Singaporean President Skirts Controversies Over Sand, Maids

Singaporean President Tony Tan Keng Yam’s visit to Phnom Penh on Monday yielded two agreements on education and health, but no words on controversial sand imports or migrant maids, an official said.

Eang Sophalleth, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal assistant, briefed reporters after a meeting between the two leaders at the Peace Palace, saying Mr. Tan had congratulated Cambodia for its recent rapid progress under the “smart” leadership of Mr. Hun Sen.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, toasts the visit of Singaporean President Tony Tan Keng Yam at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

He said the prime minister, in turn, told Mr. Tan that there was untapped potential for more trade between the two countries, which totaled $500 million in 2015, and suggested the city-state import Cambodia’s milled rice.

Following the meeting, Cambodia and Singapore signed two agreements, one for the health sector and another for education and professional training.

Mr Sophalleth said there was no discussion about sending more Cambodian maids to Singapore this year or about recent sand exports to the city-state, “because this was a general discussion and not a detailed discussion.”

Singapore’s Manpower Ministry decided in October to make Cambodia its 13th and latest official source country for domestic workers, despite troubles during a pilot program in 2013.

Some women returned from Singapore claiming recruitment agencies and employers had put them in debt bondage or underpaid their salaries. One woman claimed sexual abuse at the hands of her employer’s father.

Singaporean President Tony Tan Keng Yam, center left, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center right, preside over a signing ceremony on Monday in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The program followed widespread reports of abuse of Cambodian maids working in nearby Malaysia, a migration route that was banned in 2011 and has yet to be reopened despite negotiations.

Additionally, Singapore, which the U.N. reports has used sand to extend its territory by 130 square km over the past 40 years, has recorded huge sand imports from Cambodia in recent years, far more than Cambodia has recorded exporting to the country. Cambodia claims between 2.7 and 16.2 million tons left the country for Singapore between 2007 and last year, radically lower than the 73.6 million tons of imported sand recorded by Singapore and reported to the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

The discrepancy has led environmental NGO Mother Nature to hire a Singaporean law firm to investigate whether the country has broken any laws related to the imports.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said that one of Monday’s agreements provided for 80 Cambodians to be taught in Singapore to become trainers: 32 in information technology, 32 in automotive technology and the rest in electronics.

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