If only Singapore had held onto Christmas Island

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It has rarely been talked about. As a matter of fact, it has never been talked about in classrooms in Singapore’s schools and many Singaporeans know precious little about Christmas Islands; an outcrop lying in the Indian Ocean, 1,330 km southwest of Singapore. The island was named by Captain William Mynors of the East India Company vessel Royal Mary after he sailed past it on Christmas Day on 25 December 1643, says the National Library. And for most of the time it had belonged to Singapore until 1957.

The handover of the island was greeted with the kind of grief akin to a funeral wake. In a television interview in late 1980s, Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall blamed the “ragtag and bobtails” in his administration in the 1950s for the demise of the failings in his administration which also meant the cherished islands.

Mr Marshall did not name those ragtag and bobtails but, the audience listening were left in no doubt who he was referring to in the then Labour Front party of the 1950s coupled with what was their inability to retain control of an island that perceptibly could have made a difference to Singapore’s fortunes.

Yet for all the hand-wringing that happened between then and now, nothing seemed to have changed except of the island being a historical footnote with it rarely ever, being mentioned in daily conversations.

That maybe stretching it a bit because Singapore’s older generation almost certainly remembers Christmas Islands. And every year with the passing of more and more of Singapore’s older folks, the fate and the historical connection Christmas Islands has had with our national consciousness and national debate, fades away into the far reaches of oblivion.

Still amid the problems we face today from nurturing economic competitiveness to an ageing population, land scarcity and drought in birth rates, Christmas Islands if it was still in Singapore’s possession would have at least alleviated what we now have at our feet.

The 135-square kilometre island makes considerable space for most of our denizens and its one-time rich phosphate mineral reserves could well have potentially earned us considerable export income.

What is more if Singapore had held onto it, the armed forces would have had a verdant land mass to train in without relying on the likes of Taiwan and other nations for our needs.

What a ghastly mistake it was to let go off Christmas Islands. Will history continue to treat this episode as a footnote to be conveniently forgotten like how it was with the Kunashiri Islands the Russians ceded humiliatingly to the Japanese a century ago and which they later forcibly reclaimed at the end of World War II.

The lesson from the Christmas Islands stands out as a sore thumb and ‘yes’ a lesson in the art of political skilfull political leadership.