How a British Man Created His Own ‘Country’ Inside Singapore

Singapore, 1936

They say that the sun never sets on the British empire. Yet, today, it’s dusk in the Straits Settlement and a journalist from London sails through Singapore’s northern waters.

What he observes is fascinating.

Amidst the crimson coloured waves and the gentle winds, stands an island: Pulau Sarimbun. A single, modest, house ordains the cliff at the edge of the island. There, a man stands, erectly saluting the British flag and another mysterious flag — bearing a white horse in a dark, azure blue background. One of his assistants plays the bugle as both flags are being lowered for the day.

Meet William Arthur Bates Goodall, the man who was once proclaimed the “king of the world’s tiniest kingdom”.

But how did he get here? How did a lonely British castaway on a small Singaporean island gain global fame and notoriety?

1. The Man

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The story starts in 1880, when William Arthur Bates Goodall was born in Eccles, Manchester. Coming from an uneventful childhood, Goodall enlisted into the British army’s Manchester Regiment, and fought in the Second Boer War. While his performance earned him the King’s and Queen’s South Africa Medal, Goodall grew tired of the military.

When his regiment was posted to Singapore after the war, Goodall quit the army and took on a civilian career. Eventually, he landed a job with the Singapore Municipal Commissioners’ Water Department — where he helped construct the Pierce, Gunong Pulai and Pontian reservoirs.

2. The Island

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In 1923, Goodall and a few of his friends discovered Sarimbun on a boating expedition. Located in the waters above Sungei Gendong and Lim Chu Kang, it is one of Singapore’s smallest islands. However, this didn’t bother Goodall — who thought that the island was “exceedingly attractive” and was the “ideal place for bathing and picnic parties”.

Defined by a cliff perched 20 meters above the sea, anyone who made it to the top, was greeted by a spectacular view. On one side, there were fine vistas of the sea. Beyond that, laid the island of Singapore – with land plentiful with rubber, coconut and pineapple. On the other side was Johor Bahru, where there were bungalows of the outskirts and a kampung at the water’s edge.

Initially, the group used the island exclusively for parties and recreational activities. They put together $100 to rent the place, built a small shack and a path around the island. But as the years passed, Goodall found himself spending more and more time on the island. To him, it was the childhood he never had. Moonlit nights, glorious sunsets, frequent rainbows and tropical fauna and flora came with the lifestyle.

In 1932, Goodall bit the bullet and moved to the island, alone – opting to leave his life of comfort for one as an isolated, independent, castaway.

In a radio interview he says:

Being a Robinson Crusoe (castaway) is a delightfully peaceful existence for those who are not wedded to the pictures, the club, the hotel bar or a bevy of friends and acquaintances and for those who love nature

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for people to take notice of this man and his unusual choice of living.

3. The Fame

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The first wave of interest came when a British journalist named H. Harvey-Day wrote an article about Goodall’s island. In the article, Day describes the daily flag lowering ceremony and Goodall’s “four subjects – a Chinese educated at Cambridge, two Chinese servants and a Malay boatman”. Initially reported on the London Evening News, the story spread like wildfire – with newspapers from around the world reporting on it.

While Goodall enjoyed the attention, he actively corrected inaccuracies about his island kingdom. Firstly, in interviews and letters, Goodal insisted that the evening flag raising ‘rite’ did not coincide with reality. It happened once or twice, but it definitely wasn’t a daily occurrence. Also, while it was true that he succumbed to loneliness and employed people to maintain the island, none of his servants were “Cambridge educated”. The Chinese man mentioned merely gained a Cambridge certificate from a local examination.

With that being said, Goodall did accept a measure of sovereignty and independence. He said:

I’ve been dubbed the laird (royalty) of Sarimbun by the press, and as I’m the only authority on the island, with a staff of two Chinese and one Javanese, I suppose the title is a good one

But to what extent could you call Pulau Sarimbun a country on its own?

4. The Country?

Believe it or not, the very concept of a country is clearly defined under international law. The Montevideo Convention of 1936 says that a country must possess four things. Let’s see how a hypothetical Kingdom of Sarimbun would fair against this checklist.

(a) A Permanent Population

Goodall and his subjects often returned to Singapore for work. Goodall in particular seems to have played a great part in Singapore’s social activities. He wrote for The Straits Times, attended many British army celebrations and gave radio interviews about his life on the island.

While they might have frequented Singapore often, the citizens of the Kingdom of Sarimbun resided and lived mostly on the island. A kingdom of 5 might seem pathetic, but technically, it still constitutes a “permanent population”.

Hence, the Kingdom satisfies the first criteria.

(b) A defined territory

This one is a little tricky. While the island itself is clearly defined by its shorelines and has a minuscule area of 1.4 hectares, this might not be the Kingdom of Sarimbun’s actual borders. Countries sometimes claim territory that is beyond their effective control — both The Republic of China (Taiwan) and The People’s Republic of China, for example, claim ownership over the entirety of China. Likewise, if Goodall wanted to, he could have claimed territory that is well beyond the shorelines of his tiny Kingdom.

Adding to this, there is the issue of maritime claims. If the Kingdom of Sarimbun existed today, its maritime claims would be governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to the treaty, a country is entitled territorial sea out to 12 nautical miles from its coast. However, when nations are in close proximity to each other – like Singapore and Sarimbun – these territorial waters might overlap. For such overlapping entitlement, countries will need to open negotiations and delimit borders with neighbours.

Since Goodall never publicly defined his land or maritime borders, the Kingdom of Sarimbun fails to meet this criteria.

(c) A Government

Goodall called himself the sole “authority” in the island and he exhibits some characteristics of a government. He built infrastructure (paths and a house) and employed labour (his servants) to upkeep the island.

However, the resemblances stops there. In the Kingdom, there was no legislative and judiciary branch of government. This means that policies and laws weren’t drawn up or enforced. For example, in 1936, when one of Goodall’s servants was caught stealing a golden ring, the case was judged by the Singapore Fifth Police Court. This is implicit recognition of Singapore’s political and legal control over the island.

Hence, the Kingdom didn’t have a functioning government.

(d) The capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

This is the final nail in the coffin. From the very start, Goodall paid the British Government money to lease the island. This means that the relationship between Singapore and the supposed Kingdom was one of landlord-tenant, rather than that of two independent countries.

To make matters worse, no other country or entity – apart from the tabloids – recognised the independence of the Kingdom of Sarimbun. Heck, what do you have to gain from supporting a country made out of a pile of rocks and a few palm trees.

In other words, if other countries and governments don’t recognise you to be a country, you are definitely not a country. 

5. The End

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While Goodall’s island cannot be called an independent Kingdom in any sense of the word, it does make for a good read.

Sadly, unlike most stories, this one has a rather anticlimactic end. After Goodall passed in 1941, the island was left abandoned and faded into relative obscurity. Little is known about the island’s current state and many don’t even know of its existence.

Just another chapter in Singapore’s forgotten history book.

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(Featured image from The Old and Winding Road)

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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