Sand trade silence persists as Cambodian politician, Singapore official meet

31 March 2017. By Phoebe Seers.

Son Chhay, a senior Cambodian legislator and rights activist, met with an official from the Singaporean embassy in Phnom Penh this week following the dispatch of a letter marked for the attention of Singapore's Minister of National Development demanding information on sand traded between the two countries.

The meeting comes after months of silence from both sides over a 70 million metric ton ― equivalent to $750 million ― discrepancy between figures on sand traded between Cambodia and Singapore. UN trade data surfaced in mid-2016 showing that between 2007 and 2015, Singapore imported 72.2 million metric tons of sand from Cambodia, although Cambodia reported that it had exported only 2.7 million metric tons to Singapore.

The existence of the letter, signed by 10 members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and dated March 7, was not confirmed until today because the signatories did not want details of it published until after the meeting at the embassy had been concluded.

The letter requests that Singapore authorities including the Ministry of National Development, the Housing Development Board and JTC Corp provide detailed lists of all shipments of sand entering Singapore from Cambodia. It asks for details including arrival dates, names of ships, tonnages and the value of sand, and the names of the companies involved in the supply chain.

The letter also seeks all official documentation issued by Cambodian authorities, such as export permits and licenses, cargo manifests, bills of loading and invoices.

If the Singaporean authorities were to cooperate with their Cambodian counterparts, it would undoubtedly assist an ongoing investigation on the Cambodian side into irregularities in exports of sand to Singapore.

However, insiders are doubtful that Singapore will respond either fully or in part to the requests. Regardless, there is hope that pressure from the Cambodian side will dissuade Singapore from resuming sand purchases from the country, ranked the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. There is currently a ban on sand exports from Cambodia, but a local activist told MLex that he was worried they would resume shortly.

Cambodian daily newspaper the Phnom Penh Post reported that the appearance of an excavator, machine parts and metal structures on islands in Koh Kong province had aroused suspicions among local conservationists that a company intended to launch a sand-dredging operation there.

According to trade statistics compiler UN Comtrade, Singapore has imported 517 million metric tons of sand in the past 20 years, making it the largest importer of sand in the world.

A suggestion made by a Ministry of Mines and Energy spokesperson that foreign ships, falsely sailing under the Cambodian flag, are importing sand into Singapore is repeated in the letter as a possible explanation for the discrepancy in sand volumes recorded. If proved to be correct, it would shift blame for the illegal trade from one the most corrupt countries in all of Asia to the least.

Earlier this month, Vietnamese media reported that a number of ships registered in Liberia, Malta, Hong Kong and mainland China were transporting sand from Vietnam to Singapore this year. Those foreign ships were contracted with Singaporean firms Hua Kai Engineering, Le Tong Resources and TNS Resources, according to Vietnamese online news site Tuoitrenews. The allegations have not been verified by MLex and the companies could not be reached for comment.

Singapore's Ministry of National Development told MLex that operations and reclamation works were tendered out to private contractors, usually companies specializing in land reclamation, which were also responsible for sourcing the sand used.

"Hence sand supply is managed by these private contractors, and the import of sand to Singapore is carried out on a commercial, business-to-business basis," a spokesman for the ministry said.

"However, the government agencies will ensure that all private contractors bringing sand into Singapore have valid sand export permits from the relevant authorities in the source country," the spokesman said.