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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
08/05/2015
Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

SIGNA, Mr Rahmat Madi, Private capacity

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the Commonwealth parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings in the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of the parliament. Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to some questions?

Mr Signa : I would probably pass on any statement, only because I would like to maximise the opportunity for you to ask questions and for me to clarify anything or issues that were identified in the submission.

CHAIR: How long did you live on the islands?

Mr Signa : Until I was 16. I left the islands to come to Perth to study. I spent about three years here and then went back to the islands because of difficulties with the transition of going to secondary over here. Then I returned to Perth to finish my tertiary education. I went back to the islands after that to work on a number of short-term contracts, and then I came back here to get a full-time job in 2001, and I have been here since.

CHAIR: What did you do in the short-term contracts?

Mr Signa : I was employed for a majority of the time by the islands' administration, which was similar to the administration office on Christmas Island. At the time there were two offices on both islands.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr Signa : In 2003 I went back on secondment to help out closing the office down.

Mr VASTA: Do you still have family over there?

Mr Signa : They are actually here on holidays at the moment. The extended family is still back there.

CHAIR: How is your experience with the shire on Cocos? What is your experience? Has it always provided good service to your home island? What would you say?

Mr Signa : Sorry, Chair, I am trying to think of a way to answer that or compose a response.

CHAIR: Why don't you just talk about service delivery on the islands and on the home island in particular?

Mr Signa : In terms of the shire I think they are quite shy to expand in what they traditionally want to offer here on the mainland, which I have touched on, such as rates and rubbish. At the time of closing the office for administration there were discussions of what other sources the shire might take on in terms of delivering some of the services such as good education or health. I think the expertise is just not there.

CHAIR: So the service delivery agreements?

Mr Signa : That is correct.

CHAIR: Sometimes we can look at a place and we can say that the administration—I am not talking about the administrator but the administration—of the shire seem like they have additional capacity, but a few people change positions and maybe that capacity is not there anymore. We might ordinarily like to think that service delivery agreements can be better done by the shire. That is one of the challenges when there is a change of a few people and personnel and suddenly that capacity is not there.

Mr Signa : I think there needs to be an improvement or an upskilling of the locals, only because of the retention of corporate knowledge in that sense. If there is an interchange of mastership for the shire at least then there is knowledge and there is history, and, at the same time, improving the islands.

CHAIR: To clarify, who read that speech to us? Was it your father? Did he write something for somebody on Cocos?

Mr Signa : Yes, he did.

CHAIR: Who was it that read it out?

Mr Signa : I think the person's name would have been Mr Mohammed Isa Minkom.

CHAIR: Was that your dad or was it an uncle?

Mr Signa : Mr Minkom is the shire's employee. Mr Signa Knight is my dad.

CHAIR: Okay. How do we improve the capacities of people to take up these sorts of high positions on the island?

Mr Signa : If we are talking about the shire, perhaps there is a way of having a sister arrangement over here on the mainland. I know there have been some arrangements in the past whereby some of the trades based employees were linked up to employees over in the Shire of Katanning, for instance, doing road building and heavy machinery operating courses. So they were getting real mainland standard experiences over here. But in setting that up there need to be placements for those who are going through the system of sister arrangements.

A mate of mine went over to the Shire of Wiluna and Shire of Denmark, but then there were no opportunities being offered for him to return to the islands and improve his skills through the experience that he gathered over here on the mainland. Subsequent to that, he moved out of the local government sector completely. These are some of the missed opportunities. Here we are, trying to better ourselves, but then there are no opportunities available when you want to go back home.

CHAIR: I acknowledge what you say, and that is a form of opportunity, but public sector employment is one thing but for a sustainable future we should look beyond the public sector as well. So what opportunities do you think Cocos could provide? Thinking beyond the box, what would you propose if you had the chance to set something up which would have big employment opportunities?

Mr Signa : In my submission I touched on medium- to long-term strategies. I have really pushed the issue of a call centre. It would be employing Australian citizens, possibly speaking a language—sorry, not a language. What is the word?

