Design Graphic Design Visual Culture

Why Do Malaysian School ‘Badges’ Look The Way They Do?

Have you ever wondered why? You most likely have never given it much thought. Despite being a visual communicator, I had never really questioned it myself. I just assumed that this is what school emblems are supposed to look like.

All this changed between 2004–2008. During this time period, I had purchased many books on design. One of them was Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup, a Danish designer and author. The book began with a brief history on the origins of the trademark: “the historical forerunner of modern trademarks evolved from the need and desire for social identification on the part of the individual or group”. In the section under history, the book introduced the discipline of heraldry, which is a medieval practice to identify knights or royalty, more on this later. I found the level of complexity in its use of symbolism intriguing and fascinating. While I had never heard of the term heraldry before, I was very familiar with its visual form as I would come to learn. In reading about it, I was struck with a revelation that our public school emblems (and government coat of arms) are based on this medieval European heritage.

On the one hand I was elated to have discovered this knowledge but on the other hand I was disturbed that we are still held captive by the vestiges of colonialism in our visual communication.

Figure 1 My copy of “Marks of Excellence” by Per Mollerup (2001) published by Phaidon Press. There is a newer edition (2013) and it can be purchased here. I prefer the older cover.
Figure 1. My copy of “Marks of Excellence” by Per Mollerup (2001) published by Phaidon Press. There is a newer edition (2013) and it can be purchased here. I prefer the older cover.

Before I go any further, I am using the term ‘emblem’ as opposed to ‘badge’ because when a school emblem is worn on (or adorns) the school uniform, it is only then referred to as a badge, which indicates your allegiance. So, a more appropriate terminology when referring to representative school symbols, especially if it is heraldic based, would be ‘emblem’.

So, what is heraldry? Heraldry is of medieval European heritage. Heraldry are symbols of identification of distinguished persons or states. They adorn flags, shields, or worn on armour. Heraldry is created by a herald who is historically appointed by the sovereign of the state. Heraldry allows a fully-kitted knight (Figure 2) to be recognised through the symbols (arms) that adorn his coat of arms (worn on his body over his armour) or his shield (escutcheon). It allows armies to distinguish foe from friend during battle. Royal lineages would be assigned unique armorial bearings to differentiate but also indicate hierarchy. Many of the terms used in heraldry are French in origin because French was once the formal language in the civilised world of Europe.” But an etymological study would also reveal Norman-French, early English, and ancient Germanic words in the lexicon. Today heraldry is often used in branding, companies such as UPS (United Parcel Service), Porsche, Bank Negara Malaysia, or Tag Heuer.

Figure 2. Illustration of a mounted medieval knight adorned with his coat of arms on his body armour, shield, horsecloth and standard (flag). Illustration sourced from Thor Odinson’s Pinterest.
Figure 2. Illustration of a mounted medieval knight adorned with his coat of arms on his body armour, shield, horsecloth and standard (flag). Illustration sourced from Thor Odinson’s Pinterest.

The basic components of heraldry are the shield, motto, mantle, helmet, crest, and supporters (Figure 3). The shield is then decorated using ‘charges’ (Figure 4), which can be simple geometric shapes known as ‘ordinaries’ that constitute shapes like: cross, saltire, or chevron. Charges can also be in animal form or symbolic: plant, object, building or other devices. All together, they are referred to as ‘arms’ or ‘armorial bearing’ or ‘coat of arms’, and the formal written description of the arms is called a ‘blazon’. Heraldries have their own lexicon and formal language of description (Figure 6) and one has to learn to write it accurately for another to decipher it. In medieval times heralds would have to decipher the blazon and draw it out for it to be displayed in jousting competitions between knights from different regions. When armorial bearings are displayed in full it is then referred to as ‘achievement’—one has to accomplish something for it to be recorded in his/her achievement. The level of complexity in the discipline of heraldry often leads to a life time of study—such is its depth.

