300 ‘lying low,’ labourer reports

So proclaimed these sensational headlines to this 30th November 1958 article in the Straits Times, Singapore.

And the story behind the headlines is this.

Apparently, secret society gangsters escaped a police dragnet in Singapore and migrated to Christmas Island. All 300 (approx) of them!

A former labourer on the island who had since returned to Singapore looking for work, made the claim. Some of these gangsters had tattoo marks. The gangs were named 08, 25 and 329. The labourer said that gambling and opium rings were operating and secret society members were running protection for their members. He also claimed that he was a “marked man” because he was not a member of any secret society. He had been threatened with assault a couple of times. There had even been a murder of a mandor (an overseer of the workers), possibly as the result of a quarrel between two of the secret society groups.

A small digression. I did find reference to this murder. According to brief Straits Times newspaper summaries, the labourer, Lim Hun Sim alias Ah Lau, was alleged to have hacked a mandor Teo Kee Huat alias Ah Pang, with an axe in February 1958 and was also alleged to have told a Magistrate that he “committed the offence for the sake of my rice bowl”. He was sentenced to death. The “rice bowl” was probably referring to an income stream or benefit. I was unable to access the full articles online.

How did these gangsters get to the island? The article went on to say that the Singapore Labour Exchange normally organised Chinese labour for the British Phosphate Commission’s mining operations on the Island. It was believed that the gangsters were able to get to Christmas Island because they hadn’t been screened properly in Singapore.

To read the original newspaper article for the full details click here and agree to the terms and conditions. (I was unable to re-publish it on this page.)

When I first read this article I wondered how much truth could be attached to it. I had been able to confirm the murder of the unfortunate mandor but questions were immediately springing to mind. So I started to do a little digging and most interestingly found another article that was published just a month before on the 26th October 1958. It gave me pause to wonder. That too had a headline to grab attention:

Gangbuster ‘King’ of Christmas Island

This article was about the appointment of Australia’s first representative to Christmas Island after Australia took possession of it from Britain, with Singapore handing over the administration just the month before. Out of 500 applicants, Australia appointed 53 year old Donald Evan Nickels. He had retired as the Singaporean Assistant Commissioner of Police in 1954 and then took up farming in Mittagong, NSW for four years. To read the article about his appointment and background click here and agree to the terms and conditions.

Why was Nickels given the moniker “gangbuster”? According to the newspaper article he had been in the Secret Societies Branch of the CID. He smashed the Mui Fah Tong, a major Cantonese society. He had cracked a bomb-throwing gang and even had a shootout. He also had a “private army” of enlisted gangsters who were not on on the payroll but “willingly fought by his side”. Was it then just a co-incidence that this man was appointed as Australia’s representative to Christmas Island when just a month later it is reported that there was a large cohort of gangsters from Singapore on the Island?

More questions are raised. Why would gangsters risk their own and their family’s lives to betray their criminal organisations for no payment. That doesn’t make sense. Why were they fighting willingly by Nickels’ side? What was in it for them?

An influx of approximately 300 men, in the short term, to Christmas Island seems likes quite a high number for a small community. Is it an exaggeration? Surely questions would be raised. It also infers that the British Phosphate Commission had that number of positions available for them to be able to work.

But if these numbers are to be believed, reading between the lines, it sounds as if the gangsters were tipped off about a police dragnet. They appeared to have had time to be able to “apply for work” through the Singapore Labour Exchange and leave Singapore with the Exchange not vetting them properly. This brings to mind the Shakespearean quote “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Who was pulling the strings here?

Were any of the men in Nickels’ so called “private army” part of the group who made it to Christmas Island?

The ultimate plan of the thugs was to lie low for some years and then return to Singapore when they felt they could return safely without recrimination.