When I was a kid (a long time ago), I was told that Singapore used to own Christmas Island until a certain Lim Yew Hock – the-then Chief Minister of Singapore – sold Christmas Island to Australia in the late 1950s for a sum of money. Even today, many still hold this belief (you can just do an online search for “Singapore sold Christmas Island”).
Christmas Island is about 5 times smaller than Singapore (135 square kilometers), and is located 1,330 km southwest of Singapore, in the Indian Ocean. It was annexed in 1886 by the British for the purpose of mining its rich deposits of phosphates which aids crop growth. The annual output of phosphates was about 333,000 tons, and up to 30,000 tons of phosphate dust was shipped to Malaya each year for use as fertilizer, especially in rubber estates.
On 23 May 1900, it was incorporated into the Straits Settlements and administered from Singapore, and the colonial administration earned an annual revenue (“royalties and in lieu of income tax”) totaling about $1.2 million, “an annual profit which had been made out of administering the island on Britain’s behalf”.
In the early 1950s, the governments of Australia and New Zealand broached the transfer of Christmas Island to Australia to assure themselves of phosphate supplies in perpetuity (note: the supplies eventually ran low in the 1980s). On 1 Oct 1958, it was officially transferred to Australia in a quiet ceremony.
Amidst accusations of “selling” Christmas Island, the Acting Chief Minister, Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat, told the press on 8 June 1957 that, “Christmas Island did not belong to Singapore. The Colony was asked to administer it and nothing more”.
At the 19 June 1975 Legislative Assembly, he stated that “the island was placed under Singapore’s jurisdiction for administrative reasons in 1900, but it had been excluded from the present constitution of Singapore. As I said before, this island did not belong to Singapore but to the British Government”. Hence, Britain decided to transfer it to Australia and Singapore took note of the position.
Another point of interest would be the island’s population of 2,810 (mostly Chinese & Malay, with 151 Europeans). About half were children (born on the island) while the adults were employed by the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission (jointly owned by the governments of Australia and New Zealand). After the transfer to Australia, they had the right to acquire Australian citizenship, but Singapore made one attempt in December 1957 to offer them the opportunity to register as Colony citizens. The government even sent a citizenship team comprising 2 registrars and 4 assistants on board a Royal Malayan Navy minelayer HMMS Penyu to Christmas Island to seek new citizens. However, Singapore’s then Chief Registrar said that “Christmas Island did not come into any electoral districts of Singapore and the islanders would not be required to cast their votes. If a Christmas Islander who is registered as a Singapore citizen comes to live in Singapore before the electoral roll is completed, he can cast his vote”.
The Singapore government did receive payment for this transfer: an ex-gratia payment of $20 million from the British government, “for the loss of royalties on the island’s phosphate”. Did it go into anyone’s pocket? Nope, it was reported in a 19 March 1959 news article that the $20 million revenue from the Christmas Island transfer led to a $5 million budget surplus in 1958.
Contributor: Damien Wang, Librarian, NLB
Image source: Google Maps
Topographic map of Christmas Island, 1890s
Image source: National Archives of Singapore
Christmas Island, Partly From A Survey By C. W. Andrew, F.G. S.
[1890s topographic map]
FO 1091/70: Christmas Island
Lonely island looks for a police chief from Malaya
The Straits Times, 15 October 1961, Page 9
Boyd told Urn of transfer plans in London
The Straits Times, 8 June 1957, Page 7
Singapore’s Other Island
The Straits Times, 19 June 1957, Page 6
Christmas Island ‘was not ceded’
The Straits Times, 20 June 1957, Page 4
800 mile voyage to make citizens
The Straits Times, 30 November 1957, Page 2
They’re off to Xmas Island to seek citizens
The Straits Times, 2 December 1957, Page 7
‘Deficit’ turns out to be $5 mil. surplus
The Straits Times, 19 March 1959, Page 6
AUSTRALIA TAKES OVER CHRISTMAS ISLAND IN OCTOBER
The Straits Times, 15 September 1958, Page 2
The New Paper, 2 January 2005, Page 10
Handover of Christmas Island to Australia
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