Knowing how I struggled to pass math from grade school to college, my mother found it hard to believe that I was once advising the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). Of all the government gigs I have held over the years, the most enjoyable and educational was being ex-officio adviser to the BSP numismatic committee as chairman of the National Historical Commission. I learned a lot from our meetings, particularly those that concluded in the 2010 New Generation Currency banknotes. More than the Philippine history on the banknotes, the technical presentations from various suppliers of paper, ink, printing, and security features changed the way I look and handle banknotes today.
I always request the bank for notes that are new, fresh, and crisp. When available, I go for a batch with sequential numbers and arrange them neatly in my wallet, from lowest to highest denomination, with the portraits facing out when I use them to pay. I smell the notes for ink, I feel the engraving and raised printing with my fingertips, I examine the note for security features, visible and invisible. I focus on the overlooked details that provide integrity to a banknote.
When I travel outside Manila, I bring fresh low-denomination bills to avoid change because the physical state of frequently used bills deteriorates the farther you are from Metro Manila. Following my mother’s example, I have a separate wallet for marketing—soiled, crumpled, even wet ones from the fish vendors. I learned that banks withdraw tired bills and coins from circulation and replace them with new ones. But in places where people do not use the banking system, money continues circulating until they are truly unfit for use.
Vendors, bus conductors, and jeepney drivers tell me they distinguish banknotes by color or portrait: P20/orange/Manuel Quezon, P50/red/Sergio Osmeña, P100/violet/Manuel Roxas, P200/green/Diosdado Macapagal, P500/yellow/Ninoy and Cory Aquino, P1,000/blue/Josefa Llanes Escoda, Jose Abad Santos, Vicente Lim. When some people complained that in the first version of the 2010 currency the P100 and P1,000 looked so similar they led to costly mistakes, I replied the P100 has only one face on the note and P1,000 has three.
Martial law babies like myself remember a time when P1, P2, P5, and P10 were issued as banknotes. These low denominations have since been changed to coins for durability in frequent transactions, and, as this column is written, the P20 banknote is on its way out. Last Monday, the BSP announced a limited trial of polymer plastic on the highest denomination P1,000 bill. Having visited Singapore, Australia, Canada, and Vietnam before the pandemic, I have encountered these plastic notes and can’t quite like its “inauthentic” feel. That said, polymer notes are reportedly more durable than paper, a feature that promises a reduction in global warming. Environmentalists argue that shredded paper notes in a landfill is preferable to plastic that is neither biodegradable nor suitable for burning, but then can’t these be recycled into keychains, money clips, or plastic furniture? Then, in our pandemic mania for sanitation polymer banknotes guarantee easier cleaning than soiled paper.
Our banknote paper is a blend of 80-percent cotton and 20-percent abaca that makes it possible to be folded multiple times without breaking. BSP uses abaca to support farmers and even requires paper suppliers to prove that the abaca content was sourced from accredited Filipino suppliers. In 2009, BSP deferred a trial of polymer notes, and I remember asking a supplier after a presentation: “Is it true that if I leave a polymer banknote on my car dashboard on a hot day it will wrinkle?” Supplier replied sheepishly that heat won’t change its shape, but it could shrink to a degree too slight to be noticed. I don’t know if we are ready for polymer banknotes, but it is worth a trial run.
Our money circulates on trust. Early banknotes promised to pay the bearer the face value of a note in gold or silver, today’s banknotes simply promise to pay the bearer with more paper. If that isn’t an act of faith, what more a world that is cash-less? During the pandemic, many shifted from exchanging physical cash to credit cards, virtual wallets, GCash, online transfers, and transactions. Money circulates on trust.
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