The Hari Raya Puasa Greeting Cards Collection of Muhammad Ariff Ahmad

These days, sending festive greetings to friends and family is only a click away on our phones. However, a physical card conveys so much more. Librarian Toffa Abdul Wahed gives us a peek at a unique collection of greeting cards collected by one of Singapore’s literary giants.

In its collection, the National Library has albums filled with Hari Raya Puasa greeting cards from the 1960s to 1980s, which once belonged to the late Cultural Medallion recipient Muhammad Ariff Ahmad (also known as Mas), an accomplished writer, editor and lecturer. Not only does this collection of cards showcase the festive traditions of the past, it also gives us an insight into Mas’ relationships and illustrious career.¹ Many of the senders were figures from the language and literary arts scene and the people he met through his active involvement in many associations and committees as well as his past students.

Mas receiving the 1987 Cultural Medallion for literature from former Minister for Community Development and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Wong Kan Seng in 1988. Credit: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

It is believed that the tradition of sending Hari Raya Puasa greeting cards began in the mid-1940s.² Inspired by the Western tradition of sending Christmas cards, this practice provided a way for people to send well wishes to those they might not get to visit during the festive season.³ Over time, people would send these cards to their neighbours as well. Hari Raya greeting cards typically contain poetic verses and words that ask the receiver for forgiveness for any wrongdoings. According to Mas, cards from the 1940s were usually simply made by folding A4-sized paper into four and handwriting the greetings. In the 1950s, stamped cards began to appear on the scene.⁴

Based just on the cards in this collection, we can see how these greeting cards have changed over time. While Hari Raya Cards nowadays feature paper embossing, hot foil stamping and the use of Islamic symbols like the star and crescent, the older cards are very different. Some have photo prints that include portraits of the sender. A common visual motif was depictions of the landscape, like kampong houses, coconut trees, bullock carts, fishing boats and kelongs, which are not typically used in Singapore today.

Interestingly, none of the cards in Mas’ albums feature the ketupat, a rice cake served during Hari Raya Puasa. I remember drawing images of ketupat on the cards I made because it was a recurrent motif that was featured on the cards I received.

Some of the greeting cards from the early 1960s even referred to the politics of the times, mentioning Merdeka or independence and liberation from British colonial rule. (Malaya had gained independence in 1957 whereas Singapore was granted internal self-rule in 1959 by the British colonial government. Singapore would later become part of Malaysia in 1963 before undergoing separation and becoming an independent and sovereign state in 1965.)

While e-cards became more popular in the 2000s, I still preferred physical cards as I could use them as festive decorations around the house.

A greeting card (undated, c. 1970) with a cover that was decorated using solely ink stamps. Stamps featuring the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei and the National Mosque in Malaysia (the ones in dark blue ink shown here) were popular and appeared in many cards in this collection especially those sent in the 1960s.
A card (signed 1970) with a cover that was decorated with ink stamps and an oval cut-out of a photo of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei. The greetings inside the card were stamped and typewritten.

I absolutely love the cards that feature black-and-white portraits and those that highlight the creativity of the sender, for example, this one from Mr Abdolah Lamat. It was a surprise to come across this greeting card in the collection from someone I know! Abdolah Lamat (or Mr Dolah to his students) was a music teacher in my primary school who would play the piano while the class would sing along to the tune.

His card is an example of a photo print card that brings together different elements (such as the sender’s portrait, handwritten and hand-drawn greetings, and hand-drawn decorations), and then printing that image onto a sheet of photo print paper in the desired size.

Examples of greetings cards with family portraits (left-most column). The middle and right-most columns show photo prints featuring solo portraits of the senders. Top-left (undated, c. 1968); bottom-left (signed 1969); middle from Abdolah Lamat (undated, c. 1968); top-right (signed 1968) and bottom-right (signed 1969).

Mas had a hand in making and selling Hari Raya greeting cards as well. Together with his two artist-friends, Sulaiman Suhaimi and Hassan Salleh, he sold hand-painted cards at a festive bazaar at the Telok Blangah Malay School in 1945. While his friends painted watercolour scenes of mainly kampung houses, coconut trees and boats on the cards, Mas was tasked with composing the greetings in poetic verses in the form of pantun, syair or gurindam (forms of traditional Malay poetry) using a typewriter. Mas also hand-wrote personalised messages upon request.

During his studies abroad from 1946 to 1949 at the Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) in Perak, Mas used photo prints to make cards, which he sold at 15 cents for every two cards. When he returned to Singapore in 1949, he noticed that many Hari Raya greeting cards were printed and sold at bookstores. Not satisfied with the quality of their content, he made his own cards and paid Royal Press to print them.⁵

Examples of painted cards from senders. Left (signed 1968), middle (undated, c. 1962) and right (signed 1968).

As I flipped through the pages of these albums, I could not help but marvel at the colourful cards that were not limited to the green palette that we associate with Hari Raya greeting cards and money packets today. Colourful cards seemed to be more popular among students. The common motifs found on these cards include flowers, mosques and village scenes. A well-loved and respected educator, Mas received numerous greeting cards from his students. Some of these cards sent in by students were also addressed to his wife who was also a teacher.

