Date
21 January 2017
After Singapore gained full independence in 1965, it was busy with building its economy and national defense, ignoring issues such as Christmas Island. Photo: imgwide.com
After Singapore gained full independence in 1965, it was busy with building its economy and national defense, ignoring issues such as Christmas Island. Photo: imgwide.com

Why Singapore may see fresh debate over Christmas Island

Singaporeans are absolutely thrilled as an athlete has won the first ever Olympic gold medal for the city-state.

Following the historic feat of Joseph Schooling, who beat swimming legend Michael Phelps in 100m butterfly in the Rio games, Singapore has seen a surge in patriotic sentiment among the public.

The sudden rise in nationalist feelings in the city might give a new lease of life to the almost dying debate among the citizens as to whether they should reclaim their lost overseas territory of the Christmas Island, which is now ruled by Australia.

Lying around 500 kilometers south of Indonesia, Christmas Island is only one-tenth of the size of Hong Kong with a population of just a little over 2000, most of whom are ethnic Chinese and Malaysians.

First discovered in 1643 by the English captain William Mynors with the British East India Company, the island had remained uninhabited for more than 200 years until it was proven that it was highly rich in phosphate in the 19th century. After that, the East India Company began to import foreign labor, mostly Chinese, to the island to work in the phosphate mines.

After the Second World War, during which Christmas Island was briefly occupied by the Japanese, the island was placed under the jurisdiction of the British colonial administration in Singapore.

However, since the island produced 10 percent of the total supply of phosphate on the world market, and made a lot of money out of the export of the mineral, the Australian government began to cast covetous eyes on it.

Between 1954 and 1957, Canberra and London held a series of talks over the transfer of sovereignty of the Christmas Island.

Eventually, in 1957, the two countries reached an agreement, under which the Christmas Island would be placed under the jurisdiction of Australia. In return, the Australian government agreed to pay a compensation of US$20 million to Singapore to make up for its loss of the revenues generated from phosphate exports.

The secret agreement between Britain and Australia over the sovereignty of the Christmas Island did provoke a backlash in Singapore at that time. However, since Singapore was still a British colony when the deal was sealed, the Singaporean administration didn’t have a say in the sovereignty issue of the Christmas Island.

Besides, after Singapore gained its full independence in 1965, it was busy with building its economy and national defense, and the Christmas Island issue was soon forgotten.

However, as the city-state has become an increasingly important player in Asia-Pacific affairs in recent years, and its economic strength is continuing to grow, it is not entirely impossible that it will raise the sovereignty issue of the Christmas Island with Australia again in the days ahead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 18

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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RC

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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