Speech by Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Endangered Species (Import and Export)
(Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 14/2022)
Sir, today’s Bill aims to strengthen Singapore’s efforts against the illegal wildlife trade.
I have had the privilege to be involved since the first draft of this Bill. I know that MND has made many changes to reflect feedback from NGOs and other stakeholders. I thank both MND and NParks for their consultation and positive engagement.
There is no doubt that today’s Bill helps. As the public consultation found, there is consensus that harsher, broader penalties do deter the illegal wildlife trade.
That said, this Bill does not do enough to tackle the problem. There is a need to rethink the broader policy approach towards tackling this illegal wildlife trade.
Wildlife Crime in Singapore
Let me start by clarifying what the illegal wildlife trade is all about.
In its first undercover investigation conducted back in 2001, ACRES found that 73.5 percent of shops surveyed in Singapore sold bear bile or bear gall bladders.
Some may say this is just the sale of goods to willing buyers. But I hope we will look closer.
I have seen the suffering that fuels this market. The first bear I met lived her life in a cage no bigger than herself. She was stabbed into her gall bladder so that they could drain the bile from her every single day. The first bear I met in a bear farm is also the first bear I watch pass away. She took her last breath before my very eyes.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen many other animals in similar conditions. I saw monkeys restrained with chains so tight that they bit into the flesh of their necks, chains that were never loosened as the animals grew over the years.
Many people think Singapore has little to do with this suffering.
The reality is they could not be more wrong. Singapore is a critical nexus in the illegal wildlife trade.
In the past decade, we have seized illegal shipments of animal parts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Elephants, rhinoceroses, pangolins – these are just a few animals whose dead, dissected bodies are smuggled through Singapore’s world-class port.
In April 2019, we broke the record by finding 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales being smuggled in a shipment from Nigeria. This was worth over 50 million dollars, and cost the lives of over 17,000 pangolins.
Just a week later, we seized another 12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales. 3 months after that, we seized a shipment of 8.8 tonnes of ivory, estimated to come from nearly 300 African Elephants.
Just a few weeks ago, a man was arrested in South Africa for attempting to carry 26kg of rhinoceros horns into Singapore in his hand luggage.
Such seizures are just the tip of the iceberg. Smugglers have found ways to circumvent our border security and bring these animals and their body parts onto our soil.
Singapore can and needs to do much more. I would like to raise four specific proposals.
Include ESA offences in the OCA
My first proposal is that we categorise wildlife trafficking as serious offences under the Organised Crime Act (OCA).
In practice, this means amending the OCA so that it considers offences under sections 4, 5 and 19 of the ESA and sections 8 and 9 of the Wildlife Act as serious offences.
The impact of this would be massive. For so long, our policy framework on the illegal wildlife trade has targeted the runners, the low-level criminals carrying the goods.
But my proposal attacks the heart of the problem: the syndicate leaders, the masterminds making everything happen.
Including wildlife trade offences in the OCA gives the authorities more tools to investigate and punish these kingpins, who today may evade punishment under the ESA’s framework. As we debated in this house previously, a lot of the people we prosecute under the ESA are the runners, not the kingpins.
Just as important, it lets us follow and cut off the money. Under the OCA, our officers can issue financial reporting orders to get information and then use the civil confiscation regime to deprive syndicates of their financial gains.
The Minister for Home Affairs has said that to classify an offence under the OCA, the offence must meet two criteria. It must pose a serious threat to public safety and security in Singapore, and it must be associated with organised crime in Singapore.
Public Safety and Security
Wildlife trafficking clearly meets the first requirement: it poses a significant threat to our public safety and security.
The first threat is to public health. Wildlife traffickers operate outside the scrutiny of our health officials. This makes the animals they transport more likely to spread zoonotic diseases to humans.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, and so is monkeypox. I don’t think I need to dwell further on how dangerous zoonotic diseases are.
The second threat is to our ecology.
Animals brought into Singapore in an unregulated way may become invasive species that threaten our native wildlife. The Javan myna we see every day is an excellent example. Brought in via the caged bird trade, they have been threatening the survival of native birds like the oriental magpie-robin and the common myna.
The third threat is to economic stability. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) reports that wildlife crime cases have been connected with offences such as corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Failing to effectively tackle illegal wildlife trade in Singapore may also increase the risk of our financial institutions and trade systems being abused to facilitate other serious crimes.
Links between wildlife crime in Singapore and organised crime
Does wildlife trafficking meet the second requirement of being associated with organised crime in Singapore?
The answer has to be yes. When you look at the size and value of the animal-part seizures at our borders, we are talking about operations that, by logic, must involve financing, coordinating and operations on a large, organised scale. A 50-million dollar shipment of pangolin scales is not the work of isolated individuals.
Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force describes the illegal wildlife trade as a “major transnational organised crime”, run by highly organised criminal syndicates that engage in complex fraud.
The Minister for Home Affairs has said that the 18 cases of wildlife crime we prosecuted have not been found to be associated with organised crime in Singapore or overseas. But, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
This statistic merely points to the need for greater investigative powers, particularly those provided under the OCA, which will help connect instances of wildlife trafficking to their kingpins.
Let’s remember that the OCA was enacted not only to combat existing threats of organised crime. As described by Minister Iswaran when passing the OCA, it is meant to “prevent organised crime from taking root in Singapore.”
Let’s not wait until we prosecute a confirmed syndicate member and when illegal wildlife trade syndicates are deeply rooted in Singapore before we strengthen our laws.
