Breaking months of silence over accusations that it imported tens of millions of tons of smuggled sand, Singapore’s government on Monday distanced itself from any wrongdoing, a response an environmental NGO leader deemed “full of lies” and “devoid of any meaning.”
The city-state recorded about 70 million more tons of sand arriving from Cambodia than Cambodia reported sending there from 2007 to last year, according to figures sent by both countries to the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database.
The gap has led to speculation from environmental groups and even the Cambodian government that the island was complicit in bringing in smuggled sand from Cambodia or elsewhere to buttress its land-building projects—charges that have gone largely unanswered by Singapore.
In an email on Monday, however, Gene Ng, manager of corporate communications for Singapore’s National Development Ministry, downplayed the significance of the sand gap and suggested contractors, not the government, were legally culpable for any criminal behavior.
“Import or export figures reported by countries are dependent on their own calculation formulas,” Mr. Ng wrote, echoing past statements from the Cambodian government. “The import of sand from Cambodia to Singapore is done on a commercial basis.”
“Singapore does not condone any trade or extraction of sand that breaches the source countries’ laws and regulations on environmental protection,” he wrote. “We have put in place strict criteria to ensure that our suppliers meet the prevailing local rules and regulations of the source country.”
“If there is any evidence that our contractors are not in compliance with the source countries’ laws and regulations, Singapore will respect that legal process will take its course,” he added.
Mr. Ng did not specify what criteria the government used to check that shipments of sand were legally sourced, and did not respond to an immediate request for elaboration. Singapore exempts marine-dredged sand destined for reclamation projects from a licensing scheme that governs most other sand imports.
Environmental NGO Mother Nature, which has blamed poorly monitored coastal sand mining for destroying ecosystems and livelihoods in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, has hired a law firm to explore possible legal action in Singapore.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the NGO’s exiled founder, said Singapore’s statement did not allay his concerns.
“Their response is not just devoid of any meaning, it is also full of lies and an insult to the Cambodian people, especially to the hundreds of families whose livelihoods have been thrown down the drain,” he said. “If the government of Singapore thinks they can get away with this kind of reply, they are making a very serious mistake.”