Month: November 2014

From Magna Charta to Singapore’s Constitution

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the restoration of two antiquarian books owned by a local law professor.

The two completed books. On left, the Spirit of Magna Charta and the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya

These books, The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841, bound by Wildy & Sons, Lincoln’s Inn, London) and Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London) represented two important points in the history of UK Law.

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Original condition of The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841)

The 1841 book was a treatise on the importance of the Magna Charta, which was sealed by King John under pressure from rebelling barons on 15 June 1215. The document effectively placed a limitation on arbitrary royal authority and sought to establish that the king was subject to the law and not above it. Over the many centuries, it was seen as a symbol of struggle for liberty and the strive for greater democracy. The American revolutionists, the 19th century England working class and even the new pioneers of Australia all saw it as a “People’s Charter” and the basis of their own country’s law to recognise the rights and will of the people.

This awareness and respect for the Magna Charta underlined UK’s efforts to progressive grant independence to colonies worldwide, including Malaya. In 1946, 11 states in Peninsular Malaya came together to form a single British Crown Colony known as the Malayan Union. UK continued to enjoy strong, amicable ties with Malaya throughout the entire period of the Malayan Emergency until it was confident enough that communism was no longer a threat in Malaya and hence independence was granted.

Original Condition for Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957)

The newly-formed Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on 31 August 1957 with the passing of Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957. The new constitution for the Federation was drafted jointly by law practitioners in UK and Malaya with inputs from international experts, culminating in the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya.

When Singapore joined Malaya in 1963, the Federation Constitution was adopted and when the island gained independence in 1965, part of the constitution remained and was refined to become our own State Constitution. Hence, the proposal could be seen as the genesis of Singapore’s Constitution as well.

The two books came to me as pamphlet sections bounded together using metal staples. The 1841 book was definitely in a worse condition than the 1957 one but notwithstanding, the ferrous metal staples had corroded over the years and had become weak and friable, leaving a bright orange stain on sections of both books. The staples were removed and parts of each folio affected by corrosion were cleaned and patched up using lightweight repair papers.

Damage caused by metal staples (left) and the repaired sections

Once strengthened, the sections were hand-sewn using French-link stitch on tapes. The completed text blocks were then glued, rounded and backed to create a rounded book spine. The client had requested for a traditional look for the two books, hence quarter leather binding was chosen. The calf skins, in black and red, were pared down and pasted onto the spine. This was then followed by the pasting down of marbled papers for the covers and the endpapers.

Restoration Process — clockwise from top left, rebinding, backing, leather paring and casing in

You would probably notice that the endpapers were attached onto new flypapers instead of the original book. This allowed for maximum reversibility in the future if the books are damaged or if the owner wants to recommission a new binding for the books. The flypaper can simply be cut away and the original textblock can be removed.

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The completed restored books

In total, the entire job took about 2 months to complete. Considering that I have to juggle full-time work, weekend bookbinding workshops and other activities, the process proceeded very smoothly. While I cannot say I have acquired a fondness for law history, I did gain quite a bit of law knowledge flipping through the two books, especially on the rights each citizen is entitled to.