Witness to War: Remembering 1942
23 September 2017 - 25 March 2018, -
National Museum of Singapore
This is Christmas Island.
It lies in the Indian Ocean, 1,330km southwest of Singapore.
Multiple transiting flights are required just to get there:
It is one-fifth the size of Singapore.
What makes Christmas Island special?
Christmas Island was named by a British captain when he spotted the island while sailing past on Dec. 25, 1643. The island is resource-rich due to the amount of guano — accumulated bird shit — on it.
Guano has high amounts of phosphate, which is very good for fertilising crops. Upon discovery of this wonderful
pile of shit resource, the British annexed the island in 1888 and set up a settlement — with labourers from China and Malaya — there to mine the phosphate and other minerals.
The Christmas Island Phosphate Company (CIPCO) was also set up to collect the white stuff.
The island had a population of 2,810, mostly Chinese and Malay, with 151 Europeans. About half were children born on the island.
Christmas Island was able to produce up to 333,000 tons of phosphate annually. Out of this, 30,000 tons of phosphate dust was shipped to Malaya to fertilise the rubber plantations.
Control of Christmas Island was administered from Singapore (part of the Straits Settlements) on behalf of the British government. Christmas Island earned the administration about $1.2 million worth of revenue annually.
After the war, the Straits Settlements were dissolved and Singapore became a Crown Colony and continued administering over Christmas Island on behalf of the British.
Aside from guano, Christmas Island is known to be native to these cute Christmas Island Red Crabs:
Transfer to Australia
In 1948, Australia and New Zealand acquired the mining rights to Christmas Island from Christmas Island Phosphate Company (CIPCO) for £2.75 million.
The Christmas Island Phosphate Commission was jointly owned by the governments of Australia and New Zealand.
At the same time, Australia was thinking of acquiring Christmas Island to ensure that they have access to an endless supply of phosphate in the future.
Australia wanted control
Throughout the 1950s, Australia sought to take control of Christmas Island quickly.
By March 1957, the UK agreed to transfer Christmas Island to Australia in return for a lump sum of $20 million Malayan dollars — paid to Singapore as compensation for loss of phosphate revenue.
This transfer was finalised on June 6, 1957.
It was reported in a March 19, 1959 news article that the $20 million revenue from the Christmas Island transfer led to a $5 million budget surplus in 1958.
Reactions from Singaporeans
Many Singaporeans felt that it wasn’t fair for Singapore to sell Christmas Island. That was partly true.
With 32 years remaining on the Christmas Island lease, the potential revenue to be gained from the island amounted to 48 million Malayan dollars — more than two times what Australia agreed to pay.
In particular, Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock bore the brunt of the backlash, as he was seen by Singaporeans to be selling away national territory.
Coupled with his aggressive suppression of student protests and detention of popular pro-communist activists, Lim’s popularity plummet.
Never belonged to Singapore
However, Christmas Island was never Singapore’s to sell as it belonged to the British government.
All Singapore could do was take note of the island’s transfer to Australia.
Singapore was only administering on behalf of the colonial government. The laws of Singapore applied to the island. A district officer from Singapore was also appointed to maintain law and order on the island.
But it was never part of the Singapore constitution.
Acting Chief Minister Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat clarified this in the June 6, 1957 Legislative Assembly when he was asked by MP Lim Choon Mong why Singapore was “ceding away territory”:
Mr Lim Choon Mong asked the Chief Minister whether he will make a statement regarding the transfer of Christmas Island to Australia.
Inche Abdul Hamid Bin Haji Jumat (for the Chief Minister): Mr Speaker, Sir, the Christmas Island referred to lies in the Indian Ocean some 800 miles to the south of Singapore. This island does not belong to Singapore. The Singapore Government was notified of the decision of the United Kingdom Government to effect the transfer, and accordingly noted the position.
Mr Lim Choon Mong: Mr Speaker, Sir, does Christmas island not come under the definition of the “islands of Singapore” and is it not a fact that it has been administered by the Singapore Government?
Inche Abdul Hamid: Mr Speaker, Sir, for administrative reasons, Christmas island was transferred to the administration of Singapore in 1900, but I should like to draw the attention of the Member for Serangoon to the fact that Christmas Island is outside the present constitution, having been excluded from the Rendel Constitution Commission’s Report. The hon. Member will no doubt be aware that Members of the former Progressive Party were represented on this Commission and were signatories to that Report.
Mr Lim Choon Mong: Mr Speaker, Sir, this island is under the jurisdiction of Singapore, and giving it away to another country is, in fact, ceding away part of the territory. Is that not so, Sir?
Inche Abdul Hamid: Mr Speaker, Sir, as I have said just now, this island does not belong to Singapore, it belongs to the United Kingdom Government.
Top image via.