The History of Money in Malaysia

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This post was written by Manveen Maan


Numismatic is not a word heard often in conversation. It can be defined as “of, relating to, or consisting of coins, paper currency, and medals”, and there are approximately 37 numismatic galleries (or money museums) around the world, with Italy boasting a grand total of seven.

Numismatics traditionally has its roots in collecting rather than documenting historical moments, and is often more popular with amateurs rather than professional scholars. Modern numismatics focuses on the research of production and use of money in historical contexts in order to determine the relative rarity of coins.


A relative newcomer on the arts and cultural scene, the Numismatic Gallery is Kuala Lumpur’s best kept secret. Located in Sasana Kijang (the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery), the Numismatic Gallery shares a space with the Economics Gallery, Islamic Finance Gallery, Children’s Gallery, and the Central Bank’s art collection.

Housed in a gleaming new building with plenty of natural light, the gallery is within walking distance of the Bank Negara KTM Komuter station and a stone’s throw away from the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial. The word Sasana is derived from Sanskrit and describes a site, building, or arena where communities gather for meetings; while the kijang (deer) forms Bank Negara Malaysia’s logo. The Sasana Kijang’s architectural concept is inspired from the shape of the Cowrie shell, a popular form of money in the Malay Peninsula during the 3rd century, with its building façade derived from the geometric patterns of traditional Malaysian songket motifs.

The Numismatic Gallery features coin and bank note collections from around the world along with pre-monetary examples of exchange. An educational process, it is set out in a manner that allows visitors to witness the evolution of monetary means in the country. Upon arrival visitors are greeted by a collection of historical artifacts depicting the development of monetary exchange in Malaysia. From examples of early money in Borneo and Chinese traders’ currencies, to Malay sultanate coin examples that make up the base of Malaysian money today, the exhibition is teeming with interesting collections.


Starting from the early days when bartering was the most common form of exchange, the gallery’s exhibition instructs on the importance of different goods in exchange for services. Interactive computer games add to the appeal, providing an opportunity to take on the persona of a trader and barter with Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Malay counterparts.

In ancient times, a unit of measure was based on something that was valuable, durable, and easy to store. Being portable was also a requirement, with gold or silver being the natural options for these purposes. Thus, the use of primitive money in the form of metallic tokens or coins was introduced.

Through the ages, money became not only a medium of exchange and a unit and store of value, but also a historical track on the culture, religion, and traditions of respective societies. Coins have been used to record various events in history (such as the reign of kings and rulers), while the inscriptions, designs and motifs used on them noted important events, traditions, social, and political changes of nations. As time went on and the economic life of society grew more complex, money in the form of paper currency or notes were introduced as a much more convenient alternative.



The Early Borneo money exhibition showcases the jars, ceramic plates, bowls, and brass items that were used as a medium of exchange in Sarawak. Foreign silver coins, sometimes regarded as barter or pawn items, were made into belts worn by certain indigenous groups of Sarawak during the celebration of auspicious occasions.

The Early money in the Malay states exhibition displays a collection of cowrie shells imported from the Maldives, mainly used as currency for minor market purchases. Merchants from China then introduced copper cash in bulk into the Malay states and from there formed the currency of the majority of the states. The first native coins of the Malay states developed from this copper, which progressed in due course into coinage native to the East Coast.

The Current Series showcases all Malaysian currency from the time of independence until today. The exhibition details the history behind the notes, security measures, the design and layout, and offers guidance on differentiating the genuine notes from the counterfeit ones. Interestingly enough, there is also a collection of bank notes from various countries in the Asia Pacific region dating from the days of British rule, as well as those notes issued during the time of the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese.

The final part of the exhibition leads to the coins currently in circulation. Malaysia has had two series of coins circulated for normal use. The Central Bank (otherwise known as Bank Negara) issues these, with the first series having been issued on 12 June 1967 and the second series on 4 September 1989.

The Numismatic Gallery concludes with a giant map of the world covered in multicoloured dots designed to represent coins and a collection of bank notes worldwide, starting with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe – a truly global educational experience with a monetary twist.


Admission to The Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery is free and it is open 10am to 6pm daily. Parking is available at LG4 and LG5 (basement), with a parking fee of RM3 per entry, or the museum is located an easy 500-metre walk (under shady trees) from the Bank Negara KTM Komuter stop.


Source: Senses of Malaysia Nov-Dec 2012

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