Mister Sandman, Bring Me Some Sand

It may just be that Lee Kuan Yew wanted to be more than the mayor of a relatively small Asian city, befitting his status as an Asian statesman, but for four decades, the Lion City has been growing inexorably. Indonesian companies want to help. They are fighting a 2007 ban on sand extraction and, according to the country's trade ministry, they may be getting some traction. The ministry is reviewing the ban.

"So far we are trying to get responses from the public," said Albert Yousuf Tobagu, director of mining export commodities at the ministry. "We are including regional administrations and relevant government institutions as part of our recommendation to the ministerial meeting to make a decision on whether or not to lift the export ban on sea sand."

Surrounded entirely by water, Singapore has grown from only 581.5 sq km in 1960 to at least 650 sq km today, and it expects to grow by another 100 sq. km by 2030, according to the government. The city-state's population has grown inexorably as well, from 1.67 million in 1960 to well over 4 million today, with the government seeking leibensraum to expand for housing estates and other facilities and for commercial and recreation space.

The sand is being hauled in by the barge-load from Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia, although Indonesia has banned sand exports as environmentally catastrophic, with entire islands being turned into atolls. The government is also said to be growing concerned that Singapore's burgeoning growth will threaten the national boundaries set by its sprinkling of nearby islands. Malaysia has also banned sand sales to Singapore.

The Singapore embassy in Jakarta declined comment to Asia Sentinel in March that it is taking sand from either Cambodia or Indonesia although the government acknowledges that it needs sand to grow. Asked where the sand was coming from, an embassy official said: "We have our own sand stockpile," although he wouldn't say where that was located.

The environmental protection organization Global Witness wrote the government in Singapore last October asking about its role in Cambodian sand extraction. In a bid to show plausible deniability, Global Witness was told: "Singapore uses land sand for construction purposes, and sea sand for land reclamation projects. Both types of sand are imported by contractors from other countries. The import of sand is a purely commercial activity and the Singapore Government is not involved.

"The Singapore government does not impose restrictions on where the sand contractors source for supplies, but we expect the contractors to abide by the laws of the source country governing the extraction, processing and transport of sand, as well as environmental regulations. Our trade records show that some of the imported sand used in construction and reclamation projects originate from Cambodia. Singapore ceased imports of land and sea sand from Indonesia since 2007 and 2003 respectively."

In what grew into a diplomatic flap, Indonesia banned sea sand shipments to Singapore in 2007. Insiders said it was an attempt to force the island republic into signing an extradition treaty so that Indonesia could reel in a flock of bankers who stole as much as US$13.5 billion in bank recapitalization funds in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. Although the treaty was agreed in the wake of the sand embargo, it was never signed after objections in the Indonesian legislature.

Singapore has long styled itself as an Asian equivalent of Switzerland, maintaining strict banking secrecy laws that have allowed Burmese generals, among others, to bank there with impunity. More than that, Singapore has been leery of Indonesian intentions ever since Indonesia's then-president, Sukarno, staged what he called "konfrontasi" in an unsuccessful attempt to take over the entire island of Borneo between 1962 and 1966. Singapore was part of Malaysia at the time.

Singapore denies that the extradition treaty or a corollary defense treaty had anything to do with the sand ban. The bankers have never come home.

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When Trade Minister Mari Pangestu instiuted the ban in 2007, as many as 24 sand-exporting companies threatened a class-action lawsuit against the government in an effort to reverse it, and have been fighting it ever since. At that time, sand was also being exported to South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, causing environmental havoc in Indonesia.

And, while exports may have dipped from Indonesia, they haven't stopped by any means, environmentalists say. Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, or Walhi, a local environmental watchdog, says that the entire Nipah and Sebaik islands have almost disappeared in the Riau region. Before the ban, Tulang in the Karimun Island chain lost 32 meters of beach to sand thieves. Illegal activity in North Sumatra — particularly on the Cermin and Labu beaches — has continued despite the ban, with dredgers sucking up as much as 7,000 cubic meters of sand per hour, environmentalists say. Dredging has also gone on unabated in the Benkulu, Bangka Belitung, Lampung and West Sumatra regions, according to Walhi.

Environmentalists say Indonesia shouldn't even discuss the possibility of lifting the ban.

"This is a nightmare for Indonesians and the environment, how could they do that?" said Muhammad Tegus Surya, chief advocate for Walhi. "We cannot let this happen. The damage is really huge and it is not equal to the profit."

"The sea sand exporters association has pushed the government to lift the ban," said Aji Sularso, director general for sea resources at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in a telephone interview. "However, I think several ministries, including the Foreign Ministry, have not agreed to it because we have to evaluate whether the damage from lifting the ban is smaller compared to keeping it."

The association was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

As sand exports dropped from Indonesia, they appear to have increased dramatically from Cambodia, according to a detailed report by Global Witness, issued in February and titled "Country for Sale."

In the report, Global Witness estimated sand dredging in Cambodia's Koh Kong Province to be worth US$8.6 million annually, to be retailed for US$35 million a year in Singapore, with the entire operation controlled by Ly Yong Phat, a Cambodian senator and tycoon.

"When Global Witness investigators visited the area, they found a complex situation with multiple sand suppliers and buyers. The common denominator, however, was that all those interviewed claimed that sand taken from the area was destined for Singapore," the report said.

In three days, the report said, the giant vacuum pumps could suck up enough sand to fill a 15,000-tonne ship.

According to reports from local residents and workers, the ships appeared to be operated by mainland Chinese in military uniforms without insignia. However, Global Watch reported, the Chinese are not the only operators exporting to Singapore from Koh Kong. Malaysian and Korean companies are involved in sand extraction for Singapore as well, the report said.