June 7, 2023
JAKARTA – When reading Government Regulation No. 26/2023 on the resumption of sea sand excavation (for Singapore) and listening the defense of two ministers regarding the policy, I burst into laughter because the formulation of the ruling is reminiscent of the New Order practice of using subterfuge to hide business interests of Soeharto’s children and cronies.
Singapore, in need of more land through reclamation, is the world’s largest sea sand importer, while Indonesia is the largest supplier of sea sand. Many Indonesians suspect their neighbor’s reclamation projects aim at annexing parts of their national territory.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued the regulation on the administration of sea sedimentation products on May 15. However, the policy deals with more than just sea sedimentation. There is a euphemism here.
The regulation lifts the ban on sea sand exports signed by then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2003 and extended by her successor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2007.
According to the new regulation, sedimented sea sand can be used for domestic reclamation, government infrastructure development and construction of facilities by the private sector. What is funny to me is a provision that allows sea sand exports only after domestic demands have been fulfilled. I think even President Jokowi himself is confused by the policy formulation.
In a media briefing at his office, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Sakti Wahyu Trenggono asserted that sea sand exports to Singapore will only materialize after a thorough study and inspection by related government institutions to make sure the excavated sands come from sea sand sedimentation.
The minister promised to set up a special team to monitor the export process. The team will comprise officials from various ministries apart from his subordinates, such as the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, experts, environmentalists and academics.
“We are not selling the nation. It is clear that demands for reclamation are huge. When the experts confirm the sand is the result of sedimentation, we will export it not just to Singapore, but also to Japan. What is wrong with that?” the minister said.
Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Arifin Tasrif insists the reinstatement of sea sand exports is intended to address sedimentation below the busy sea lanes, especially the Malacca Strait between Batam and Singapore.
“To protect the shipping lanes, the sea must be deepened. The sediments are thrown out rather than being stored on our site,” said the minister, meaning that the sediments will be exported. But who will accept only sediments?
Indonesian officials have often ensured Singapore’s territorial expansion through the reclamations will not change the borders between the two countries. According to Singapore’s official website, Singapore’s maritime boundaries with Indonesia was established under the 1973 agreement stipulating the territorial sea boundary lines between Indonesia and Singapore, with the exception of some waters near the junctions of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
But as environmentalists, civil society organizations and politicians have criticized and even condemned the lifting of sea sand exports, I will pretend to be sok tau (Mr. Know-it-all) in finding the motives behind the government regulation.
SBY extended the sea sand export prohibition in 2007, when Indonesia failed to pressurize Singapore to agree on two bilateral agreements with Indonesia, the extradition treaty and the defense cooperation agreement, as two separate matters. Singapore wanted to make them a one-package deal.
In my view, President Jokowi has at least two reasons for lifting the sand export.
First to fulfill his promise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when the two leaders attended the signing of three bilateral agreements in Bintan, Riau, in January 2022: The Flight Information Region (FIR), the defense cooperation and the extradition treaty. The FIR agreement is the new element, while the two others were first agreed upon by the two countries in 2007.
The House of Representatives ratified the three agreements on Dec. 15, 2022.
Second, Jokowi realized that the ban of sand exports to Singapore did not mean a lot because it only replaced smuggling, which allegedly involved Navy officers, regional leaders, police officers and politicians. For Singapore, however, the sand imports from Indonesia were legitimate business transactions because the procedures were all met.
The government regulation implied that the government wanted to legalize the practice as it would receive tax revenues from it.
I raised this issue when interviewing then-Singapore deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, a few years before he replaced Goh Chok Tong as the country’s third prime minister. In a meeting at his office I asked him about the discrepancies in the statistical trade data between Singapore and Indonesia.
Indonesian officials often accused the city state of hiding data on its bilateral trade with our country. Lee, the son of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, denied the allegations and gave me quite strong arguments.
I concluded at that time that big differences often occurred because of rampant smuggling to and from Singapore. Of course, illegal trading was never recorded by Indonesia but recorded by Singapore. It also happened in the sea sand exports to Singapore. Our statistics found very low sand exports to Singapore. Now, can you understand better?
In 2002, Kompas daily reported sand extractors regularly falsified the figures they submitted to the government, by claiming they sold sand at the required rate of S$4 per cubic meter, while the real price was about $1.3 per cubic meter. It caused a loss of about S$540 million per year to the state.
According to official data, Indonesia’s sea sand exports to Singapore in 2001 stood at below 75 million cubic meters, while Singapore’s import data recorded 300 million cubic meters. Singapore reported it has imported 1.8 billion cubic meters from Indonesia so far, but according to Indonesian officials the amount reached 167 million cubic meters only.
So? We must blame ourselves, not the neighbor. Whether you like it or not, Indonesia ranks far lower than Singapore in the corruption perception index. The Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2022 ranked Singapore the fifth least corrupt country in the world out of 180 countries with a score of 83, while Indonesia ranked 110th with an index of 34 points.
The President lifted sea sand exports for pragmatic reasons. He wants to reward Singapore for signing the three key agreements and to make sure the money from sand exports goes to the state coffers and not the bandits.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.