FIRST NEWS by Alan Lau


WHEN THE FIRST ISSUE OF the Sarawak Gazette appeared on 26 August 1870, it consisted of a three-page summary of a Reuters telegram’s coverage of the Franco-Prussian war. It also laid down its twofold mission: “to provide those Europeans who reside at Outstations with concise statements of official business and other matters of public interest…” “to serve as a recognized report of the condition of the various residencies under the Sarawak Government, in their relations to the natives and to the trading interests which most of them possess, for circulation in other countries and settlements.”

The Sarawak Gazette was established under the energetic Sir Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of Sarawak, who took an avid interest in its publication. A Government Printing Office was established, and the Gazette then proceeded to play a central role in recording Sarawakian life for the next 100 years.

The Gazette was the first regular English newspaper in the country. Published monthly or twice-monthly, during its heyday it was Sarawak’s most important printed source of news and information, circulating information within Sarawak and on Sarawakrelated matters to the outside world.

Historic editions of the Sarawak Gazette can be accessed today, notably on the website of the Sarawak State Library, which has helpfully made its collection of Gazettes fully accessible to the public at www.pustaka-sarawak.com/gazette/home.php.

When confronted with an actual early paper edition of the Gazette however, one is struck by its dimensions. It was printed on sheets of paper larger than foolscap, but smaller than a modernday
tabloid. The paper itself, formerly white, now ranges from amber to sunset yellow. The first page is emblazoned with the Brooke Sarawak crest, and the words “Sarawak Gazette” in large, elongated gothic font, giving it a distinctive, if slightly musty, air of authority. Most specimens you’ll see today are leather-bound in annual hardcover compilations but, when newly circulated, they would have been folded like miniature newspapers, all the better for mobility.

Like the presence of the Rajah Charles, copies of the Gazette were once ubiquitous, in club lounges, libraries, and European households throughout the land. It was fondly called “the parish rag”, a reference to the relatively small size of its readership (Europeans and the English-educated), as well as the fact that nearly all its publishers and readers were acquainted with each other. Pseudonyms were regularly used by contributing writers, but they were generally useless as maskers of identity.

Apart from being an invaluable record of events and the comings-and-goings of the Brookes, their officers and other personages, the editorials and contributed articles give a fascinating glimpse into life in pre-war Sarawak.

Despite its quasi-official status, the editors of the Gazette were largely given free rein over the content. While some self-censorship certainly went on, especially in matters pertaining to the Rajah and his family, the Gazette seems to have been relatively free from government interference, and the editorial could pick and choose topics of discussion at will.

Its content generally fell into 3 main categories. The first consisted of official government-related material, such as the proclamation of new laws, announcements of major state events, promotions and postings of government officials, and the comings and goings of the Rajah and his family members. There were also extracts from the monthly reports of the Residents of the various Divisions, which recorded the day-today dealings between the Brooke-era officers and the natives. They make for some informative but dry reading, preserving for posterity such minutiae as the sago trade surpluses of Mukah, as well as the number of absconding prisoners at Kapit. These accounts paint an overall picture of the Brooke-era officers, not as sedentary bureaucrats but as well-travelled civil servants in close contact with the natives and the country they governed.

The second category consisted of editorial material, which included articles on a broad range of subjects. An Op-ed article about rising car ownership and traffic etiquette might share a page with a detailed account of the 1922 British Empire Exhibition in London, where Sarawak had been allocated a pavilion. Short fiction often made an appearance; the Ranee Sylvia, who was herself a well-known writer in England, contributed several short stories. There were also articles of an anthropological or scientific nature, written for lay readers with minimal technical jargon. They might detail Melanau burial rituals, a traditional tuba fishing ceremony or an account of the latest research expedition to the interior. These articles demonstrate the Gazette’s lively interest in Sarawak, as well as the customs and traditions of its native peoples.

Printed monthly or twicemonthly, the Gazette added on crossword puzzles and advertisements in later years.

A third category comprised practical data for public use, such as price lists for market products, almanac information on weather and tides, and passenger lists within and without the country.

Even a quick browse through an old copy of the Sarawak Gazette will reveal how strange a publication it is, compared with modern periodicals and newspapers, with its unusually diverse content which defies easy classification. There might be, on the first page directly below the crest, an official proclamation outlining the Rajah’s latest decree, followed by a slew of notices on the latest movements of the Rajah and his family, the appointments or movements of various Sarawak officers and announcements or descriptions of major social events, such as notable weddings or funerals. The main body might consist of articles, wide-ranging in scope and tone (an account of a newly discovered beetle might sit, cheek-by-jowl, with a humorous story on stolen tennis apparel). Extracts of bureaucratic reports from the outstations might ensue, and the issue might close with a barrage of figures and tables on market food prices and meteorological data.

The unusual nature of the Gazette’s offerings stemmed from the fact that it played an indispensable role in distributing information in Brooke-era Sarawak. As the sole English-language newspaper, it was the only portal of international and local news for the populace. As per its stated mission, it was intended to provide European officers and locals in the remote corners of the country with as varied and useful a source of information as possible, hence its heterogeneous content. You might say that the Gazette was a juggler of information in distant places, offering one reader a gobbet of social gossip, official information to another, and important trade information to a third.

The Gazette was also Sarawak’s window to the outside world, filtering information from without while also presenting a particular vision of the country to observers peering in. The British public’s fascination with the “white rajahs” of Sarawak meant that Fleet Street’s editors often perused the Gazette to divine the inner workings of an exotic, perplexing and colourful country.

Publication of the Gazette ceased during the Japanese Occupation. In any case, the editors, writers and most of the readership were held in internment camps, and the new Japanese authorities saw little use for a publication so closely associated with their British enemies. After liberation, the Gazette returned to circulation just in time to document the end of the Brooke era and the cession of Sarawak to Britain.

Thereafter, the Gazette seemed to continue in time-honoured fashion; it kept its distinctive pre-war appearance and format, the reports of outstation Residents remained, and the latest racing results and tidal cycles continued to be published. The only difference was that mention of the departed Rajah had been replaced with that of the new Governor.

However with the departure of the Brooke-era officers, the Gazette gradually lost its casual intimacy. The new colonial administration could not abide free-wheeling editorials, and the Gazette’s once egalitarian tone took on an increasingly institutional flavour.

After Independence, the Gazette’s former ubiquity began to diminish in the new Malaysia, as other new English-language newspapers emerged. Publications such as the Sarawak Tribune and The Borneo Post assumed the coverage of local and international news. In the new globalised era, the Gazette’s diverse offerings became a disadvantage. Its scientific and cultural articles were now too elaborate for a general audience, but insufficiently technical to rival other scientific journals.

The versatile juggler that once played so many roles to a diverse readership now found itself without an audience. Monthly publication became annual, and then eventually ceased regular publication altogether. It was a gentle end to a unique, once-essential and uniquely Sarawakian institution.

Alan loves to collect old bits and bobs, but perhaps none more so than gobbets of information about old Sarawak. Interested parties can apply to The Editor, Sarawak Gazette.

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