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Eng Hen: Detention of Terrex not in compliance with international laws
THE Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would have to spend significantly more if it were to ship military equipment from one place to another directly rather than using transit points, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in parliament on Monday.
"It would cost three to four times more, and add several hundred million dollars to Mindef's (Ministry of Defence) annual budget to ship all military equipment directly from point to point," he told the House.
Dr Ng was speaking in response to queries by five members of parliament who had sought updates on the sudden confiscation of nine Terrex infantry carriers by Hong Kong customs last November.
The vehicles, which were used for training purposes, were on board a container ship that was in transit in Hong Kong. They were being shipped back to Singapore after an SAF military exercise in Taiwan.
In his speech, Dr Ng said that the Singapore Navy does not have transport ships with the scale and capability to transport all the equipment it needs.
The Endurance Class Landing Ship Tanks - the largest vessels in the navy's fleet - are due for replacement soon and Mindef will consider if it should replace them with ships of larger capacity.
Dr Ng stressed that the SAF's contracts with shipping firms and agents require them to comply with established protocols and all relevant international and local port rules.
"Neither the SAF, Singapore, nor indeed most other countries, operate on the assumption that our cargo will be arbitrarily seized when transiting at reputable foreign ports," he said.
"The SAF has followed these procedures for shipping military equipment for over 30 years without any significant incidents. These commercial arrangements have enabled the SAF to ship military equipment safely and economically."
He added that the seizure of the Terrexes does not comply with international or Hong Kong laws, and Singapore wants the armoured vehicles to be returned as soon as possible.
Dr Ng also revealed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had written to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to seek the swift return of the Terrexes, which cost a total of S$30 million.
Dr Ng noted that Mr Leung had replied to say that the investigations on this matter are still ongoing and would be handled in accordance with Hong Kong's laws. The authorities there also requested for some time to carry out their work.
"Singapore welcomes this response. Adherence to the rule of law has been the fundamental basis for peace and stability for the last half-century in Asia. It has enabled countries both large and small to build trust and confidence in one another, cooperate and prosper together," Dr Ng said.
Under the law, the Terrexes have sovereign immunity as they are the property of Singapore and cannot be legally detained or confiscated by other nations.
Even as the issue is yet to be resolved, Dr Ng said that the SAF has already reviewed its shipping processes to minimise the risk of its equipment being taken hostage when being moved to and from Singapore.
This could mean imposing extra precautions even if it results in higher freight charges. Alternatively, the SAF could opt to lease space to house its equipment at its overseas training sites to avoid having to ship them back to Singapore. If needed, extra units could then be procured to meet operational requirements.
Separately, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the House that Singapore has not entered into dialogue with China over the Terrex incident.
"It's best that this matter be handled through the proper legal process. There's no need to politicise it, no need to engage in megaphone diplomacy. Let's have some patience, give this matter time to resolve through appropriate legal or judicial process," he said.
Singapore's relations with China and the interactions with both Hong Kong and Taiwan are based strictly on a "One China" policy.
"We have consistently abided by this policy and understanding reached when we established diplomatic relations with China in 1990. We will continue to do so," he said.
Meanwhile, Beijing has called on Singapore to be cautious with its words and actions over the detention of the Terrexes.
A report by Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper on Monday quoted China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang as saying the incident was being handled in accordance with the law.
"I hope the relevant parties can be cautious in their remarks and actions," he said. "China hopes other nations, including Singapore, follow the 'One China' policy, which is the fundamental pre-requisite for China to develop ties with other countries."