A walk in the past through revenue stamps and documents
By Patricia Hului
Stamps and legal documents are just a combination of tedious paperwork for most of us, but give them another 100 years or so, and they could tell more stories than we could imagine.
For Philatelic Society of Kuching Sarawak president Dr Ong Liap Teck, they’re a window to the past.
During a talk organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum on Aug 20, he talked about Sarawak postage and revenue stamps, focusing on the period from 1869 to 1949.
While most of us are familiar with postal stamps with which we used to send our snail mail, stamps were also used as revenue or fiscal stamps.
“These stamps were used for tax collection by the governments and usually pasted on documents,” Ong explained.
In order to collect these types of stamps, Ong also collected the documents upon which where the stamps were attached on.
“The first Sarawak stamp was officially issued on Mar 1, 1869 depicting a portrait of James Brooke, first Rajah of Sarawak although he had died some nine months earlier,” said Ong.
Then, the second stamp of Sarawak was issued in January 1871; it was the first stamp that depicted the portrait of the second Rajah Charles Brooke with many issues to be followed.
Charles Vyner Brooke then became the third White Rajah of Sarawak on May 24, 1917.
Therefore a new series of stamp of the new Rajah became necessary and was duly issued on Mar 26, 1918.
The Usage of Revenue Stamps
The talk was based on his exhibition ‘Revenue Stamps and Documents of Sarawak 1869 to 1945’ which was held during the World Stamp Championship 2004 in Singapore where he was awarded a vermeil for the exhibition.
One of the highlights of his collection was the earliest identity card known to him.
“In 1918, the Sarawak government decided to issue identity cards,” Ong said.
It was not even a card like we have now but a certificate issued to a Chinese businessman residing in Kuching, otherwise known as Sarawak Proper at the time.
“Why did this Mr Li Wing Thong need an identity card back then? It was specifically designated for travelling to Singapore.”
Apparently, Li was a very successful and prominent local Chinese trader with vast range of business activities ranging from gold mine to consumer goods.
Ong said, “He was later made a Kapitan China of the local Chinese community by the third Rajah.”
Through his collection, he also found out the legality or paperwork behind some of the major economic activity a century ago for example, gold mining.
“Normally, a syndicate would be set up and fund request public by issuance of shares in the company to finance the mining venture.”
He then showed a share certificate of The Gold Label Mining Corporation with the amount raised was $50,000 and a 3 cents stamp attached on it.
Besides that, he also had a receipt issued by the Samarahan Mining Syndicate, one of the many syndicated consortiums formed for the gold mining purposes in the 1930s in Sarawak.
Revenue stamps were also found on promissory note, in Ong’s example was a note acknowledging the receipt of a loan $500 and promised to pay the lender back.
According to law, the rate for stamp duty was 5 cents for every $100 loan.
Overprinting stamps were necessary back in the old days because of the high cost of reprinting these stamps.
In the 1920s, the government decided to collect taxes on imported firearms.
Rather than reprinting a new batch of stamps, all denominations of the revenue stamps were overprinted with the word ‘CUSTOMS’.
Additionally, before the issuance of the 1914 postage and revenue stamps, there was a shortage of the 3 cents, 5 cents, 50 cents, and $1 values.
According to Ong, thus some high denomination revenue stamps were overprinted to satisfy the need.
In his collection, he had $2 green and blue stamps overprinted with ‘5 cents’ as well as $3 green and carmine stamps overprinted with ‘5 cents’.
The practice of having separate stamps for postal and fiscal uses was discontinued on May 1, 1934.
Fast forward to 1941, the colour of the 1934 definitive stamps was changed in order to follow the regulations of the Universal Postal Union.
Ong pointed out, “Sarawak has been a member of this union since July 1, 1897.”
Then, the Japanese occupation came in 1941. A few months later after the Japanese first arrived, an announcement was made by the Japanese Military Administration Board to stabilise the cost of livelihood.
Showing a copy of the proclamation, Ong pointed out: “As it turns out as shown here, the stamp duty also actually adhered to the Stamp Ordinance under the Brooke government.”
He also showed an identity card issued by during the Japanese occupation.
“It is interesting to note that there for the identity card was 50 cents same as during the Brooke government.”
Fascinatingly, stamps were also used as confidential label seals during the Japanese occupation.
“There were doubts whether the actual denomination of the stamps were of any significant other than a form of security seals.”
Nonetheless, these confidential label seals were usually classified under revenue stamps but according to Ong, used copies were hard to find.
After the Japanese left, the British Military Administration was set up and took over the Sarawak administration.
Once again, they did not print new batch stamps but overprinted the 1934/1941 issue of the Sarawak postal stamps with the initials B.M.A and they were valid for both postal and fiscal uses.
Ong pointed out they were only used for a short period of time and was withdrawn for sale on Apr 25, 1946 during the time BMA handed back Sarawak to Charles Vyner Brooke.
After the war, commercial activities began to resume and Pacific Traders (Borneo) Limited was one of the first few companies to issue share certificate.
The certificate was dated back to Nov 20, 1946.
Ong also has a set of stamps which was the first to mark the cession of Sarawak as a Crown Colony.
“It is the last set of stamp which depicts the portrait of Vyner Brooke on Sarawak stamp although it was overprinted with the Royal Cipher and the Brooke family were no longer rule Sarawak.”
“From these stamps, you can see the change of administration, their social lives and business activities.”
Though he admitted not all answers were given through them, it was still interesting to know the human aspects behind these stamps.
Ong has been collecting stamps since childhood but it was only during the past two decades since 1996 he began to participate in philatelic competitions.
When comes to his philatelic interest, Ong always had his eyes on revenue stamps and document of Sarawak.