Figure 3. The main components of a heraldic achievement. The achievement can increase in complexity.
Figure 3. The crude diagram above showcases the main components of a heraldic achievement. The achievement can increase in complexity.
Figure 4. Charges as Ordinaries (left) and Charges as symbols (right). Decoration on a shield, like the ordinaries, is called a charge. All kinds of interesting charges can be used ranging from geometrical (as in the ordinaries) to animals, flowers, plants, and more.
Figure 4. Ordinaries (left) and Charges (right). A shape like an ordinary when on a shield is also referred to as a charge. All kinds of interesting charges can be used ranging from geometrical (as in the ordinaries) to animals, flowers, plants, and more.
Figure 5. In heraldry, the ‘points’ on a ‘field ’of a shield are named. This allows for a more accurate blazon description. The diagram description on the left and right are terms used by individuals hailing from those regions (Britain or France). These fields are referred to for ‘blazoning’ which is the formal heraldic language/description of the shield’s armorial bearings. Her-alds, could determine colour/metal and draw out the charges on the shield by simply reading the blazon
Figure 5. In heraldry, the ‘points’ on a ‘field’ of a shield are named. This allows for a more accurate ‘blazon’ description, which is the formal heraldic language/description of the shield’s armorial bearings. The diagram description on the left and right are terms used by individuals hailing from those regions (Britain or France). These points are referred to for blazon descriptions. Heralds, could determine colour/metal and draw out the charges of the shield by simply reading the blazon.
Figure 6. My attempts at ‘blazoning’ the heraldic shields I created.
Figure 6. My attempts at ‘blazon’ descriptions for the heraldic based shield samples I created (right).
Figure 7. There are five principle colours (tinctures), two metals and the two of the most common furs used in heraldry (left). When saving time and cost, the use of lines and dots in different angles is devised to reference the colour and metal (right).
Figure 7. There are five principle colours (tinctures), two metals and the two of the most common furs used in heraldry (left). When the use of colour is not an available option, the use of lines and dots in different angles (hatching) is devised to reference the colour and metal (centre). This is also termed as “a trick” according to Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1905).

Today, the UK’s College of Arms is an official body that continues this tradition and oversees the granting of coat of arms, flying of flags, and the maintenance of other national symbols among other duties within the UK. The College of Arms is headed by the ‘Garter King of Arms’, a position that has been in existence since 1417. This is the office that created the coat of arms for the Federated Malay States in 1915, which served as the basis of the updated coat of arms in 1952 and all subsequent amendments. It was also the office that designed the Federated Malay States’ ensign (flag), which is “a flag that is flown (as by a ship) as the symbol of nationality”. This ensign (Figure 7) was developed from the flags of 4 states namely Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan (then spelt as Negri Sembilan) and Pahang.

Figure 7. Federated Malay States ensign (1915) for government vessels, as per the record of the College of Arms, London. The ensign was recreated based on visual research by © Vinod J. Nair, 2021. The flag mock up .psd file used was from www.freepik.com
Figure 7. Federated Malay States ensign (1915) for government vessels, as per the record of the College of Arms, London. The ensign above was recreated based on visual research by © Vinod J. Nair, 2021. (The flag mock up .psd file in use here is from www.freepik.com)

Curiously, due to its relative isolation, Japan has developed a unique visual language in the form of “Mon” emblems or Kamon symbols that have a similar function to heraldic emblems of Europe. Interestingly, unlike many other former British colonies, the newly independent Indian government bucked the trend of using a heraldic based coat of arms and chose an emblem from the Mauryan empire — an empire that produced the world’s oldest treatise on politics and philosophy, The Arthashastra — as its representative symbol.

We in Malaysia, sadly, were deprived of an opportunity to set our very own visual language due in part to the lack of visual literacy among decision makers then and now, and citizenry in general. It will take time and much effort on the part of visual communicators to educate and raise awareness in visual literacy, in so that we may take ownership of our national symbols and perhaps, someday, chart a new direction.

“A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.” — Thompson D. S. (2019)

Figure 8. Japanese government seal (left) and the Indian government emblem (right). Both symbols of government are not based on medieval European Heraldic systems. India and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka government symbol not featured here) despite being former colonies had enough awareness to adapt symbols that are indigenous to their respective cultures and history.
Figure 8. Japanese government seal (left) and the Indian government emblem (right). Both symbols of government are not based on medieval European Heraldic systems. India and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka government symbol not featured here) despite being former colonies had enough awareness to adapt symbols that are indigenous to their respective cultures and history.

