Christmas, Cocos Islands were almost ours

By Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli – March 11, 2023 @ 12:00am

Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean is 350km south of the Indonesian island of Java.

The nearest Australian town is Karratha in West Australia, approximately 1,600km away. Although Christmas Island is geographically much closer to Indonesia, it is part of the external territory of Australia.

This remote island was first sighted by Europeans in 1615. It was named Christmas Island by Captain William Mynors when he sailed past it on Christmas Day in 1643.

The island remained uninhabited until a small settlement was established at Flying Fish Cove in the 19th century.

It was annexed into the British Empire on June 6, 1888. Realising that it was rich in phosphate, indentured workers from British Malaya, Singapore and China were brought in to work the mines.

This created a multiracial and multicultural population on the island, comprising about 21 per cent of residents of Chinese ancestry, 17 per cent of Malay ancestry, and the rest are mixtures white European and other Asian communities.

The island has a dark history of racial discrimination against non-white labourers, but things have improved since.

Currently, there are about 1,700 residents calling it home.

Like Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands are territories under Australia’s sovereignty that were once annexed as part of the British Empire in 1857.

These islands are located almost 1,000km away from Christmas Island. The Cocos Islands were discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling, hence its alternative name.

Settlements only began in the 19th century, when Malay workers from Malaya and the Malay Archipelago were brought in to toil copra plantations.

The Cocos Islands have a population of about 600, with a sizeable Malay community.

Malaya was Britain’s strong foothold in Southeast Asia. Penang was obtained from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786, and Singapore was ceded to the British by the Sultan of Johor in 1819.

Malacca was exchanged for Bencoolen in Sumatra with the Dutch in 1824.

These three colonies were then consolidated as the Straits Settlements in 1826, with Singapore as its capital beginning 1886. The Christmas and Cocos Islands were added as part of the Straits Settlements the same year.

The subsequent Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore from 1941 to 1945 has significantly changed the political scenario in Malaya.

The British attempted to establish the Malayan Union in 1946, but the plan failed due to strong opposition from the Malays.

The Malayan Union was abandoned in 1946 and replaced with the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

When Malaya gained independence in 1957, Singapore was still ruled by the British.

However, sovereignty over Christmas and Cocos Islands were transferred from Singapore to Australia in 1958 and 1955 respectively.

Unlike Malaya, the British did not grant independence to Singapore.

It was freed from British rule when Singapore was federated into Malaysia in 1963.

Therefore, if transfer of sovereignty to Australia did not take place a couple of years earlier, Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands could have been part of Malaysia with the insertion of Singapore into the Federation.

Malaysia would then possess overseas territories with huge maritime entitlements in the form of territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf claims.

Given the isolated locations of Christmas and Cocos Islands, Malaysia would be able to exert sovereignty within these maritime territories unilaterally.

However, as Singapore was only in the federation for two years, the sovereignty over these territories would then hypothetically remain with Singapore.

Although Christmas and Cocos Islands are thousands of kilometres away from Malaysia and Singapore, these territories share historical and cultural similarities as former colonies of the British empire, with sizeable Malay populations.

It is always intriguing to learn that the Malay language and culture thrive in some of the most remote places in the Indian Ocean.

If not for transfer of sovereignty, these islands could have been ours.

The writer is an associate professor at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research associate at the Asian Institute of International Affairs and Diplomacy, Universiti Utara Malaysia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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