Every few months or so, the subject of selling sand to Singapore flares up in the media. When this happens in the websites, the discussion takes on a polemical turn – with ‘patriots’ proclaiming how disloyal it is to sell sand to our neighbor; how we are selling out our national interests; etc. The latest report out in the media states that a private company employed by the operator of the Tanjung Agas Gas and Oil Logistic Park in Pahang is being investigated for smuggling sand into Singapore (see http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/5/31/nation/20120531065041&sec=nation).
Dr. Mahathir’s Double Speak
For the life of me, I cannot fathom why there is such an irrational reaction, especially when this comes from the like of the former Prime Minister of the country. Readers will remember that when Dr. Mahathir became the Prime Minister, he stopped sand exports. More recently in 2010, following reports that 34 Malaysian civil servants were arrested for facilitating sand smuggling to Singapore, Dr. Mahathir condemned corrupt officials in the following way:.
“What these people are doing is selling a little bit of Malaysia, dig, keep digging Malaysia and give her to other people,” he said.
This is an irresponsible statement aimed at provoking Malaysians into treating Singapore as an enemy and instigating us to hate our closest neighbor.
The fact is that during Dr. Mahathir’s time, our economy grew as a consequence of our exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, timber, forest products etc. which we sold to the highest bidder in the market. In turn Malaysia imported natural resource products from other countries. This trade and international exchange is not only normal. It is also desirable and in the interests of all nations.
When Thailand sold us minerals or quartz products, would Dr. Mahathir want the former Prime Minister of Thailand to publicly denounce the sale and say
“What these people are doing is selling a bit of Thailand; keep digging Thailand and give her to other people.”
Of course, we need to ensure that the exploitation of our sand and other resources is undertaken responsibly and transparently. This means a system of open tender with the federal and state governments opening their books to the public on the licenses given out to quarries, dredging companies, timber companies, etc.; the licence fees collected; the duration of the licence; winning and unsuccessful bidders; and other key information.
All of this is missing right now in the current system of sand licences and needs to be corrected. I recommend that this be done by the Pakatan Rakyat states so that they leave behind a legacy of transparency and accountability in this important sector.
But let us not forget that the corrupt system of negotiated and closed tender and lack of transparency and accountability emerged as standard operating procedures during Dr. Mahathir’s rule. If anyone is to be blamed for the mismanagement and abuse in the exploitation of our natural resources, the finger of blame must be pointed at our country’s present leaders.
Environmental Considerations and Public Interest
We also need to ensure that environmental concerns are fully taken into consideration before exploitation of sand and other natural resources is permitted. I have sympathy with the environmentalists who are concerned with the adverse environmental impacts of uncontrolled sand mining on our picturesque beaches.
For this reason, proper studies need to be conducted and fears of adverse environmental consequences must be addressed in an open and transparent way before any licences are given out. This is necessary for all projects including the Lynas one which has gathered so much controversy over the health and environmental concerns.
Sand Sales As Part of a Win Win Situation
About 30 years ago, Mudajaya Construction, the company I founded, was given the contract to fill up the Kelantan Medical University site with sand from Sungei Kelantan. It is a well-known fact that Kota Bahru and other towns upstream are flooded because Sungei Kelantan is clogged up with sand. Hence the contract was akin to killing two birds with one stone.
Mudajaya was also given the contract to dredge sand from Sungei Tiram in Johore for export to Singapore. The sand from the river was used to create the beach at Sentosa Resort in Singapore. In the process we not only cleared our Malaysian river and solved its flooding problem but we also generated jobs and income from the revenue received from Singapore. This is a win-win situation for our two nations.
I am now no longer associated with Mudajaya nor have I any business interest in the construction industry. However I will support exploitation of our sand resources subject to the caveats I have set out earlier. If our country can sell 50 million cu m. of sand to Singapore at Rm 50 per cu m. Singapore will pay us Rm 2,500 million which can help fill the shortfall in Government coffers. At the same time, if properly planned, the dredging can eliminate the flooding for us.
What is wrong with this business transaction if it is carried out properly and with full transparency and accountability?
For us to be jealous of Singapore’s beaches created out of Malaysian sand is plain stupidity just as it is stupid for Singaporeans to want to see the Iskandar Development fail. The fact is that economic exchange is in the interest of both countries.
A more prosperous and appreciative neighbor is always better than a poorer or disgruntled one. Let us not cut our nose to spite our face or pay heed to the ranting of politicians who are anxious to recruit others to fight their personal ends.
This is a guest post from philanthropist tycoon Koon Yew Yin.