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Between the sand and a flooded place

By Derrick A Paulo, TODAY
13 February 2007 1039 hrs

After weeks of seeing the Republic caught in the crosshairs of diplomatic snipes by its neighbours, it was time yesterday for some Singapore MPs to let off a little steam of their own.

Indonesia's sand ban, Thailand's tapping allegations and Malaysia's attempt to link its flooding to Singapore were all raised in Parliament.

As MPs sought answers from the Cabinet, they aired their thoughts on the issues.

"Is it true the Indonesians are very concerned over the significant impact to the environment arising from our purchase of sand from them? If so, can we not impress upon Indonesia to be equally concerned about the haze problem?" asked Mr Sin Boon Ann of Tampines GRC.

"What's (the Foreign Minister's) view on the politics of envy in this instance? Does he see the ban on sand arising from a situation of 'I see you little red dot — tak puas (not satisfied), rather than from border and environmental concerns?" enquired West Coast GRC's Madam Ho Geok Choo.

"In view of the recent suspension of the civil service exchange programme by the Thai government ... shouldn't the Foreign Ministry cancel all such programmes and channel the money to better use, such as expediting the lift upgrading programme in Nee Soon South?" said Ms Lee Bee Wah of Ang Mo Kio GRC.

The latter request, in particular, prompted Foreign Minister George Yeo to caution all involved against aggravating matters by "reacting in an emotional way".

"It's certainly not in our interests," said Mr Yeo, who was reluctant to comment on the domestic politics of Singapore's neighbours.

Nonetheless, as MPs probed about Singapore's bilateral relations in the region, Mr Yeo and National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan parsed the issues in detail.

On the sand ban, Mr Mah said that Indonesia's environmental claims were unjustified. "We were aware that various quarters in Indonesia had been calling on their government to ban land sand exports because of claims of environmental damage and the potential impact on Indonesia's boundaries. These claims are not justified," he said.

Indonesian sand suppliers already plough some proceeds from the sale of sand into environmental reconstruction. "That is built into the price of sand," Mr Mah noted.

Neither is it clear how the mining of land sand — which is used only for construction — or sea sand can affect maritime boundaries, said Mr Yeo.

Indonesia banned the export of sea sand in 2003.

Regardless, the reclamation works cannot affect the demarcated boundaries and current agreements between Singapore and its neighbours, he said. Areas not yet demarcated will have to be done so through negotiations.

Referring to Indonesian media reports linking the ban to border talks and extradition treaty negotiations between both countries, he said: "Such a linkage, if true, would be unfortunate and counterproductive. Our border limitation talks are complicated enough. An additional linkage would only make talks more difficult."

On floods in Malaysia, he said this had been "extensively studied", and the effects on Malaysia from Singapore's reclamation works were "not an issue".

Turning to ties with Thailand, he said that while the Thai government had lobbied to cancel former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra's dinner with Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar, the Republic emphasised there would be no publicity.

"It was the Thai side which made public the DPM's meeting with Mr Thaksin, despite our assurance it would be kept private and discreet," said Mr Yeo.

On the eavesdropping allegations, he said there are telecommunications companies under foreign ownership in many countries. For example, a Norwegian company owns a Thai telco.

The Thai authorities and Thai nationals at the Temasek-owned telcos would not allow domestic calls to be routed through Singapore, he said, adding that "it would also have been absurd for Temasek to sully its reputation by doing something like this".

Summing up, Mr Yeo said, "Relations between countries, even close neighbours and partners, sometimes have their ups and downs ... (and) we have to take the current unpleasantness in our stride." - TODAY/fa

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