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The face of money

Launched in November last year to commemorate Andres Bonifacio’s 154th birthday and the 120th year of his death, the New Generation P5 coin was met with more complaints than compliments, not due to faulty history, botany, or taxonomy, but because it was too similar to the P1 coin. Even before it went into circulation, the public cried foul citing potential losses due to the confusion. Change is not always welcome and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas should have primed the public for the new coins and advised operators to recalibrate vending machines to accept them.

Previous columns on this topic generated violent disagreements via email laced with expletives and the charge that I was “elitist” for advising the lazy and careless to simply look at the coins when giving or receiving them. It does not take much effort to know that the faces of the coins are different: Jose Rizal on P1, the basic unit of our currency; Bonifacio on P5; and Apolinario Mabini on P10. If a preschooler can distinguish one from the other, we can presume an adult can do better. If the complainers run a finger or fingernail around the edges of these coins they will feel that the P1 is ribbed intermittently, the P5 is plain and smooth, while the P10 has edged lettering that spells out “Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.”  If the blind or blind-folded can distinguish one from the other, surely someone with normal sight or glasses can do the same.

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Coins are more durable than paper, waterproof, too so why complain? Perhaps the BSP should have commissioned a study on how we deal with money because the findings will say a lot about Filipino behavior. I was told that we often experience an artificial shortage of coins because they don’t circulate. At the end of the day many people put all their coins in a piggy bank where they remain for a long, long, time. Supermarket cashiers used to give candy as change until the BSP told them it was not legal to do so. As a result some cashiers short-change the customers who usually shrug their shoulders and go. I often count and demand my change, making surly cashiers give me a coin worth more, rather than go through the trouble of breaking packs of small coins they don’t want to account for later. To complicate matters, the 50- and 10-centavo coins are discontinued in the New Generation Currency.

Unknown to the public, there was a time when the metal value of the P1 coin was worth more than its face value, so industrious Chinese would take them back to China where these were melted down and the metal extracted at a profit. The new coins are designed to deter metal extraction. Way back when silver from Spanish-America made their way to Asia on the Manila galleons, the unscrupulous would clip or shave off edges from these rough cob coins, known in Philippine numismatics as “hilis kalamay” diminishing its weight and value. Accumulated shavings made for a profit. In response to this, Spanish mints in the New World introduced the “Dos Mundos” or silver dollar coveted by pirates of the high seas who knew them as “Ocho reales” or “Piece of Eight” that had a serrated edge that would show any clipping or shaving. This serrated-edge feature on the coins was described in Malay as “ringgit,” the same word for the Malaysian currency today.

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To guarantee authenticity, many Spanish silver coins that circulated in Asia were marked with Chinese chops that assured its correct weight and fineness. This practice continues in Asia today as moneychangers stamp $100 bills with small but distinct markings: Chinese characters, Roman letters, or even cartoon figures to ensure the bills are not counterfeit.  Problem is that in some countries like Indonesia you must travel with crisp bills free of any markings. Bills with chop marks, folds or creases may not be accepted or taken with a lower rate of exchange than a clean note. It is not well known that $100 bills or “Franklins,” for Benjamin Franklin whose kind face smiles from them, is the most counterfeited money and that there are more “Franklins” circulating outside than within the US mainland. Travelers carrying them are often surprised that some shops in the United States cannot give change for bills higher than $20. People handle and deal with money differently as a reflection of various nationalities and cultures in a global world.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: andres bonifacio, bangko sentral ng pilipinas, coins, History
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