In Malaysia, the majority of our public and private school emblems are based on heraldic designs. It has become the visual form associated with education institutions and many do not question how this came to be. That said, Chinese medium school emblems do vary using geometrical shapes instead of shields, and more recently newer Islamic religious schools (sekolah agama) have begun to move away from the heraldic system. Even so, the majority still retain elements adapted from the heraldic system either in the use of a motto, charges (symbols), or division of field/space to place symbols (charges) in.

Public School emblems or badges in Malaysia
Figure 9. The different types of public school emblems in Malaysia.

In an era where we have become more conscious about our culture, heritage and lineages, I wonder what would have been the shape or form of the symbols we would have adapted were it not for the colonial presence (and subjugation), or if we had chosen to adopt a new visual language upon achieving independence. While colonialism is a thing of the past, the “colonial mentality” or an unquestioning mind held captive still persists amongst those who originate from former colonial states. Today western hegemony of media continues this insidious and subtle influence of culture and visual language. Thus, the “captive mind” is no longer a construct that only afflicts former colonies alone.

In my next article, I will touch on the history of some of the earliest ‘formal’ schools established in Malaya, and the emblems of these schools. I will also look into how these emblems have visually devolved over time and in many cases no longer conform to heraldic conventions (rules). I will attempt to correct or redraw some of these school emblems, which I think you might find exciting. So, stay tuned.

Let me leave you with a taste of what is to come.

Azure, in a Rose Hibiscus Proper surrounded by three Malayan tigers Proper; in chief a Palmyra palm manuscript Or.
Figure 10. (Left) Current Coat of Arms of Universiti Malaya. (Right) Coat of Arms revised by © Vinod J. Nair, 2021. The University of Malaya (1949–1961) came into being after the colonial authorities (Malaya-Singapore) merged King Edward VII College of Medicine (1905) with Raffles College (1929) in the year 1949. This merger would result in a new coat of arms (1949–1961) featuring a passant reguardant tiger and an open book in chief. The university would split in 1962 to form Universiti Malaya and the National University of Singapore respectively. Unfortunately, the tiger in the coat of arms of the 1962 version would devolve significantly (as seen above left). I was able to recreate the tiger based on an archival reference of the 1949 version of the coat of arms featuring the tiger. Now, the refined version of the tiger on the right looks just as impressive as the Palmyra palm manuscript drawing charge (symbol). In addition to the tiger, I redrew the Rose Hibiscus and faced it frontward, rather than its side, which didn’t seem to sit well in contrast with the other charges (symbols) on the shield. This is my attempt to blazon the university’s coat of arms: Azure, a Rose Hibiscus Proper; surrounded by three passant regardant tigers, in chief a Palmyra palm manuscript Or.

*Update: As the article made its usual rounds on social media, I received a comment from an Andrew Yong. It was very astute of him to catch this in the Universiti Malaya coat of arms, as I had outright missed it. He pointed out that the ‘chief’ did not comply with the rules of tincture. The rule of tincture states, to never put a colour on colour or a metal on a metal. The chief is the rectangular shape at the top of the Universiti Malaya shield (see Figure 4), and as an ordinary it is a charge in on itself. The chief is currently Azure (blue) which sits on a field of Azure, both are colours, thus breaking the said rule of never putting colour on colour (see figure 7 for what constitutes colour and metal). To correct this, the chief should be a metal; gold or silver (yellow/white) if the shield’s field is Azure.  See the correction (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Blazon description: Azure, a Rose Hibiscus Proper between three Malayan tigers passant regardant Proper on a chief Or a Palmyra Palm Manuscript Azure. Corrected coat of Arms by © Vinod J. Nair, 2022.
Digital Illustration by © Vinod J. Nair, 2021.

2 comments

  1. An insight of a biting truth – we are surrounded by many visual semiotics that place a grid of power over us which we unconsciously allow to continue to manipulate us. When the Imperialists left after signing formal treaties, natives assume we had won ownership to our lands. These emblematic imprints unfortunately suggest we have yet to claim our selves. Therefore, have we reached independence? Perhaps a more forward-thinking question, what shape of forms of symbols can we design for ourselves that can be powerful enough to liberate us?

    1. That is, the question. I suspect that these forms/symbols will take shape only if we become aware of what ‘is’. I think there is much historically that can be leveraged on for forms and meanings, if, we are able to embrace our shared (regional) history openly and truthfully.

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