Singapore accused of land grab as islands disappear by boatload

Richard Lloyd Parry
The Times
17 Mar 07

With more than 17,000 islands – from the jungly expanses of Borneo and Sumatra to unnamed rocks jutting out of the sea – you may think that Indonesia would not mind if a few of them went missing. But the huge South-East Asian nation has become caught up in a furious dispute with Singapore, its tiny neighbour, which is accused of literally making off with its territory.

Indonesia has banned the export of sand and imposed strict controls on shipments of gravel, after fears that its islands were being loaded on to ships and carried away to Singapore. In its thirst for building materials and landfill to reclaim new territory from the sea, Indonesians allege, Singapore has been stealing the land beneath their feet.

The dispute reached a climax this week after 24 tugs and barges, carrying granite chips, were intercepted by the Indonesian authorities as they sailed home to Singapore. Jakarta announced that future exports would be allowed only if the granite could be certified as environmentally friendly.

Since Indonesia announced its ban on sand in February, the price of a cubic metre of it has increased more than seven times, from S$6.5 to S$50. The Indonesian Navy has mobilised 18 ships to intercept gravel pirates and sand bandits.

“Some of these islands are reduced to islets, and could even disappear below the surface,” Hendropriyono, Indonesia’s former intelligence chief, has said. “This could theoretically lead to a cartographic zero-sum game in which Singapore’s gain could be at Indonesia’s territorial loss.”

Relations between Singapore and its neighbours have been tense since the city-state became independent from Malaysia in 1965, and disagreements often arise over natural resources. The Singaporean achievement was to create an affluent, highly educated society in a swampy, jungly, malarial island with a population of 4.5 million people at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula.

Singapore’s reliance on its neighbours gives them powerful leverage over it – in the past Malaysia, with whom relations are particularly prickly, has threatened to cut off water supplies across the Straits of Johor. But the sand sanctions are equally threatening.

After years of stagnation, Singapore is undergoing a construction boom, with an increased demand for sand for the manufacture of concrete. The island also has long-term plans to ease its overcrowding by reclaiming land from the sea.

At independence, Singapore was 581 sq km (224 sq miles); now it is 650 sq km and plans to acquire another 100 sq km in the next 30 years. It gets through 1.5 billion cubic metres of dredged silica a year – 333 cubic metres for each man, woman and child. The Government has been forced to draw on its strategic sand reserve, which Singapore hoards as other nations keep stocks of oil and food.

There may be more to Indonesia’s position than a sudden rush of environmental conscientiousness. If Indonesia really does lose islands, it also risks losing the rights to the ocean surrounding them. “The Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that national territory is traced according to the coastal base line, and if islands near Singapore disappear, then the base line is pulled closer to the mainland,” says Mr Hendropriyono. “As it now stands, Singapore is only 20 kilometres from Nipah island, which has been especially eroded by the loss of sand.”

Many in Singapore also suspect that cutting off the sand pipeline is intended to put pressure on them to sign an extradition treaty that would let Indonesia get its hands on alleged white-collar criminals who have taken sanctuary there.

“From time to time, we must expect countries to pressure us in the hope that we will then give way to their demands,” George Yeo, the Foreign Minister, told the national parliament. “Singaporeans know that if we give in to such pressures, we would only invite more such pressures.