Malay Muslim engineer leads Christmas, Cocos Isles

Sitting on a park bench by Christmas Island's only traffic light, newly appointed federal administrator Farzian Zainal has big plans for her community.

An accomplished mechanical engineer, the fourth-generation Malay Muslim woman is the first local to effectively administer Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Island in the Indian Ocean.

Both British colonies became part of Australia's external territories in 1958 and 1978 respectively but are sometimes still "forgotten" by politicians in Canberra.

Ms Zainal, appointed by the Albanese government in June 2023, hopes to bring her analytical skills and intimate understanding of the islands' needs to a political position navigating critical issues in the next "tumultuous" decade.

These include climate change, an expiring lease on a sprawling phosphate mine in operation for more than 130 years and an ageing population.

"We're a dot in the middle of the ocean and sometimes you don't know we're here until we wave our arms up in the air," Ms Zainal told AAP in her first sit-down interview with a major Australian news outlet.

"I'm in quite a unique position that I grew up here (Christmas Island) and that I'm able to provide that community voice and advice to the minister."

"We're a dot in the middle of the ocean," Farzian Zainal says of the Christmas and Cocos Islands.
"We're a dot in the middle of the ocean," Farzian Zainal says of the Christmas and Cocos Islands.

Closer to Jakarta than Perth, both small islands have no state level of government, which means the federal government is responsible for the provision of state-style laws and services to the territories - from health to education.

They are administered by the Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development Department led by Minister Catherine King, who wants to harness the islands' tropical paradise reputations to drive tourism from Australia and Asia.

Christmas Island is mostly known for hundreds of thousands of red crabs crawling across its landscape during their annual migration, with the Cocos Islands' clear turquoise waters inhabited by genetically unique green turtles.

"We've got a vibrant culture .... we've also got deep roots with our connections to the north with Malaysia and Indonesia, so we're in a good position to leverage those kinds of assets," Ms Zainal said.

Of the 1700 residents on Christmas Island, about 22 per cent have Chinese ancestry and 16 per cent are of Malay descent, 2021 census data shows.

"We're very rich in diversity, in history and it's not something you can learn in a three-year term ... because how are you supposed to make decisions on behalf of a community you didn't ingrain yourself into?" Ms Zainal said.

She also feels the full weight of political responsibility.

Ms Zainal said people and companies could potentially set up their businesses on the islands because of their proximity to Asia.

She identified digital connectivity as a priority - internet connections are only available through wi-fi - alongside growing sustainable agriculture, as most of the islands' supplies are imported from Southeast Asia and the mainland.

Christmas Island detention centre
Administrator Farzian Zainal says Christmas Island is "so much more" than a detention facility.

Ms Zainal also wants to dispel ideas about Christmas Island - specifically when it comes to the immigration detention centre that has operated there for more than two decades.

The centre has no detainees at the moment, with the last cohort shipped out to various detention centres across Australia last month, but still employs locals to maintain operations.

"The misconception has always been around Christmas Island as a detention facility but we are so much more than that," Ms Zainal said.

"The fact that we have our own gazetted public holidays on both islands to celebrate our religious beliefs is a great testament to its people.

"Wider Australia can learn a lot from Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islanders where we encourage, embrace and enrich each other.

"It's something you won't see (on) a postcard."

This AAP article was made possible with the support of the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.