Singapore under scrutiny for alleged involvement in illegal sand import for land reclamation

Construction site of new public housing apartments on waterfront of Johor strait in Singapore. (Photo: Igor Grochev/

Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer, has come under fire in the past several years for its alleged massive involvement in illegal sand mining.

According to a recent report by The Guardian, the Singapore government has claimed to import only 3 million tonnes of sand from Malaysia in 2008. However, the figure cited by the Malaysian government was 133 million tonnes, allegedly entirely smuggled into Singapore.

Besides Malaysia, Singapore has imported sand from Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Activists in Cambodia have detected discrepancies in the export and import trade data from the United Nations, which showed that Singapore had reported importing 73.6 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia since 2007, whereas the Cambodian government reported a figure of only 2.7 million tonnes left for Singapore, according to TODAY Online.

Cambodia has reportedly banned all riverside sand mining activities in 2009 due to the environmental consequences suffered by the local ecological landscape and Cambodians living in the affected areas.

However, in 2010, British anti-corruption non-governmental organisation Global Witness reported that Singapore was allegedly buying sand illegally and unsustainably dredged from the rivers in the Koh Kong Province in Cambodia.

Singapore rejected the allegations, stressing that it requires sand vendors to abide by strict regulations regarding such matters.

Malaysia and Indonesia have banned sand mining in 1997 and 2007 respectively, the latter being specific to Singapore.

However, a report by New Straits Times has indicated that as of Nov 2017, sand extracted illegally from the coastlines of Pahang and Kelantan in Malaysia were still being exported to Singapore by one of two companies that were issued approved permits, allegedly through questionable means, by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

This instance of illegal exportation of illegally mined sand was done alongside the export of such sand to India, where “sand mafias” have proliferated and are still thriving to this date.

Singapore, in order to meet a high demand for land expansion and reclamation, has also been accused of engaging in other forms of sand theft.

One such example is “paying smugglers to steal entire beaches under the cover of the night” in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, according to International Policy Digest.

A report by The Telegraph has stated that these smugglers “sail straight into Singapore port” after dredging the sand from boats. The sand is typically sold to international brokers. It was alleged that the boats are rarely intercepted by Customs or the Navy in Singapore.

Concerns have also been raised over the diversion of the ocean’s current around Singapore’s expansion into the sea, which has a direct negative impact on marine wildlife.

Illegal sand mining has also contributed to the disappearance of approximately two dozens of small islands in Indonesia, and is currently a threat to the “existence of some 80 small low-lying Indonesian islands”, according to The Guardian.

This is a grave cause for concern, as the smaller islands protect the larger islands from storms and tsunamis.

The United Nations Environment Programme reported that “between 47 and 59 billion tonnes of material is mined every year […] of which sand and gravel […] account for both the largest share (from 68% to 85%) and the fastest extraction increase […].”

These statistics are alarming, considering that the rate of extraction exceeds the rate at which sand is replenished.

However, Singapore plans to rely on Dutch expertise for its next reclamation project, according to The Economist. Using a system of dykes and pumps, the need to use sand in land reclamation and expansion will be reduced. Consequently, the demand for illegal sand mining might be reduced.

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