Malaysia Stamp & Philately Reference Guide
+ Country   : Straits Settlements
+ Sub-Area  : Singapore, Penang, Malacca, Labuan, Dinding, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands
+ Class     : Stamp & Philatey
+ Prefix    : SPMSS
+ Σ Group   : 122
+ Σ Stamp   : 569
+ Σ Variety : 285
+ Σ Listing : Postage Stamp, Postage Due, Booklet, Receipt Stamp, Revenue & Tax, Judicial & Official, Marine Policies, Entertainments Duty Paid, Postcard Prepaid (With Indicia), Postcard Official, Letter Card, Envelope & Prepaid Envelope, Envelope Registered, Newspapers Wrapper, Japanese Occupation WWII
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The Straits Settlements (Malay: Negeri-negeri Selat; Chinese: 海峡殖民地 Hǎixiá zhímíndì) were a group of British territories located in Southeast Asia. Originally established in 1826 as part of the territories controlled by the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a crown colony on 1 April 1867. The colony was dissolved in 1946 as part of the British reorganisation of its south-east Asian dependencies following the end of the Second World War.

The Straits Settlements consisted of the four individual settlements of Malacca,Dinding, Penang (also known as Prince of Wales Island), Singapore (with Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands). The island of Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, was also incorporated into the colony with effect from 1 January 1907, becoming a separate settlement within it in 1912. With the exception of Singapore, Christmas Island, and the Cocos Islands, these territories now form part of Malaysia.


1854 was the year when stamps of the East India Company were introduced in Singapore and the Straits Settlements. This continued until 1867. Over seventy-five Indian stamps were used during the period. However, this number includes stamps of the same denominations and design distinguished only by the shade of paper, time of printing and the watermark of the paper. Inscribed in Indiann annas and pies, these were sold at the inconvenient exchange rate of 224 rupees, 8 annas and 6.4 pies per $100. One can imagine the frustrations of working out the local price of the first series of stamps with denominations of half anna, 1, 2 and 4 annas. Since these stamps had to be shipped from India, it was inevitable that shortages occurred. For a brief period, stamps of various denominations were not available. Instead of aggravating the shortage by using more stamps, the Postmaster came up with an idea of increasing the stamps - bisecting them diagonally. The halves are not worthless, the "damage" in fact makes them almost invaluable. From 1855 to 1860, 8 pie, 1-, 4- and 8-anna stamps were cut diagonally, making them the first and only bisected stamps in Singapore.

As these same stamps were used in India and the Straits Settlements (Malacca, Penang and SIngapore), collectors identified them by their postmarks. Simple enough but postal history is a subject fraught with difficulties. At times, it is virtually impossible to distinguish the stamps because postmarks were the same. For example, the "diamond dot" cancellation was used in both territories. The only way to establish the origin would be to obtain the envelopes used, with the stamp intact.

The increased use of stamps also meant that the original post office premises which was a room at the front of John Argyle Maxwell's house (core of the present Parliament House), shared with the Master Attendant's Marine Office and Clerk to the Registrar of Imports and Exports were inadequate. Trade had rapidly expanded. Consequently, a proper post office was established near the Town Hall by the side of Singapore River.

When the Straits Settlements joined the Universal Postal Union in 1877, it represented a landmark in Singapore's postal history. Owing to changing postal rates both locally and out to various countries, no fewer than fifty different stamps were issued with overprints between 1879 and 1899. Up to 1877, overseas postal rates depended on the local charges of the various countries through which a letter had to pass. A letter to the United Kingdom in 1876 required 28 cents. On joining the UPU, the postage dropped from 28 cents to 12 cents if the letter was sent via Brindisi, and to 8 cents if the letter was sent via Marseilles.

Within Singapore, a half-ounce ordinary letter to any part of the town required a postage of 6 cents and the newspaper rate of equivalent weight was 2 cents. The postage was later reduced to 2 cents for the former and 1 cent for the latter. Letters posted to Penang via a Peninsula and Oriental steamer required 12 cents, and the newspaper 2 cents. These changes in postal rates made certain values, especially the higher denominations, obsolete.

This period, 1879 to 1899, was one of fluctuating postal rates. In 1888, the rate on letters to Australia was reduced from 24 to 10 cents per half ounce, and from 5 to 4 cents per two ounces for printed matter. In August 1890, the registration fee was reduced from 8 to 5 cents and in January 1891, the postage for letters from Singapore to the Federated Malay States was also reduced to 5 cents per half ounce. Postal rates could not decline forever and, in 1894, they were increased: the foreign letter rate of 5 cents and domestic one of 2 cents were increased to 8 cents and 3 cents respectively. As usual, this meant hurried and further surcharges of existing stocks of stamps to the new values required.

