Sand and satellite – rough patches in Singapore’s bilateral ties

Updated On: Feb 27, 2007

Singapore is experiencing some rough patches in ties with some of its neighbours.  Sand and satellite – these have become ‘weapons’ to ‘pressure’ Singapore over bilateral ties.

A month ago, Indonesia announced a ban on sale of sand on grounds of preventing environmental degradation.  Singapore who rely almost purely on sand import from Indonesia took it with stride and began to release sand stockpile to the construction sector to help mitigate the situation.  In the past week, the issue of the sand ban dominated the headlines again after Indonesia's director general for Asia, the Pacific and Africa, Primo Alui Joelianto, said the sand ban "also aims to push them (to resolve differences) in extradition and some border negotiations" in addition to preventing environmental degradation.

In response, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a formal statement, expressed disappointment at Joelianto’s remark. It added that “unilaterally making sand an additional issue with the objective of delinking the Defence Cooperation Agreement from the Extradition Treaty contravenes the earlier agreement [struck in October 2005 by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong]" that the treaty on extradition would be in parallel and linked to talks on defense cooperation.

The statement also said Singapore "had earlier expressed willingness to work with Indonesia on environmental protection, but Indonesia ignored this offer and proceeded with the ban." Elsewhere, it cited "good progress" on the extradition treaty and border delineation, negotiations which were made "in good faith on the basis of mutual benefit…What is needed is political goodwill on both sides to finalize the agreements which, from Singapore's perspective, is within reach."

Some Indonesian lawmakers have latched on the issue and urged Jakarta to put more pressure on Singapore to sign an extradition treaty, saying the ban on sand exports was not enough. Mr Permadi, a member of the parliamentary committee on security and international affairs, in particular, said 'We need to take much tougher measures against them. I don't know, but the government is too soft.’ He also expressed a 'growing impatience among lawmakers' over the delay in signing the treaty. 'As a big country, we don't have to be afraid of taking action against Singapore, including breaking diplomatic relations,' he added.

To make matters worse, Indonesia presented a flurry of criticisms at Singapore’s management of the sand ban. Riau Islands Police chief Brig. Gen. Sutarman said that sand continues to be smuggled from Indonesia to Singapore despite the recent crackdown. "As I was returning home from JohorMalaysia, by ferry on Thursday, I saw for myself at least 10 barges flying Indonesian flags filled with sand and granite heading toward a reclamation project in Singapore. Sand smuggling is apparently still going on. We urge the central government, through the agency, to deal with the problem because the police do not have the necessary resources," said Sutarman.

Elsewhere, Vice-Admiral Djoko Sumaryono, the head of the maritime security coordinating board, said that "Singapore is now offering to pay S$31 for each cubic meter, while it buys sand from China for S$48 per cubic meter. This is just an example of how Singapore treats us. Our job is to raise awareness to preventIndonesia's natural wealth, including sand, from being smuggled out of the country."

Apart from the sand resource itself, Singapore’s reclamation works have also been a point of longstanding contention behind Indonesia’s ban decision. For example, Rear-Admiral Denny Noveni said that the reclamation works had expanded Singapore's territory by 12km, and contributed towards diminishing part of the coast ofIndonesian islands, such as Sebaik island, which “has now disappeared because its sand was taken and sold to Singapore.” The problem escalated when Dedy Djamaluddin Malik, a legislator from the House of Representatives (DPR)’s Commission I, asked the government to consider sending the ambassador of Singaporehome as a protest.

The sand ban and land reclamation disputes also extended to the greater issue of Indonesia’s sovereignty that led to the framing of resources as ‘national strategic assets’ that need to be protected. An ‘outsider’ such as Singapore, is interpreted to be trying to "colonize economically" by taking over Indonesia’s assets, according to Dedy Djamaluddin Malik.

Such an argument borrows from the current move by Thailand to buy back ShinSat's satellites from Temasek Holdings, which currently holds a controlling stake of 41-per-cent, worth about US$85m at current market prices, but whose purchase sparked massive protests and the anti-Thaksin movement in Bangkok. In similar fashion to Indonesia’s sand ban rhetoric, General Sonthi had earlier called for the satellites to be returned to Thailand.  He added the satellites are 'national assets which should not simply be taken away from the Thai people,' along with the added allegation that Singapore could monitor Thai army phone calls through its control of Shin Corp. His jingoistic, nationalistic remarks had sparked unease if Thailand is set to “nationalize” Shin Corp.

Minister for Information and Communication Technology Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom then came out to clarify and reveal that there were ongoing informal discussions between Thai officials and Temasek to “buy back” Shin Satellite. Recent opinion polls also appear to support the current administration’s move, with some 70-80 per cent of the public wanting the satellites back. Thai authorities however, are quick to downplay any rift in Thai-Singapore bilateral ties as a senior official said the issue of ShinSat should be 'delinked from overall bilateral relations' at a seminar at Chulalongkorn University on February 20.

Indonesian authorities have displayed a more antagonistic stance however, by extending the sand ban rift to Singapore’s stakes in the country’s satellite communication. Several MPs have called on their government to follow Thailand's example and try to buy back Indosat, one of the country's telecommunications giants, from ST Telemedia, a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, that holds a 42 per cent majority stake. For example, Hajriyanto Thohari, the Golkar member on the parliamentary committee on security and international affairs, said "In the global era, it is common and inevitable that foreigners would buy over a business entity. But in the case of Indosat in particular, the government should have taken steps to buy back the shares."

Perhaps sensing that current developments have gone too far and which may spur negative repercussions for Indonesia as well, some Indonesian authorities have backtracked on their previous claims. Most notably, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told the Indo Pos daily that Jakarta had stopped the sand sales simply to prevent further damage to the environment. 'The ban is not being used as a way of applying pressure on Singapore into signing the extradition treaty and settling the border issues quickly,' he said. Primo Alui Joelianto also denied saying that the sand ban was linked to the extradition treaty.  (22 February 2007)


Officials struggle with Batam sand smuggling (Jakarta Post, 17 February 2007)

Singapore 'disappointed' with comment about sand export ban (Jakarta Post, 20 February 2007)

Legislator asks government to send Singapore's envoy home (Antara, 20 February 2007)

INDONESIA: Call for Indonesia to buy back telco from Temasek (The Straits Times, 20 February 2007)

Thailand won't seize control of satellites (The Straits Times, 21 February 2007)

Jakarta backs down from tough stand (The Straits Times, 21 February 2007)