Strengthen reputation as global financial hub
Beyond the direct benefits of catching criminals, there is a reputational benefit to including the ESA offences under the OCA.
Singapore has always prided itself as a global financial hub.
But it has come under criticism by FATF, which has said Singapore is insufficiently focused on complex, transnational cases of money laundering.
Separately, FATF has called for countries to provide their agencies with the mandate and tools to conduct financial investigations into the illegal wildlife trade.
Including the ESA under the OCA would thus benefit us by addressing FATF’s concerns, allowing us to meet international standards to combat money laundering, and improving our reputation both as a financial hub, and a key fighter against wildlife crime.
From the start of this month, FATF will have its first Singaporean president, Mr T. Raja Kumar. With the first Singapore presidency of FATF, I hope we can build on FATF’s focus on tackling the financial trails of illegal wildlife trade internationally.
On the national level, we can do better in strengthening our organised crime laws to tackle illegal wildlife trade.
Recently, Hong Kong also amended its “Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance” to include wildlife crime as an organised and serious crime. This move was widely reported and globally praised, with many organisations affirming the amendment as the “most appropriate route to..effectively combat wildlife crime”.
On behalf of NGOs and law professors in Singapore, I have submitted a position paper on including illegal wildlife trade offences under the ESA and the Wildlife Act to the Organised Crime Act to SMS Tan Kiat How.
This paper was prepared together with the NGOs, lawyers, and law professors. I look forward to working together with SMS Tan and MHA to see how we move forward on this proposal.
My second proposal is to include a reward for informers under the ESA.
I am glad the Bill recognises the importance of informers in policing wildlife crimes by granting them protection under the new Section 22B.
Wildlife crimes are difficult to detect. Smugglers use creative strategies, complicated trade routes, and fraudulent documents to avoid detection.
For example, one of the shipments of pangolin scales we had caught was packed and declared as frozen beef. I imagine it cannot be possible for us to fully scrutinise every single shipment of frozen beef passing through Singapore. Informers are thus important to assist our enforcement agents in their work.
But, providing protection is not enough. We need to incentivise informers to come forward and make reports. We can do this by allowing informers to be rewarded by our fines imposed under the ESA. This is similar to what is done under section 13 of the Wildlife Act.
Increase maximum aggregate fines to 3 times of market value
My third proposal is to increase the maximum aggregate fine for offences under the ESA. This Bill makes a progressive step of increasing the limit of fines up to the market value of the specimens involved.
This is still not enough. The illegal wildlife trade is a huge profitable enterprise. Successfully smuggling pangolin scales or elephant ivory earns these criminals millions of dollars.
We need penalties that really hurt the profits of the syndicates, or it would not be enough to deter them from using Singapore for their operations.
Instead, I propose that the fines be increased to three times of the market value of the specimens involved. This would make the fines into a genuine penalty, similar to the civil penalty for insider trading, tax evasion, or illegal customs drawback claims.
Make buying scheduled species an offence
My last proposal is that we make buying scheduled species an offence.
As long as there is a domestic market, smugglers will always try to bring in animals illegally.
In 2019, when I asked about our efforts to deter the pangolin trade in Singapore, MOS Sun Xueling acknowledged that tackling the illegal wildlife trade requires buyers to reduce their demand.
I wholeheartedly agree. I know buying is currently already an offence but it is not explicitly stated in the Act.
We should be explicit by stating clearly in the Act that it is an offence to buy scheduled species, we would be following in the footsteps of many other countries. Legislations in USA, EU, Brunei, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam already include “purchasing” as an offence.
Sir, I will end with an extract from one of the most powerful speeches I heard on fighting the illegal wildlife trade. This was a speech by HRH Prince William at the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London which I had the privilege to attend. HRH shared how, on his visit to Africa, he saw rhinos under such threat that they had more bodyguards than him. He said:
“It is heart-breaking to think that by the time my children George, Charlotte and Louis are in their twenties, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild.
I for one am not willing to look my children in the eye and say that we were the generation to let this happen on our watch.
It is time to treat the illegal wildlife trade as the serious organised crime that it is.
It is carried out by ruthless cross-border criminal networks.
It is fuelled by corruption.
It damages economic growth and sustainable development.
It undermines governance and the rule of law.
It robs communities today of their future sources of income.
And it exploits the poorest people in some of the most vulnerable countries on earth.
Organised criminal networks are adding to their profits through involvement in wildlife crime. They see it as a lucrative and relatively low-risk activity. They are the very same groups who move drugs, people and weapons.
These networks are sophisticated, coordinated, adaptable and professional. They innovate faster than we can and they exploit weaknesses in our systems.
Let me be clear; I am not asking anyone in this room to prioritise efforts to fight the illegal wildlife trade above drug trafficking or violent crimes.
I know very well that law enforcement resources and judicial systems are stretched.
But I am asking you to see the connections. To acknowledge that the steps you take to tackle illegal wildlife crime could make it easier to halt the shipments of guns and drugs passing through your borders.
And to recognise that this is a transnational crime that you cannot leave to your passionate, but thinly stretched, wildlife crime officers to tackle alone.
You might find it easier to arrest a kingpin or a middle man for trafficking illegal wildlife products than to catch him red-handed smuggling heroin.
Remember – “Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion, not murder.”
I hope we remember this powerful speech by HRH Prince William as we increase our efforts in tackling this cruel and wasteful illegal wildlife trade.
Notwithstanding my suggestions, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here.