It was quite obvious co-ordination was not too smooth in those days. Although new stamps with the required denomination were done by the well-known stamp printers and designers, Messrs De La Rue & Co. during this period, the designing and printing were often too slow and it took some time before the goods were delivered to Singapore. (The time taken by the steamers did not help, either). So frequently and quickly did postal rates change that, on some occasions, the new denominations were obsolete by the time they got to Singapore. It was then up to the Government Printing Office here to do the quick makeshift surcharge.

With such hasty overprinting and surcharging, which was necessary to meet growing public requirements, one could not expect standardisation. So numerous were the varieties of settings and overprints that ardent collectors are still searching and researching, and piecing together the entire story of the overprinted stamps. This confusion is partly brought off by contemporary stamp collectors. Overprints did not interest them and, for much of the period, many even shunned collecting Straits Settlements stamps altogether.

Letter boxes were also introduced during this period to facilitate easy posting of letters. Vendors were appointed to sell stamps on a commission basis. However, by the 1890s, it was obvious that special post offices had to be built in various parts of the town to cater for the increased posting and delivery of letters. Between 1897 and 1900, post offices were set up at Tanjong Pagar, South Bridge Road, Kampong Glam, New Harbour (now Keppel Harbour), Kandang Kerbau and Tanglin.


The stamp issue of King Edward VII marked the beginning of the 20th century. For the first time, there were issues of very high value - up to $500 denominations. Postal charges only needed values up to $25 and as such these $100 and $500 denominations were mainly used as revenue stamps.

On 1st January 1907, the transfer of Labuan to the Straits Settlements resulted in a set of Labuan stamps being issued with the overprint "Straits Settlements" for the original Labuan stamps. Between 1909 and 1912, and again between 1919 and 1920, Straits Settlements stamps were also in use in the northern Malayan states of Perlis, Kedah and Trengganu, because of a temporary shortage of several low-value stamps of these states.

Up to the First World War, stamps were issued only for functional purposes and these are called definitive stamps. The first commemorative stamps to be used in the Straits Settlements were issued in 1917. It was immediately after the First World War and, as part of the Red Cross effort to secure funds for war victims, stocks of the existing 3- and 4-cent values received an additional "RED CROSS-2c" overprint on these stamps. This issue was sold and used only over a brief period. Commercial mail covers with these stamps affixed are rarely found today.

The next commemorative issue was in 1922. On hindsight, this seems quite apt as it coincided with the completion of reclaimed land (land reclamation is not that new, after all?) at Telok Ayer. However, in truth, the issue was to commemorate a trade exposition at Telok Ayer from 31st March to 17th April 1922. This was the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition organised by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce; participants included the Straits Settlements, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, North Borneo and Brunei. A set of King George V stamps with values from 1 cent to $5 was issued with the overprint "MALAYA-BORNEO EXHIBITION". The participating states also issued their own stamps with this overprint. Brunei and North Borneo had, in addition, the year 1922 overprinted on the stamps. These issues apart, the inter-war period was relatively unexciting as far as new developments were concerned.


Ironically, the fall of Singapore had given rise to a much-studied aspect of postal history - the Japanese Occupation stamps. With its wide range of overprints (some by hand stamps) and settings, many "errors and varieties" exist and this poses some challenge to the determined and patient student of philately. And to the forgers, too!

It is worthwhile to note that, as a result of the rarity of some of the overprinted stamps, forgers have gone to work to imitate some of the rare hand stamps. At the beginning, some of the forgeries were crude and obvious to the keen eye. More dangerous forgeries have, however, appeared in recent years both in Singapore and elsewhere, and collectors have to be warned in buying great rarities other than from renowned and respected stamp dealers and philatelic society auctions.

During the Japanese Occupation, the principle adopted by the Japanese administrators in the overprints was to deface the portrait of the sovereign head on the stamps in use prior to the Occupation. Stamps were recalled from the various post offices and sub-post offices throughout the country and collected at two centres, one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in Singapore, where the overprints were applied and the stamps redistributed to the various post offices.

Postal Services in Singapore resumed on 16th March 1942, exactly one month from the date the island fell to the Japanese invading forces. The stamps, which were issued at the General Post Office and ten sub-post offices opened on that day, were pre-war Straits Settlements stamps hurriedly overprinted with a red double-frame "seal of Post Office of Malayan Military Department". The stamps which were overprinted for postal use and sold throughout Singapore consisted of five values, namely the 1, 2, 3, 8 and 15 cents. The 2- and 15-cent values were known to be issued and used in Malacca in May 1942, owing perhaps remainder stocks of these stamps being sent over from Singapore. Three different sub-types of the double-frame overprint are known to exist and used on all five values of the issued stamps.

As with all issues where the overprints were applied by hand, human errors and inaccuracies of hand-stamping resulted in a wide number of varieties, the most notable being the missing seal with normal overprinted stamp, inverted overprint, double overprints, in that order of rarity. Different sub-types of the same stamping exist side by side, traditionally explained as the result of the officer executing the overprint taking up the wrong stamper when resuming his work on a sheet of stamps where the overprint was not applied to all the stamps previously.