Mr VASTA: An accent that would recognisable as Australian.

Mr Signa : Yes, an accent people would recognise and accept that the service had not been outsourced to other countries. Due to the time difference, we would be able to cover a lengthy customer service time frame. I raised this issue when I was back on the island—I think it was around 1999, when there was the northern economic summit. This was an opportunity at the time when IT was emerging. No-one wants to take it on.

CHAIR: Have you tried to engage with major businesses on that?

Mr Signa : No. I just thought, if there is no backing for it, I will not invest my time in it. One of the things I have looked at in terms of the experience of the islanders in transitioning over here, coming over to the mainland, is access to interpreting and translation services, particularly because you have a number of people being flown down here for medical visits. I found that the interpreters that were assigned to patients were predominantly either Malaysian or Singaporean, sometimes Indonesian, and the dialect is slightly different. So I thought, if the dialect can be recognised under TIS, then at least there is a service whereby someone on the island can pick up a telephone at any time of the day—they do not have to dress up in a work uniform or business shirt—and take the call. These services could be linked up to airports and immigration offices and we could actually service not just the Malays on Cocos and Christmas but visitors from Malaysia, because of the similarities. The people you would put through to get the accreditation could expand on those languages.

CHAIR: When we were on Cocos, on Home Island, that day we heard from the administrator, Mr Barry Haase. He raised an interesting proposal which would be something like, as I recall and without putting words into his mouth, that the island on the north side of the atoll—

Unidentified speaker : Is that Direction Island?

CHAIR: No, not Direction.

Unidentified speaker : Horsburgh Island, or North Keeling?

CHAIR: Horsburgh. That is it. He suggested that something like a 99-year lease and a major tourist facility could be constructed there, which would be a great source of employment. Have you heard such ideas before, and what would you say to things like that?

Mr Signa : I have, and I would not want to totally dismiss such a proposal. But I think that the development relies heavily on maritime and air service to be able to sustain or even to provide the standard that tourists expect. In that sense it is very difficult, so we are probably talking about another 10 to 20 years for that to be developed to the standard that clientele expect to receive.

CHAIR: Sure. Land tenure—access to land over protracted periods of time to support investment—is obviously a major issue, and if you did talk about longer-term leases, that might be an option. If you have got high demand for goods coming in, then that might well lower the prices for everybody else. So you might have employment and logistic benefits locally as well.

Mr Signa : I think it has always been a chicken-and-the-egg argument on that one. It has been going on for a while.

Mr SNOWDON: There is a current proposal, a live proposal which has been alive for 18 months, to develop a resort on West Island. The issue was that the shire wanted to charge X amount of money for access to services, not providing any incentive, so the bloke said: 'I cannot do it.' So there is any number of proposals being discussed; even the co-op has discussed a proposal of its own. This other proposal is still alive, as I understand it. I think there is also a question about land tenure, because I think you will find most of those islands, including Horsburgh, are part of the national park. It may not be, but I think it is, and it has also got sites of significance on it, particularly the gun placements, so there is a whole range of issues which you would have to contemplate in that sense. But there are current proposals, and there have been proposals in the past to have commercial development. The main sticking point is airline services. That is it. If you cannot fly people in you cannot put them in a bed.

Mr Signa : That is why in my submission I focus on service-based industry first, to be able to expand and build the skills base, the knowledge pool of students coming back to Cocos. At least then there is an option for them to return if they do want to return and access meaningful employment.

Mr SNOWDON: You make some comments in your submission about educational outcomes, and you are pretty down on the outcomes that are coming out of the school. But my recent visits there have shown a number of young people who have come back and who appear to be asserting themselves in terms of employment, in terms of the council in a range of areas. What sort of skill range exists off-island that could go back there?

Mr Signa : At the moment you have got an accountant working for NAB. My sister is a software engineer, so I am not sure whether there would be an industry for her back on the islands but, with the emergence of NBN, it could be a possibility. There is a lady who has just graduated in tourism, and a couple of nurses who are both residing in Bunbury.

