U.S./Singapore Trade Pact Marred by Smuggling Claim

WASHINGTON, DC, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong today signed the U.S./Singapore Free Trade Agreement and celebrated what the White House called "the strength and vitality of the bilateral relationship" between the United States and Singapore. The two leaders agreed to use their alliance to fight terrorism and open a broader trade relationship.

The small Asian country, with about the same population as Rhode Island, four million people, is the United States' 12th largest trading partner and the second largest investor from Asia.

"The agreement that the Prime Minister and I sign today is the first of its kind between the United States and an Asian Pacific country," President Bush said today at the signing ceremony. "America supports free trade because it creates new opportunities for millions of people, new wealth for entire nations, and benefits that are widely shared," the President said.

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President George W. Bush and Singapore Prime Minister Chok Tong Goh sign a free trade agreement in the East Room of the White House. (Photo by Tina Hager courtesy The White House)
The agreement will increase access to Singapore's markets for American exporters, service providers and investors, and also "safeguards the right of workers and protections for our environment," he said.

But a few blocks away at the National Press Club, the Environmental Investigation Agency, (EIA) a nonprofit environmental group with offices in Washington and London, today released documentation showing that Singapore plays a role in the international smuggling of illegally cut timber.

The EIA data shows that Singapore exported millions of dollars of illegal ramin - an internationally protected tree species - to the United States without the permits required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in a 10 month period from 2001 to 2002. Ramin wood is used for pool cues and racks, window blinds, and furniture.

An undercover video of Singaporean businessmen boasting of the methods they used to smuggle ramin into Singapore obtained by investigators from EIA and Telapak, an Indonesian environmental nonprofit group, was released at the press conference today.

EIA president Allan Thornton said, "President Bush is supporting vital international initiatives against illegal logging to protect endangered forests in Asia and Africa. However, Singapore remains one of the largest distributors of illegally cut timber in the world. President Bush should persuade Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to ban the trade in illegally cut timber and enact meaningful enforcement before the administration and Congress finalize the Free Trade Agreement."

Also released was evidence underlining Singapore's continuing role as a hub for international trade in endangered wildlife species and wildlife products, including poached elephant ivory from Africa, the EIA said.

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Wicker and solid ramin wood entertainment hutch (Photo courtesy Menara Mas)
Singapore's laws are inadequate to control the illegal trade, said the EIA, because they facilitate loose regulatory and customs controls over imported and transhipped products. The involvement of Singaporean companies, brokers, shippers, agents and individuals in the massive international illegal timber trade is made possible by the weak laws, the EIA charged.

Singapore is in the process of negotiating similar free trade agreements with all other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including China and Japan.

The EIA fears such agreements will result in more illegally cut timber and other prohibited and sensitive materials being shipped or smuggled throughout Asia and into the United States.

But in the East Room of the White House at the signing ceremony, no one mentioned smuggling of illegally cut wood or endangered species. There the emphasis was on combating terrorism.

"Defeating terrorism in Southeast Asia requires American leadership," said Prime Minister Goh. "President Bush's resolute stand on this issue has given courage and heart to our people, especially the victims and intended victims of terrorism. The world must not be intimidated by terrorists," he said. "We must not allow them to derail our development."