The next overprinted issue bore a similar Japanese seal, except that this time the seal was bordered by a single frame and executed on a steel die as opposed to a wooden die in the first overprinted series. Nine sub-types of this overprint were executed in Singapore while others were made in Kuala Lumpur. The overprints were in red, brown, violet and black.

The stamps after the handstamped issues used in Singapore and in most of the states in Malaya, except Penang, Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan, were overprinted with "Dai Nippon - 2602 - Malaya" by machine. In 1943, the machine overprint used was in Kanji characters, introduced in line with the Japanese policy to eliminate the use of the English language. Several consistent varieties occur in the setting of 100 used in this overprint as well as the "Dai Nippon" overprint previous to this.

The Japanese Occupation period, besides creating history in the prolific issue of overprinted stamps, saw probably the first ever public Postage Stamp Design Contest in Singapore. Five stamp designs, depicting scenes of Singapore and Malaya, were selected and given values ranging from 1 to 8 cents. The 8-cent value depicted the War Memorial at Bukit Timah. Five other stamps were designed by the Postal Services Department for the values ranging from 10 to 70 cents. This issue was placed on sale in Singapore as well as in the eleven states of Malaya.


At  the end of the war, the British Military Administration appointed a Major Perry as the Military Postmaster General to organise the resumption of postal service. No new stamps had been prepared for the occasion. Overprinting took a month. Short of cancelling postal services, the only method was to allow free postal services! Perhaps, that also suited the tone of victory celebrations. In any case, the month from 17th September to 19th October 1945 was the only occasion where no postage was required. Naturally, the covers (envelopes of letters posted) used during this unique month are a collector's item. (One wonders how many such covers have been overlooked and landed up as wastepaper by philatelists who naively only look for stamps ... )

On 19th October 1945, pre-war Straits Settlements stamps overprinted "B.M.A. - MALAYA" were issued. On the first day of its issue, only five values - the 1, 2, 3, 6 and 10 cents - were available to the public. Other values up to $5 followed.

The Malayan Union was set up on 1st April 1946, with the appointment of J .M. Cunningham as the Postmaster General of Malaya. A "Victory" Malayan Union stamp was prepared. The constitution of the Malayan Union, however, met with considerable opposition. Following consultations between representatives of the British Government, the rulers of the Malay States and the United Malaya's National Organisation, the Federation of Malaya came into being on 1st February 1948. The Federation included all the nine Malay states and Penang and Malacca, excluding Singapore which then became a separate colony.

During all this time, the "B.M.A. - MALAY A" overprinted stamps remained in use. Collectors and dealers had anticipated the series to be short-lived and fresh new designs to appear. Having experienced the high premiums fetched for some of the Japanese Occupation overprints, collectors, dealers, businessmen and speculators bought considerable quantities of these new overprinted stamps, hoping to realise quick capital appreciation. The heavy buying, quite unrealistic in relation to postal requirements, necessitated many of the values to be reprinted many times over. The earlier stock was all overprinted in London by Messrs De La Rue, but some of the later stocks received their overprint locally as well as in Sydney, Australia. How the stamps came to be overprinted in Sydney is a mystery. It is generally believed, however, that stocks on the way to Malaya when the Japanese occupied the territory, were diverted to Australia, and the overprinting there was a result of mutual agreement by the two administrations to utilise the idle stocks by overprinting them in an identical manner and shipping them back to Malaya.

Over a period of ten years, some of the values were reprinted no fewer than eight to ten times. On a number of occasions, the colour of the overprint or the printing of the basic overprinted stamps was so dramatically different that they deserve a separate listing in stamp catalogues.

In 1948, the first set of Singapore stamps was issued, separate from the Straits Settlements. This was a definitive issue with the usual design of the portrait of King George VI.


1948 was the first time in the philatelic history of Singapore that the word "Singapore" appeared on its stamps. The common design of two coconut palms now flanked King George VI's head and the word "Malaya" appeared at the top while "Singapore" appeared at the lower panel. This simple and yet striking design basically followed that adopted for the King George VI Straits Settlements stamps. The lower values were first issued on 1 September 1948 and were followed by the higher values a month later. Within a year of this issue, reprints with a new perforation and variations in shades began to appear. New colours and denominations were also introduced on 1 September 1952.

Singapore, together with all the other British Colonies, celebrated King George VI's Silver Wedding in 1948 with a set of two stamps: one, the 10¢ value, being the internal postage rate and the other, the top value of $5. The design of the stamps was uniform throughout the British Colonies. Similar celebrations for the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Postal Union also saw the release of another set with a common design adopted throughout the British Colonies. Despite their mono-colours, these stamps still look just as appealing as the modern day stamps.


'Reply Cards' were introduced on the 1st January 1886 for the value of 1 cent and 3 cents (Proud).

The postal rate for postcards from Straits for Postal Union Countries and Sarawak was reduced from 3c to 2c on 15th November 1891. Therefore the cards were overprinted 2 cents.