Singapore set to begin recovery of seized Terrex vehicles: Ng Eng Hen

Singapore set to begin recovery of seized Terrex vehicles: Ng Eng Hen
In this photo taken Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, Nine eight-wheeled Singapore-made Terrex infantry carrier vehicles are detained at a container terminal in Hong Kong. Photo: AP
Published: 12:44 PM, November 29, 2016
Updated: 7:56 AM, November 30, 2016

SINGAPORE — The Singapore government and Ministry of Defence (Mindef) could begin proceedings to recover the nine seized Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armoured vehicles after a meeting on Tuesday (Nov 29) between Hong Kong customs officials and staff from shipping firm APL, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The meeting could make clear the reasons and legal basis for the Hong Kong Customs authorities’ detention of nine SAF Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles, and Singapore will decide on its course of action based on the outcome of the meeting, said Dr Ng during a visit to Choa Chu Kang camp on Tuesday to observe tests of a new radar-equipped balloon called the Aerostat.

Until then, Dr Ng said speculation on the issue was unwarranted and premature — “and, I think, indeed unfair on Hong Kong authorities or any other country”.

“We should not unnecessarily, until the facts come out, muddle the picture and impute various motives,” he said.

“After the reasons and legal basis are made clear for the detention of SAF Terrexes by the Hong Kong authorities, Mindef and the Singapore government will then commence proceedings to recover our assets. Mindef aims to comply with all regulations and laws as well as exercise our full rights of recovery available to us.”

Dr Ng was speaking before the meeting which was scheduled to take place on Tuesday evening. At press time, both Mindef and APL said they had no updates to share on the discussion.

The vehicles were seized by Hong Kong Customs last Wednesday during what officials called a “routine inspection”. But media reports had suggested that they were acting on a tip-off from mainland security agents in Xiamen, where the shipment from Taiwan — after a routine military training exercise — had made a stop prior to Hong Kong.

Some observers have linked the seizure of Terrex vehicles to China’s unhappiness with Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea territorial dispute, while others said it was an attempt by Beijing to signal its displeasure with SAF troops training in Taiwan. China has expressed growing unhappiness over the issue and said on Monday that it had made representations on the issue with Singapore.

The SAF had contracted APL, a unit of shipping giant CMA CGM Group which bought over homegrown company Neptune Orient Lines earlier this year, to transport the nine vehicles from Taiwan back to Singapore. 

Dr Ng said it is the norm for militaries to engage commercial shipping companies to transport military vehicles and equipment for peacetime training purposes. It is cost-effective as commercial carriers have a vast network and the capability to transport around the globe. 

“When the SAF contracts these commercial carriers to move our vehicles and equipment, we state clearly what we’re transporting in the open, (their) specifications, so our freighters and our carriers know exactly what they’re carrying,” he said. 

Asked why the vessel ferrying the SAF shipment — which contained no sensitive equipment or ammunition, only radios and small arms — had stopped at Xiamen, Chief of Army Melvyn Ong said on Tuesday that the SAF does not specify the route to take for general equipment. It is a decision left to the shipping firm, he said.

APL has worked with the SAF since the 1990s and its customers include the United States Armed Forces, he said. “There was nothing unnatural about the fact that (it) used Hong Kong as a transit point”, added Major-General Ong. Shipping companies must meet requirements such as protection against theft and tampering, and file all necessary paperwork for relevant ports of call.

For ammunition or sensitive equipment, the SAF will either require no transit stops or, if stops are necessary, that there be no calls at United Nations-embargoed ports or in identified threat areas such as the Gulf of Aden. It will also track the shipment and specify the route to take, he added.

Asked if the ongoing episode would affected the SAF’s overseas training arrangements, Dr Ng said it would continue to train overseas based on existing agreements between countries. An annual exercise will be conducted in January in New Zealand, said M-G Ong.