Mr SNOWDON: My point is that, despite your observations about the school outcomes, people have left the island and are getting trained, becoming professionals and are potentially recruits to go back to the island to do something.

Mr Signa : That is correct. And I just think the cohort needs to be visible. If the island is deficient in terms of skilled Cocos Malays, then that is probably a way to tap into the skills pool over here. These kids do want to go back. I talked to one of the guys working for NAB and he said, if there is an opportunity, he would want to go back.

Mr SNOWDON: But in this case land is an issue, because available housing blocks and available housing is a key driver as to whether or not people can go back, because what is happening is, of course, people go back and they are living with their grandparents and their parents.

Mr Signa : Yes. When I was a member for the economic development committee for Cocos Islands, I actually raised the issue of maybe opening up the old Q station for young families from Home Island who want to move over to West Island. At least then there is a house, rather than sharing a house with three different generations.

CHAIR: We will definitely be taking up the land tenure subject across a range of different issues when we return to Canberra, so we are definitely going to be covering that.

Mr SNOWDON: At the moment, the land is not crown land; it is land trust plan which belongs to the Cocos Malays.

Mr Signa : Over at Q station?

Mr SNOWDON: No, no; the Q station excluded. But the Q station and the land adjacent to it is really the only development land available, and of course the reason why the Q station has not been handed back or not developed is largely that Immigration have got their facility at the top end of the Q station. It is a contestable issue here, because, when the Q station was operating as a Q station, the proposal was that, once it became abandoned by Quarantine, it should be available for the community for development, for commercial development et cetera. But then Immigration got their hooks into it and they have not been prepared to let go. That is part of the problem. So the Commonwealth has got a vested interest in seeing how its interests are being protected when it actually makes land available, but at the same time that is in conflict or can be in conflict with the aspirations of, in your case, building housing for young Home Islanders who might want to live on West Island.

Mr Signa : The precinct has even got single quarters, so you are not just restricting single personnel on Home Island for wanting to live on their own or away from parents, so to speak. So you have got proper houses—I think there are probably about four or five of them over there in the actual precinct—and maybe another five single quarters on that one block. Again, if those people, for instance, employed by Co-op who require 24-hour service for their motel—perfect arrangement.

Mr SNOWDON: You do not mention the Co-op much in your submission. You do talk about the shire and the need for a community development officer in the shire. Do you have any observations about the role of the Co-op in developing economic opportunity?

Mr Signa : I think there is an opportunity for Co-op, but it all depends on how wide their vision is. If Co-op does look at expanding its skill base, it can take over some of the operations—for instance, the cargo consolidation. In my other submissions, not in this particular submission, I have raised issues whereby I think Co-op should be the ideal candidate to explore the Asian market, for it to expand further, not just tourism-wise but possibly attracting merchant suppliers. If Zentner is unreliable, we will look at other opportunities. Singapore is the hub for it.

Mr SNOWDON: Zentner, for the information of the committee, is a shipper.

Senator MARSHALL: Can I just take you back to your comments on education for a minute? I think that was a fairly frank and harsh assessment in some respects. My experience of modern schooling is that there is a consultative nature in schools, with school councils and schools generally being fairly responsive to the needs of the school community. I guess my question is, is there a form of consultation with the community about the educational needs or does that not exist on Cocos? Or, if it does, is the school management not responsive to the community needs?

Mr Signa : There may be a consultation method between the school and parents, but I am not too sure whether that actually exists in terms of the wider community. It is a profession that, I think, are quite protective between themselves and reluctant to constructively take on the views of the community. I think they are creating their own—

Senator MARSHALL: The question really is—does the school understand the views of the community, and what is the mechanism to make that happen? Or is there none? Is that what is lacking?

