Strict rules in place for import of sand: Government

Smuggling and forged permits not condoned, it says, denying Cambodian NGOs' claims

Singapore depends on sand for both reclamation (left) and construction activities.
Singapore depends on sand for both reclamation (above) and construction activities. ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore has denied accusations that it illegally imported sand from Cambodia, saying "strict controls" are in place to ensure contractors source sand legally and in line with local environmental rules.

The Ministry of National Development (MND) said the Government does not condone the smuggling of sand or the use of forged export permits - accusations levelled at it by Cambodian environmentalists. "Thus far, Singapore has not encountered instances of smuggled sand, or contractors bringing sand into Singapore carrying fake export permits," a spokesman for MND said in response to media queries.

In fact, Singapore has ceased importing sand from its neighbour since last November, in compliance with a ban on all sand exports by the Cambodian government, he added. This superseded a May 2009 partial ban on certain types of sand.

The MND statement comes amid a growing clamour among Cambodian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accusing Singapore of excessive sand dredging that they say has threatened mangrove swamps, fish stocks and livelihoods.

A discrepancy over just how much sand Singapore has imported also gave rise to charges that the trade enriched local politicians in Cambodia. Between 2007 and 2015, Singapore recorded 70 million more tonnes of sand from Cambodia than it reported sending over, according to a United Nations database. The MND said it was unable to verify this.

Cambodian NGO Mother Nature has since engaged Singapore lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam to look into whether Singapore has broken any laws "in relation to the social and ecological destruction the mining has caused, or... the government (is) importing Cambodian sand which is tainted by issues of corruption, smuggling, tax evasion etc", its founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson told The Cambodia Daily on Jan 5.

Mr Thuraisingam told The Straits Times he was approached by the NGO earlier this year, but said it was too early to give more details.

In its statement, the MND spokesman stressed that the import of sand from Cambodia is done on a commercial basis, and the Government does not condone any trade or extraction of sand that breaches the source countries' laws.

Contractors must "source sand from legally permissible areas, comply with all the environmental protection laws of the source country, and have the proper sand export documentation and permits from the relevant authorities in the source countries". He added: "The authorities will investigate any such instances and take enforcement action, if evidence is provided."

When contacted, Singapore Contractors Association Limited president Kenneth Loo said: "Whenever we import it, we do it the correct way - not cowboy style."

Indonesia and Malaysia have previously also banned exports of sand to Singapore, which uses sand for both reclamation and construction.

Previous reports cited Myanmar and the Philippines among Singapore's current suppliers.

Singapore is the world's largest importer of sand, according to the UN Environment Programme. By 2030, the Government expects to reclaim another 5,200ha - the size of nine Ang Mo Kio towns.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline Strict rules in place for import of sand: Government. Subscribe