Jakarta draws line in sand in Singapore dredging battle

September 6, 2002

By: Eric Ellis

YOU can see them as your flight descends into Singapore's Changi airport -- dozens of massive sand dredgers lying inactive at anchor in Singapore harbour.

Owned by companies from Belgium, The Netherlands, Russia and South Korea, the dredgers have stopped churning the Indonesian seabed around Singapore because of a nasty dispute with Jakarta.

It's been called the Sand War and parties in Jakarta, Singapore and various European capitals are seeking to draw a line on it lest it career out of hand.

Already seven dredgers have been detained for a month after being arrested by Indonesian navy vessels. Shots have reportedly been fired. An angry Indonesia claims the foreign dredgers are smuggling and, worse, ``stealing'' its sand, which is then dumped to expand the coastline of wealthy Singapore. At best, the Indonesian navy says the dredgers' paperwork is not in order.

The foreign dredgers say that's nonsense. They claim they are working for agents who have contracts with Indonesian authorities in the Riau islands neighbouring Singapore to dredge sand from the Indonesian seabed and deliver it to Singaporean government customers.

For Singapore's part, it has what the CIA might call ``plausible deniability''. All the government-owned Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) says it has are contracts to buy sand. It claims not to care, or know, where the sand comes from.

Sand dredging is big business, a A$10 billion global market, and tiny Singapore is the world's most active market as it seeks to make itself bigger. Singapore is also struggling out of a recession and would like to keep tourist dollars inside the republic, instead of leaking to the neighbouring Riau archipelago, where the beaches and resorts are better.

Guido Cockx, manager of the Belgium-based Jan De Nul group, said 54 of the world's 70 biggest dredgers had been active working for Singapore customers. He confirmed that two of Jan de Nul's vessels, the Alexander von Humboldt and Vasco de Gama, the world's biggest dredger, had been detained in port.

Despite Singapore's prominence as a shipping centre, the drama has not received much prominence in Singapore's government-controlled media, which, like its government, is anxious not to offend its powerful neighbour.