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Minister faces music on sand

Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem (centre) was questioned by the corruption commission at the National Assembly yesterday.
Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem (centre) was questioned by the corruption commission at the National Assembly yesterday. Hong Menea

Minister faces music on sand

Mines Minister Suy Sem could not give parliament’s anti-corruption commission an acceptable explanation for why Cambodian customs data failed to note $750 million in sand exports that Singapore says it received, the committee’s chairman said after a hearing yesterday.

Sem was called in for questioning in the morning by the opposition-led committee, which said it was concerned that UN data showed 72.7 million tonnes of Cambodian sand entering Singapore from 2007 to 2015, but only 2.8 million tonnes leaving Cambodia.

The data also showed that the sand being exported to Singapore from Cambodia in that period was worth $752 million, but that the sand recorded leaving Cambodia was worth only $5 million, leading to accusations that sand may have been smuggled out.

After a closed-door hearing in the morning, the anti-corruption commission’s chairman, Ho Vann, told reporters that Sem failed to offer a suitable answer for why the UN data, which was supported by Singapore’s customs data, featured such a large discrepancy.

“The sand data and the prices are too different, and we cannot accept that,” said Vann, who is an opposition lawmaker. “We demand the organisation of a committee so that in the future, there will not be a difference between the figures for quantity and for money.”

“Our commission has asked the minister to find a way to reduce the gap in the numbers, since one is 2 million [tonnes] and another is 70 million,” the commission head said. “This is too much of a difference.”

Vann added that he was concerned that millions in royalties may have gone uncollected if sand was in fact being smuggled, and that the environment may have been damaged. Sem, the minister, did not speak to reporters as he left the meeting.

However, in an afternoon press conference, a ministry spokesman, Dith Tina, dismissed the difference between the $5 million in Cambodian exports and $752 million in Singaporean imports by saying that the prices at the point of production and at sale are always different.

“I hope that we will stop talking about the $700 million,” Tina said. “It relates to the size of the commerce. For example, a coconut is 300 riel [about $0.08] in Kampot, but it is 3,000 riel [$0.75] in Phnom Penh – and the sand case is the same.”

“Therefore, they should think about the profit in the chain of transportation,” he said. Tina said he could not answer reporters’ questions on why the data also showed a large difference in the weight of the sand leaving Cambodia (2.8 million tonnes) and arriving in Singapore (72.7 million tonnes). Instead, he passed the question to Meng Saktheara, another ministry spokesman.

Saktheara explained that there may have been a problem with different usages of the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System, which assigns a six-digit code to items that are traded internationally, and assigns the code HS-2505 for sand.

He suggested Singapore may have registered imports of other things under that code, explaining there could not otherwise be a discrepancy of tens of millions of tonnes in weight. “How about Singapore’s 2505? Which goods did Singapore put?” he asked.

“If each of the countries used this code for the same goods, the numbers should not be different,” the mines spokesman said. “So, if some countries, for example, used sand for this code, but the other countries do not use sand for this code, it must be different.”

Reached later, he said that the use of the codes was the only explanation for the discrepancy. “The reason is very simple. If you check that code, 2505, as reported by Singapore, you can see that Singapore also records this coming from the US, from France, Germany, and Australia,” he said.

“Singapore would not import sand from the US. It’s too far.” Singapore’s own customs data, which matches the UN data, label its imports of sand from Cambodia clearly as “Singapore’s Annual Import of Natural Sands Except Metal Bearing Sands of Chap 26 (HS 2505)”.

However, Saktheara said he still believed that Singapore’s government was including other items under the 2505 code that Cambodia’s government was not. “They just do it differently. They break it into different parts – it includes 2505.01, which is sand – and then it says, 2505.09, which is ‘others’,” he said.

“It’s difficult to use these figures to jump to conclusions. ”But it was not only Vann who rejected the explanations. It was rejected, too, by Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a founder of the NGO Mother Nature – which first revealed the customs data discrepancy – who said that the two spokespeople were being disingenuous.

“Meng Saktheara is trying to get technical in order to make the waters murky and confuse the public. Unfortunately, his explanation is flawed, as the codes for sand are the same for all of the public documents the gap in trade sand stems from,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

“Furthermore, I am shocked that a representative of one of the most corrupt countries in the world has the nerve to shift the blame of this monumental scam onto Asia’s most transparent and least corrupt country, Singapore.”

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