In describing the Negri Sembilan state crest, historian and academic Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard wrote: “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 (FMS) 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 – Negri 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 became the basis for the coat of arms of the Federation of Malaya, which was established on Feb 1, 1948, following the failed Malayan Union.
In the shield, the four colours were maintained to represent the four states of the federation, five keris were added to represent the Unfederated Malay States, and Penang and Melaka were represented by features from their respective crests. The crown on top was replaced by a yellow crescent and 11-pointed star to represent Islam, the Rulers and the 11 states, and the tigers stood on the motto “Unity is Strength/Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu (in Jawi)”.
This coat of arms remained untouched upon the attainment of Merdeka, but saw significant changes after the creation of Malaysia. In the new shield, three more points were added to the star and the motto was written in Malay using both the Rumi and Jawi script.
Within the shield, the original FMS shapes were adjusted to accommodate representations of Sabah, Singapore and Sarawak, again using features from their respective state crests and flags. Today, one 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.After Singapore’s departure from Malaysia in 1965, its space was taken over by a hibiscus. Over the years, many adjustments were made in the representations to accommodate changes made by states to their own symbols.
For example, Melaka’s A Famosa was turned into a Malacca tree and the cross from Sarawak’s flag dating back to the White Rajahs was changed twice before settling on the hornbill.
Penang is unique in having its Prince of Wales’ feathers and crenellations substituted not only with a pinang palm but also the Penang Bridge, giving our coat of arms the rare distinction of featuring 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 evaluated positively 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” 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 United States and United Kingdom. This week, I am jolted by the 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. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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