Examples of greeting cards that depict village scenes. Left (signed 1962) and right (undated, c. 1962). The card on the right was sent by Elizabeth Choy and family. This could have been the Elizabeth Choy, the war heroine. Interestingly, the greeting in this card references “Malaya Merdeka” or Independent Malaya. (Malaya achieved independence in 1957.)
Colourful greeting cards featuring village scenes and people dancing. Left-most (signed 1968), top-middle (signed 1963), bottom-middle (undated, c. 1970), top-right (signed 1968) and bottom-right (undated, c. 1962)
Examples of colourful pop-up cards that feature religious and floral motifs. Top (undated, c. 1968) and bottom (undated, c. 1963).

Many adults seemed to prefer cards that had a simple design or were monochromatic. Some cards were so simple that they consisted only of text and no decorative elements, including those produced by Mas and his family. These plain cards likely cost less to produce. After all, it’s the thought that counts!

Examples of greeting cards produced by Mas and his family in 1970.
Examples of greeting cards with minimalist designs. Top-left (signed 1970), bottom-left (signed 1963) and right (signed 1968). The card sent by Buang Omar also incorporates a reference to Merdeka in the greeting.

People who had a lot of cards to send would print their own cards to save money and add personal touches instead of buying readymade ones off the shelves. In addition to the abovementioned Royal Press, another example of a company that offered greeting card printing services in Singapore was Al-Ahmadiah Press. According to a 1973 Berita Harian article, the company used to charge $10 for an order of 100 cards measuring 4½ x 6 inches, but it had to increase its prices to $12 due to the global increase in paper prices.⁶

Examples of greeting cards depicting religious sites and motifs. Top-left (signed 1968), bottom-middle (signed 1963), bottom-left (undated, c. 1969) and left-most (signed 1968).

While many cards in this collection feature the National Mosque and/or the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the capitals of Malaysia and Brunei respectively (there is even a handful that portray scenes of religious sites in Mecca which people would normally associate more with the hajj and Hari Raya Haji), one featuring the Muhajirin Mosque in Toa Payoh on its cover stood out for me.

Inaugurated in 1977, this mosque was the first mosque to be built under the Mosque Building Fund (which later merged with the Mendaki Fund and was renamed the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). Another card features Al-Muttaqin Mosque in Ang Mo Kio on its cover. Opened in 1980, this was the fifth mosque to be built using this fund. These cards were part of a series produced by an organisation known as Laras (Penyelaras Masjid-Masjid or Coordinator of Mosques) to raise funds for the mosques that had been built to use in, for instance, developing educational programmes and materials, and hiring teachers. Mas had a hand in producing these cards as the chairman of Laras.⁷

Greeting cards featuring Muhajirin Mosque (left) and Al-Muttaqin Mosque (right) in Singapore. Both cards were printed in 1982.

Last but not least, I stumbled upon a heartwarming discovery while browsing through these albums. One of them was gifted to Mas by his friend Jymy Asmara in 1953. Like Mas, Jymy (whose real name was Jaffar Mohamad) was one of the founding members of the well-known literary association, Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 (Asas ‘50), in post-war Malaya.⁸ The two had first met when Mas was still a trainee teacher at SITC in the late 1940s.⁹ In a heartfelt poem typewritten on a piece of paper and then pasted in the album, Jymy expressed his hope that Mas would fill the empty book with valuable things and turn it into something useful and cherished by others. An excerpt of the poem reads:

Hanya inilah sabuah buku hitam yang masih kosong,
Minta diperhias sehingga jadi berguna,
Sehingga si Hitam ini disayang orang — dihargakan orang,
Menurut bentok dari jiwamu sendiri.

This is only a black book that is still empty,
Asking to be decorated, so it becomes useful,
So this black one is loved by people — cherished by people,
According to the design from your own soul.

Jymy Asmara gifted this album (left) to Mas in 1953 and included a poem (right) in it.

Indeed, this album as well as the other albums are useful in providing a glimpse into the practice of sending Hari Raya greeting cards and the development of different styles, designs and card-making techniques. I hope that more people will come to view and cherish them as well. Or even get inspired to make and send their own cards this year!

Note: Albums of Hari Raya Puasa greeting cards are kept in the Reference Closed Collection of the National Library. Please make an online reservation to access these materials. For more details about the albums, click here.

Toffa Abdul Wahed is a Librarian with the National Library, Singapore, and works with the Singapore and Southeast Asia Collection.

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[1] The albums also contain cards addressed to Mas’ wife and children.

[2] Dewani Abbas, “Anjuran budi bahasa banyak terdapat dalam detik perayaan”, Berita Harian, 7 August 1980, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

[3] Haron A. Rahman, “Cards that ask for forgiveness”, Straits Times, 6 July 1983, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

[4] Anuar Othman, “Memberi kad, mengucap selamat”, Berita Harian, 26 February 1994, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

[5] Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, “Di sebalik kad raya”, Berita Harian, 10 March 2001, 20; “Asal kad Hari Raya dicipta”, Berita Harian, 28 July 2014, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

[6]Orang ramai mula sibuk beli kad2 Hari Raya”, Berita Harian, 10 October 1973, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

[7]Laras akan cetak 100,000 kad h-raya untuk dijual”, Berita Minggu, 14 March 1982, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

[8] Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, “Jymy Asmara bantu makalah P. Ramlee”, Berita Harian, 26 October 2015, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

[9] Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, “Dedah misteri Jymy Asmara”, Berita Harian, 19 October 2015, 8. (From NewspaperSG)



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