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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

History Of Money

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Singapore Mint to visit its coin gallery.

I was expecting to see a few glass cabinets with lots of shiny coins inside, but it turns out that the gallery contains much more than that. In fact, it is an exhibition on the history and evolution of money.

To many people living in Singapore today, foreigners and locals alike, Singapore often seems to be a bizarre place, more akin to a trading post than a nation state. The idiosyncrasies of a country can be better understood if you are familiar with its history, and no history of Singapore can be complete without the history of its money, the lifeblood that has nourished and shaped Singapore into its current form.

Enough of the talk; let's go check out 'em coppers and silvers!


The Singapore Mint is located at Teban Gardens Crescent, in an industrial area together with factories of prominent brands such as Carrier and Leica.

If you are going there by bus, note that it is at least a 5-10 minute walking distance away from the nearest bus stop. Click here for a map, bus guide and driving directions.

Here's the entrance of the coin gallery, shaped like a coin die with the words "Striking A Legacy" adorning it.


The gallery is open from Mondays to Fridays, 8.30am to 4.30pm, and closed on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. I've checked with the counter staff that photography is permitted inside the gallery.

Admission is free.

The first thing that greeted me at the entrance is this huge round stone, used by the natives of Yap Island in the Pacific as a form of money and a symbol of wealth.

As you can see from the old photo on display, these islanders have really big rocks.

Own it, flaunt it baby!

To start at the beginning, early human societies did not need money.

Instead, they relied on bartering for trade.

Here is a photo of a barter contract (carved in stone) used in ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago to exchange a bull for variety of goods including grain, oil, honey, cloth and wood.

Over time, as the variety of farm produce and manufactured goods increased in number, it became more and more unwieldy to use the barter system.

The problem is that each pair of goods will need a standard exchange rate, and when you have thousands of goods, the staggering number of possible permutations will turn trade into an inconsistent and inefficient mess, kinda like Forex gone mad.

I didn't notice it when I took this picture, but while I was editing the shot at home I saw the modern numerals "5649" on the upper left part of the stone contract. I presume that it is the catalogue number for this historical artifact.

Thinking of buying 5649 for 4D?

Who knows, you might win a bag of flour, three ducks, a couple of chickens, half a bucket of milk and a string of pearls!

And so money was invented.

In many parts of the world, money was initially made up of stuff that was convenient to trade with and good for the munchies too - the "commodity currencies" of its day.

Take rice, for example.

Nom nom nom nom...


Puff puff puff *tarik* puff...


Nom nom nom nom...


Nom nom *KINK!*

Ow ow...

With the advent of cowrie money in ancient China, the concept of money slowly drifted away from commodities and towards representative currency.

Amazingly, cowries were still used as money in some parts of the world until the 1940s.

Money gradually evolved into the forms recognizable to us today.

In China, spade and knife-shaped copper tokens were invented around 2600 years ago. The familiar round coin with a central square hole appeared some 400 years later.

In Europe, coins were made from a natural alloy of silver and gold, called electrum. They were made by striking the lump of metal with a die. The first electrum coins were invented by the Lydians of ancient Greece, also around 2600 years ago.

Later on, coins were made from less precious metals. Ancient coins tend to look fat and irregular in shape compared to modern coins - those were the days before mechanization and mass production.

Let's move on to the story of money in Singapore!

But first, here's a bunch of trivia for all you touristy-types.

I'm a sucker for trivia.

With so many coins and notes in circulation, there must be literally thousands of dollars that are lost somewhere - dropped inside a drain, tucked in the corner of a bus or stashed in an abandoned warehouse.

Sometimes I fantasize about inventing a giant machine that can find all this lost money, collect it and deliver it to a certain needy student.

Oh and did you know that we used to have an aluminium 5-cent coin? I saw an uncle selling these coins in a Chinatown kiosk before, but I wasn't sure if it was real.

Aluminium coins feel so light and plasticky - a strange choice of metal for circulation coins. Yet it is quite common to find small denomination coins minted in aluminium - for example in China and Japan.

Now for some historical facts and artifacts!

Everybody knows that modern Singapore was founded in 1819, but betcha didn't know that our first money did not come from the British.

It was the Spanish Dollar, declared as the first legal currency of the settlement in 1823.

In those early days, the Spanish dollar was joined by the Mexican dollar (shown above), Dutch guilders, Indian rupees, Javanese rupees and Penang pice in a mixed bag of circulation coins.

Here are some Indian coins that were used in Singapore. A first attempt was made in 1824 to mint a set of standardized local coins but it was not successful.

After the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony, the government introduced a new set of coins ranging from 1/4 cent to one dollar in 1871.

It's so weird to see coins minted in fractional cents. Today, the one-cent denomination is practically defunct in Singapore, but obviously it was worth much more at that time.

You can tell that just by the size of the coins; these 1/2 cent coins are as large as modern 20 cent coins...

...and this one cent coin is larger than a modern 50 cent coin!

In fact I don't think I've ever seen such a big copper coin before.

Actually I've always wondered why the British government had to wait until 1968 to decimalize their own coin system when they have already done so in the colonies for around a hundred years.


