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The Stamp Office Records, 1920s-1930s: A Neglected Database on Kedah's Propertied Class
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Photograph courtesy of Jane Cardosa, wife of Khoo Khay Jin.

Introduction

Death marks not only an important rite of passage, but also an event to be monitored by the state, not least for revenue purposes. In death, a person's financial affairs become matters of bureaucratic scrutiny and record keeping. As records, they pass into the historian's territory and can be utilized as a database for a whole host of purposes limited, perhaps, only by the historian's imagination.

The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the existence of a set of such records in Kedah which, to the best of my knowledge, has been unjustly neglected. This is the Kedah Stamp Office records running from the 1920s to the 1940s, and its counterpart, the Estate Duty Office records. The bulk of these records are preserved, primarily, in the Arkib Negara Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, while a subsidiary collection is kept at its branch in Alor Setar. There should be Stamp Office records or their equivalent in other states, perhaps under different names depending upon the relevant legislation of each respective state.

I illustrate some of the uses of select records, and summaries of their contents towards that end. Readers will most likely see other uses. This paper will hopefully make a contribution as a source material towards local history writing in Malaysia.

Regulating Death

In pre-war colonial Kedah two main enactments marked the state's interest in the death of its subjects: the Administration of Estates Enactment and the Stamp Enactment. Essentially, the former stipulated that a proper accounting had to be made of the estate of a deceased person and that letters of administration had to be sought in the event that the estate contained either immovable property or movable property valued at more than $100. The latter enactment, amongst other things, required estate duty to be paid if the net value of the estate exceeded $500 in value.

Anyone applying for letters of administration to the Lower Court or the High Court, depending upon the estimated value of the estate, had to provide a list of the assets and liabilities of the deceased. The application was then forwarded to the Stamp Office for verification. The Controller of Stamp Duty could request further clarification fromthe applicant, and could call upon the services of relevant offices, such as the Land Office or the Veterinary Office, to provide the necessary valuation. As a result, these fascinating lists, and correspondence pertaining to them, ended up in the files of the Stamp Office.

The floor levels set by the enactments were such to ensure that the poor amongst the dead are not to be found in these files. The extant records indicate that the poor, in general, ignored the enactments and/or did not make the required applications. Instead, the heirs often came to some private arrangement, or might only file for letters of administration for the purposes of formal subdivision a considerable time later.

These records, therefore, cannot give much insight into the state of the poor. What they do is reveal the estates of the better-off in society, especially members of the ruling class, such as the royalty of Kedah—their sources and bases of wealth, their material lifestyle, the nature of their lending and borrowing of money, the value of their properties such as land, cattle, housing, jewellery and clothes, their ethnic background—and the role of Malay women as property owners.

The Records

This paper relates mostly to applications for letters of administration as the bulk of the extant Stamp Office records in the Kedah archives pertain to this matter.

Commonly, an application for letters of administration provided the name of the deceased, his or her last place of residence, the name of the applicant and his or her relationship to the deceased. Other particulars needed were the name, sex, age, and place of residence and the relationship of the deceased to the claimants of the inheritance as well as their shares under Muslim law, if the deceased was a Muslim. In addition, there was a list of the properties, movable and immovable, as well as the assets...



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