Malaysia cuts off sand exports to Singapore, jeopardising expansion plans of 'wealthy' neigbhour
Singapore wants to expand its territory through reclaimed land
Malaysia has stopped selling sea sand to Singapore, cutting off the tiny island nation’s main source of one of the key materials it needs for extensive expansion plans.
Those plans include the development of the Tuas mega port, expected to be the world’s biggest container terminal.
Malaysia exports roughly £277m in sand to Singapore, which accounts for around 97 per cent of its sand supplies.
Singapore, a city-state of 5.6 million people, has increased its land area by a quarter since it gained independence in 1965, growing from 224 square miles to just under 280 square miles, and has largely been able to do so by using sand to reclaim coastal areas.
In its quest for more space, it plans to expand its territory further to nearly 300 square miles by 2030 but could be forced to curb its ambitions if sand supplies fail to materialise.
According to Reuters news agency, Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who rose to power in an unexpected win last year, had imposed a ban on all sea sand exports in October. The decision was only made public in July as the government was reportedly concerned about triggering a diplomatic row.
Officials claimed that Mr Mahathir was unhappy that Malaysia’s land was being used to increase the size of its wealthier neighbour, and concerned that corrupt Malaysian officials may be receiving kickbacks from the secretive business.
Endie Shazlie Akbar, the prime minister’s press secretary, confirmed the halt on sand experts but he denied it was linked to reclamation works and insisted it was motivated by environmental considerations and the need to prevent illegal sand smuggling.
However, sources told Reuters that the ban was never made public because of the potential diplomatic fallout.
Singapore and Malaysia were part of British-ruled Malaya and became distinct countries in 1965, but disputes over territory and shared resources have damaged relations.
Malaysia’s move to block supplies means Singapore will have to depend on other countries including Burma, Bangladesh and the Philippines which may not have the supply capacity.
In May, a UN report warned that the level of sand extraction worldwide was substantially larger than the rate at which it could be replenished.
“We are spending our sand ‘budget’ faster than we can produce it responsibly. By improving the governance of global sand resources, we can better manage this critical resource sustainably and truly demonstrate that infrastructure and nature can go hand in hand,” Joyce Msuya, the acting executive director of the UN environment unit wrote.
She added: “With sand extraction regulated differently around the world, important regions for biodiversity and ecosystems are made more vulnerable by challenges in the local implementation of these regulations.
“A growing trend of unsustainable and illegal extraction in marine, coastal and freshwater ecosystems makes this a sustainability challenge with a display of the various extraction impacts on terrestrial, riverine and marine environments.”
The report also warned that the problems caused by sand extraction stretched beyond the environment, with the tourism industry of the exporting country suffering due to smaller beaches.
Sand extraction can also decrease the population of crabs, endangering those who make a living by collecting and selling the creatures.
The row comes after Cambodia stopped sand exports to Singapore in 2017, while Indonesia imposed a similar ban the same year, citing environmental concerns.
However, this did little to slow the rate of sand extraction from Indonesia, and as a result around 80 low-lying Indonesian islands risk being shrunk to nothing.