Christmas Islands’ Malays no longer second-class citizens

When Johara Sujangi (right) finishes school, she wants to study science. Her friend, Hazira, wants to be a neuropsychologist. (Pic courtesy of ABC News of Australia)

KUALA LUMPUR: Descendants of Malays who were taken to Christmas Island in Australia as indentured labourers by the British in the last century are now carving out a future on their own.

Just a few decades ago, they, like the Chinese who were also taken there to work the phosphate mines, were treated like second-class citizens.

But today, students such as Hazira Hamdan can dream of becoming a neuropsychologist, according to a report in ABC News of Australia.

“If I think about being a neuropsychologist, I don’t think about the factor that they won’t choose me because I’m a Muslim,” she said, referring to the racism experienced by her ancestors.

“I just think about the normal barriers other people would face. Things have definitely changed since my parents were in school.”

Hazira’s friend Johara Sujangi told ABC that she planned to study science in a university outside the island, one of Australia’s most isolated territories, which is better known for its immigration detention centre to Australians.

This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the detention centre, which was closed temporarily in October, would reopen.

The report said Hazira and Johara belonged to generation Z of Malay islanders who more than a century after human settlement on the island were striding out with confidence to create a world of their own.

“It’s definitely changed. We don’t experience racism. We never have.

“But my parents do tell me stories (about racism),” Johara, who begins Year 10 this year, told ABC.

Malay girls at the island’s school are leading the charge in bringing about progressive change, according to Sarah Faulkner, a teacher there.

As example, she said in 2015 a Malay girl won the top prize in a regional debating competition for a speech on wearing the tudung.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen lots of really academic-driven, young Malay girls who are going on to university,” she was quoted as saying.

However, local Islamic leader Greg McIntosh, a convert, told ABC that some of the effects of institutionalised racism lingered on the island.

McIntosh said he hoped to instil a sense of pride and purpose in Malay youngsters by teaching Islam so that they could take their place in a modern Australia.

The ABC report said Malay and Chinese workers were brought to the island by British settlers in the 20th century to work as indentured labourers in the mines and that they lived in abject inequality for years.

It was only in the 1980s that a concerted effort to organise and demand fairer wages led to change and an improvement in their lives.

Asian workers, the report said, had for a long time been seen as second-class citizens on the island, earning wages lower than their white counterparts.

But all this changed in 1979 when a British immigrant, Gordon Bennett, took control of the Union of Christmas Island workers. He demanded that Malay and Chinese workers be paid the same as the whites.

Bennet took a delegation of Malay and Chinese workers to Canberra to argue the workers’ cause and when the authorities refused to see them, he made them camp in a tent on the parliamentary lawns where they began a hunger strike in freezing temperature.

When a Malay worker collapsed from lack of food, it attracted even more national media attention. Finally, Australian authorities took note and the discriminatory wages against Asian workers gave way to equal wages.