Mr Signa : Perhaps the community does not know what is available or how to go about creating a pathway. The Cocos Islanders do not have the knowledge of what is available, what the educational framework is or what the curriculum entails—all they see are the grades that are given to their kids. Anything further than that depends on how open the school would want to be to take on that discussion. I just think to be able to have a local, or even a Malay, who would be able to speak the language and explain to parents perhaps then maybe—there is a streamlined approach where kids could be pushed even harder. One student was told that: I am sorry, stage 2 is probably a bit more difficult for you to do, try stage 1 so at least then you will get As. When the kid came onto the mainland and had gone through 11 and 12—stage 1 is not enough to get into TAFE. These kids have got an aspiration to go to TAFE and perhaps further tertiary education. Maybe two students now have to go through bridging courses only because of that type of advice, and that is just an example.

Senator MARSHALL: You indicate that you have had some discussions with the education department. From what you say it was rather unsatisfactory, is that a common issue? Do parents regularly take up these sorts of issues with the department of education?

Mr Signa : The only representation—are the teachers.

Senator MARSHALL: Often people are not aware that there is an issue in the first place. Some of the examples you are putting The education department should absolutely be aware of some of those examples that you are putting, but are they aware what you are presenting in that there is a general dissatisfaction with the education—

Mr Signa : I do not think they know who to take the issue up with.

Senator BACK: There is no service delivery agreement for education services.

Mr Signa : There is one.

Mr SNOWDON: Yes there is.

Senator BACK: An SDA?

Mr Signa : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: The Western Australian state government provide the education—

Senator BACK: The principal of the school told me there is no SDA between the WA department of education and the Cocos Keeling Island committee.

Mr SNOWDON: No, it is not with them.

Senator BACK: With whoever, but the principal told me there is no formal SDA.

Mr SNOWDON: That is interesting, that means that they can go and get their service from anywhere they like.

Mr Signa : If that is the case, I strongly suggest that there be an audit.

CHAIR: We will certainly be looking closely at SDAs, there are no problems with that.

Senator BACK: In terms of tourism, can you tell us with the approximate travel time is, and if it is feasible for a relatively fast ferry, from our nearest Asian port to Cocos Keeling—are we talking 10 hours, 12 hours, 20 hours, 2 hours?

Mr Signa : I am not too sure in terms of the distance, but the closest one would be Sumatra. I would think about a day and a half depending on how quick the ferry, or two days.

Senator BACK: What do you think the flight time is from the nearest international airport?

Mr Signa : It would not be anywhere more than two hours to go to Singapore from Cocos.

Senator BACK: Two hours?

Mr Signa : Yes. I do know that it is about an hour from Singapore to Christmas Island.

Senator BACK: I quizzed the person who spoke to us with regard to tourism fairly extensively. We came to the agreement that there is about $4.2 million in tourism value at the moment. There are three major attractions. One is the bird life of one type or another at any time of year. Another one is the clarity of the water for diving. The third one is windsurfing and other aquatic activities. I got the feeling that it is unlikely we will see much increase in tourism potential. This causes me to wonder: if Singapore is that close, what could be the attraction? What investment other than a major resort—the chance of a major resort being built on a Cocos island, I have to say, is nil—could be the attraction for people to fly from Singapore down to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to try to expand that tourism dollar, because the multiplier is quite good?

Mr Signa : It would probably just be the culture and the serenity.

Senator BACK: Do you think it could be marketed?

Mr Signa : It can be marketed in that context, yes. Singapore is quite fast paced, and the islands lack newspapers, mobile phones and internet connection. If people want to get away from the fast pace of Singapore, it would be an option. Singaporeans go to Batam Island to get away every now and then. I think the traffic over there is probably just as bad as it is in Singapore, though. At least Cocos and Christmas would offer tropical paradise and quietness.

Senator BACK: The other thing I was going to raise is sea freight, but I will do that in another forum. Finally, most importantly, I hope that the employment of the Cocos Malay teacher just out of university does not represent a token appointment. Certainly the feedback that we were given on Home Island is that she is anything other than a token appointment and that she is proving to be a very effective role model.

Mr Signa : That is good to hear.

Senator BACK: That is feedback I wanted to give you, having noted that in your submission.

CHAIR: Thank you for attending and giving evidence to the committee at today's hearing. If the committee has any further questions for you, you will get those in writing from the secretariat.

Pr oceedings suspended from 10:27 to 10:40