By the 1930s, circulation coins have shrunken in size and the one cent coin has taken on the familiar square shape.

I call them "Ah Kong Ah Mah coins" because my grandparents left me a small bag of these.

Here's a classic square cent on display, still sporting a bit of copper sheen. In contrast all of my coins have lost their shine and are dark brown in colour.

Fractional cents becoming an endangered species...

Notice the black discolouration on this 5 cent coin?

Yes my friends, it is made of silver! I suppose 5 cents at that time was deemed valuable enough to be minted from precious metals.

It's too bad that silver coins were demonetized in 1949 - today most coins are made from cupro-nickel instead.

This is a collector's set of the first series of Singapore's national coins. You can see the big "Lion" one dollar coin featured prominently at the centre.

According to an old uncle that I spoke with before, the Lion coins apparently didn't see much circulation. People were hoarding them as collectables and spending paper dollar bills instead. Nowadays, large numbers of these coins have emerged from hiding and retailers are selling them for $3 a piece, which is a fucking rip-off.

I should also mention that the problem with collector sets like these is that the coin compartments are not air-tight and so the coins will slowly oxidize over time if you don't keep them in a dry box. The one cent coin is especially prone to discolouration and dark spots.

Professional numismatists recommend that you should leave an aging coin alone and not try to clean it, since a botched cleaning attempt will destroy the value of a collector's coin.

Aside from coins, the gallery also features a small collection of paper money.

Here's an example of a "Post Bill" which first appeared in 1859 as an early form of banknotes.

You can see from the three additional languages in the margins of this bill (clockwise from left: Jawi script, Tamil script, Traditional Chinese characters) that Singapore has been multicultural from the get go.

A later series of banknotes issued by the Board of Commissioners Currency Malaya, featuring the portrait of King George VI.

A dark period in Singapore history - "Banana Notes" issued by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

Notice that there are no serial numbers on any of these notes. The Japanese Army printed so many of them that they became worthless by the end of the war.

The old Orchid-series and Bird-series of national dollar bills.

Sometimes I miss the one dollar bill - it reminds me of my childhood when I opened my Ang Pows during the New Year to find a neatly folded stack of crispy, fresh-smelling Bird-series singles inside.


And finally, $10000 and $1000 specimen notes from the current Portrait-series, encased in glass.

What is notable about these bills - apart from the fact that they are clearly too large to fit properly in a wallet - is that they have gold-coloured holograms instead of the silver-coloured ones found on smaller notes.

Next, there is a small section in the gallery dedicated to minting technology.

This is a nice painting that illustrates two ancient methods of making coins - the Chinese method of casting coins by pouring molten metal into tree-shaped moulds, and the European method of striking coins from metallic blanks using dies and anvils.

The modern method of minting coins is shown here.

An approved design is engraved on two plaster moulds and converted through rubber and epoxy moulds before it is scaled down by a machine to create a master die. Working dies are then made from it.

Ah, the business end of the minting process!

The rest of the gallery showcases the various commemorative coins and special collector's coins made by the Mint. I won't go into the details of these displays, but I'll highlight two areas that are interesting to me.

One of them is this collection of electronic CashCards - the future of money!

Actually I've always thought that CashCards occupy an odd position between credit/debit cards and cash, sort of like how APS was stuck between digital photography and 35mm film.

While I'm sure that there will always be some niche use for CashCards, I doubt if it would ever be as widely used as either credit cards or paper money.

Another interesting item is this beautiful hologram coin depicting the renowned Angkor Wat.

Holographic technology is now commonplace in all sorts of financial instruments, from credit cards to gold ingots to paper currency. I wonder if we will ever see a hologram circulation coin one day?

And now for the most interesting part of the gallery - windows that let you take a behind-the-scenes look at how the Mint recirculates coins to keep the money flowing in Singapore.

Unlike the glitzy coin gallery, the production area looks just like any typical factory setting, with a bare concrete floor, big machines, conveyor belts and forklifts zipping back and forth.

Hardworking aunties and uncles sort through numerous bags of coins and prepare them for packing and recirculation.

The process begins when bags of coins are emptied into a big metal hopper.

Here's a hopper filled with one dollar coins - I'll bet that you've never seen that many "Kim Doon" (gold ingot: Hokkien slang for dollar coins) in one place before!

With the hopper loaded up, the auntie uses a continuous conveyor belt to sort through hundreds of coins, removing damaged or soiled coins from the pool.

Coins that pass inspection pour into another hopper of a giraffe-like machine.

The machine then measures out coins in fixed quantities in order to wrap them into rolls of coins.

The coin wrapping paper gets drawn into the machine...

... and it spits out roll after roll of one dollar coins, tightly packed and ready to be sent to the banks for redistribution.

As a closing note I should mention that the Singapore Mint doesn't only sell collector's coins - they also sell "Singapura" gold bullion coins based on the daily gold price. Singapura gold is available in one, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/10 troy ounce sizes. Please enquire at the counter for more details regarding their products.

Would you like to know more?

Other posts about Singapore history:
- History Herstory My-stery

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn't express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach