This is the transcript of the exchange I had with Mr S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Home Affairs, during Question Time in Parliament on 13 April 2015. My question was prompted by reports that a North Korean diplomat was caught at the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with 27 kg of undeclared gold, after arriving on a flight from Singapore, where he had transited.
In his reply, the Second Minister said that there is no weight limit on the amount of gold that travellers are allowed to transport in and out of Singapore. He added that it is “not uncommon, especially for travellers to certain parts of the world to carry what you and I might consider not insignificant amounts of gold in their personal baggage. If they are able to give a clear explanation that these are their personal effects or for personal consumption purposes, generally they would be allowed to carry on with their travel with those items.”
LIMITS ON TRANSPORT OF GOLD AND OTHER PRECIOUS METALS IN AND OUT OF SINGAPORE
(Whether diplomatic immunity extends to such transport)
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) what is the weight limit on the transport of gold and other precious metals in and out of Singapore by individual travellers; (b) whether diplomats are exempt from this limit, if any; (c) whether the Police is aware of a diplomat carrying up to 27 kg of gold bars in his luggage on a flight out of Changi Airport in March 2015; and (d) what measures are in place to ensure that diplomats do not abuse their diplomaticimmunity to carry precious metals, drugs or weapons in and out of Singapore in their luggage.
The Second Minister for Home Affairs (Mr S Iswaran) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs): Mdm Speaker, there is no weight limit on the amount of gold and other precious metals that can be transported in and out of Singapore by travellers. In line with the international standards set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, our measures and controls are focused on the point of sale of such items in Singapore.
All precious stones and metal dealers (PSMDs) are required to conduct customer due diligence and file a Cash Transaction Report (CTR) with the Suspicious Transaction Reporting Office when they sell any precious stone, precious metal or precious product to a customer in cash exceeding S$20,000. This is supplemented by the general suspicious transaction reporting (STR) regime, which requires all persons in Singapore to report any knowledge or reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct which comes to their attention in the course of business or employment.
Police is aware of media reports of a case last month where a person allegedly attempted to import gold into another country without making the proper customs declarations, after arriving on a flight originating from Singapore. Police records indicate that the person, who is a foreign diplomat, but not accredited to Singapore, did depart on a flight from Changi Airport where he was screened before boarding and no security threat items were found on him.
All diplomats, like other travellers, are screened for threat items before they are allowed on board an aircraft. This involves the use of metal detectors for person checks, and x-ray screening for their belongings. Although the personal baggage of diplomats are generally exempted from inspection under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), a diplomat’s personal baggage will be inspected if there are serious grounds for believing that he is carrying prohibited or controlled items, such as weapons and drugs.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the Second Minister for the reply. I have two supplementary questions: first, why was there no detection of the alleged items in his baggage, given that it was detected when he arrived in Bangladesh? The Second Minister said that no security threat items were discovered. I suppose this does not include gold. Would the diplomat have been allowed to transport that amount of gold, allegedly, through Changi Airport on that day?
Secondly, under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic bags carried by diplomats are protected from search and seizure. This means they need not pass through security screening. How does the Police ensure that this is not exploited as a security loophole for terrorists or trafficking activities? I am concerned about this because there is no limit to the size of the “dip bag” (diplomatic bag), and there have international incidents in the past where “dip bags” have been used to smuggle a variety of banned items, including drugs, weapons and even people.
Mr S Iswaran: Mdm Speaker, I thank the Member for his questions. First, gold is not a security threat item, and that is why it was not subjected to a security threat screen. Our officers would conduct a normal security threat screen, and if items such as weapons or suspicious objects, or things like large amounts of cash are detected, then they tend to follow through on further checks, as required by the protocol. So, the Member should be clear that this is the context. There was no lapse in terms of security threat assessment and the checks that go with it, as part of the pre-boarding screening.
Secondly, the Member talks about diplomatic bags and I think he is getting a few things mixed up here. The “dip bags” are separate to the personal bags of diplomats. Diplomatic bags have a certain kind of treatment, but diplomats who are travelling and carrying personal bags are subject to pre-board screening, like all other travellers, as I have said. That is the protocol that is observed, not just in Singapore but internationally, because that is what is necessary to ensure safety in aviation and in travel.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Second Minister for his replies. Two points: first, in response to his second point, I am aware that only the “dip bags” are excluded from screening. So, my question is: given that these bags are excluded from screening, would that pose a security threat or threat of smuggling of any other items.
On the first point about the gold, I acknowledged that it was not a security threat item. But would this amount of gold have been allowed to pass through if it was detected without being declared.
Mr S Iswaran: Madam, on the first question, if there is suspicion or serious suspicion that there is a matter of security threat, then the police and the relevant agencies are not constrained from making the appropriate checks on the various items that may be carried by diplomats. It is an international protocol that we observe. So, any risk that the Member imputes to be associated with such practice is a risk that is internationally acknowledged as well. It is not peculiar to the Singapore regime.
Secondly, on the amount of gold and whether therefore it would have been allowed to pass, I want to reiterate first the point that we do not have any controls on the quantity of these precious metals, et cetera, that are being exported out of Singapore, and usually there are certain basic conditions that they observe when they do so. The Member should also be aware that it is not uncommon, especially for travellers to certain parts of the world to carry what you and I might consider not insignificant amounts of gold in their personal baggage. If they are able to give a clear explanation that these are their personal effects or for personal consumption purposes, generally they would be allowed to carry on with their travel with those items.
Source: Singapore Parliament Reports