 1950s and 1960s in general was an interesting time for music in our history.
In the collection are different versions of Negaraku (royal, abridged, short and choir); Malay State anthems; a song by Zainal Alam in 1955 (titled I’m Gonna Do It) urging people to vote; and a record titled Malaysia For Ever by The Marymount Vocational School Choir with a message by Tunku Abdul Rahman on the back cover.
There is also a music score written by an individual named A.P. Chin in the early 1950s to honour the flag of Malaya.
“The songs are Lagu Bendera Persekutuan Tanah Melayu and Malaya, None Fairer. It would be interesting to know who A.P. Chin is or was and what inspired or motivated him or her to write the songs, and what and when were they used for?” he muses.
“There were a number of ‘patriotic’ songs that were composed to create a sense of belonging and pride, and used as a propaganda tool – as we were a new nation.
“First for Malaya in 1957, and later, Malaysia in 1963. Our collection covers a wide range of material related to this period, mostly centred around music such as vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, ¼ inch reels, recordings, photographs, books, magazines, souvenir programmes, posters, flyers, postcards, instruments, vintage radios and record players.
“When we first started working on this project, the focus was music but eventually over the years, we realised that we couldn’t ignore the many other attachments to music.”
Besides records, the collection also includes song books and about a hundred ‘Radio Request Postcards” from the 1950s to 1970s.
“We do provide assistance to researchers, and work with a number of universities as well. We believe it is important to let future generations know of our country’s past, and also we do what we do to keep the memories of those who contributed to the music of the state and nation alive.
“Our work acknowledges and appreciates their contribution as they are often the forgotten ones. Culture, arts and music are often deemed not important, but a nation without this is a nation without a soul,” he says.
Building a collection
Hafidz Win, founder and owner of Koleksi Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, is no stranger to buying and selling antiques and vintage items.
But his Merdeka items, which includes first day covers and stamps, posters, commemorative glasses and magazines, are not for sale.
“It gives me great satisfaction to keep these very limited items related to Merdeka. It is a modest collection, but it is a personal one and I don’t intend to sell it. This is part of our national heritage and will be kept for the next generation,” he says.
The vintage goods dealer's collection is driven by his love for heritage and history. Among the collectibles that have been in his possession since his school days are his first day covers and stamps. For safekeeping, Hafidz stores them carefully in an album.
“I would say these first day covers and my original poster of Tunku Abdul Rahman, which has been framed since those early days, are my favourite Merdeka items,” he shares.
One of the most popular Merdeka-era keepsakes, to him, is the first day cover series, which showed the new nation's diverse population sharing the joy of independence by mailing first day covers to friends and relatives - home and abroad.
Every Malaysian household back then must have received one of these Merdeka first day covers, judging by how popular they were. To Hafidz, it's these small ordinary Malaysian stories that intrigue him, about how people use to treasure these items.
Hafidz has around 30 items from this era – some purchased himself and a few given to him by friends – and is always on the lookout for more collectibles to add to his collection.
But he doesn’t mind going slow and steady for this, especially as Merdeka items are currently highly-sought after by collectors and the prices can often be exorbitant.
“I am open to any item if the price is reasonable. At the moment, they are expensive so I am biding my time,” he says.