Speeches

Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance, at the Opening Ceremony of the Customs Operations Command on 15 November 2019

Permanent Secretary, Mrs Tan Ching Yee,
Director-General, Mr Ho Chee Pong,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

1. Good morning. I am very happy to join you this morning for the opening ceremony of the new Customs Operations Command, or COC. 

2. The old COC building located at Keppel Road was built in the 1940s. It was not purpose-built for operations and as I understand, there were significant space constraints.

• In fact, due to space constraints, Singapore Customs had to operate from two locations – Revenue House at Newton Road and the old COC. Officers had to travel frequently between the two locations, which made communications, backroom support, and team bonding less conducive.

• We have tried to make improvements along the way, over the years, to re-purpose and refurbish the old COC building, but the space constraints posed significant challenges. 

• For example, I understand, whenever there was a seizure of large vehicles or large quantities of contraband goods like cigarettes, officers even had to shift operational vehicles out to surrounding public carparks to make space for the officers to process the goods that were seized. So it is really not a suitable way to operate Customs operations.

3. Now, with this new COC coming into operations, Customs officers can be “reunited” under one roof, with a modern and purpose-built facility to support Customs’ current and future enforcement needs.

Customs’ multi-faceted roles

4. Singapore Customs has traditionally played the role of a revenue collector. That role remains relevant and important today. 

• Collections by the Singapore Customs from customs and excise duties, and GST for imported and locally manufactured goods amount to about 12% of the Government’s operating revenue, so it is not insignificant. You are a major revenue collector for the Government. 

5. But Singapore Customs is much more than about revenue collection. Your work is much more than that. You are a crucial government agency driving trade facilitation. 

• Through TradeNet, our national single window, which was a world’s first when it was introduced, traders only have to make a one-time submission of information to multiple government agencies on the import and export of goods. Every year, TradeNet processes about 10 million permit applications. 

6. There are many aspects of trade facilitation work. Beyond our borders, Singapore Customs is involved in the negotiation and implementation of Singapore’s free trade agreements (FTAs), in particular on rules of origin as well as on simplification and harmonisation of customs procedures across different jurisdictions. 

7. Singapore Customs’ work in the areas of trade regulation and trade enforcement is also important in ensuring a level playing field for our businesses and securing Singapore’s position as a global trading hub. The regulatory and enforcement parts may not traditionally be seen as facilitating work, but indirectly, they help to ensure level playing field and help to ensure that Singapore remains a global trading hub. 

• In support of global efforts in counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Singapore Customs is the designated National Authority for Strategic Goods Control, the National Authority for Chemical Weapons Convention, and also the implementing agency for trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 

• The work that you do is really quite comprehensive. It is not always visible to the public eye. I think most Singaporeans, when they are asked about Customs’ work, they will tell you about the Customs officers they meet at the checkpoints, whichever checkpoints they are at. But the Customs’ work goes way beyond that. You do many things behind the scenes to ensure and to contribute to the success of Singapore as a trading hub. For that, I want to put on record our appreciation and thanks for the hard work, the contributions, and the dedication of all our Customs officers. Thank you all very much. 

• Of course, in true Singapore spirit, we never rest on our laurels. We are always looking ahead, and always anticipating new challenges that may arise, and what we can do to improve. Indeed, I think we should all be aware, and I’m sure you read the news, you look at the trends around us, we are, in many ways, entering a new paradigm for the world.

Need to transform to meet future challenges

8. The pace of globalisation is slowing – all the indicators suggest that. The open and free multilateral trade is coming under increasing pressures from countries, increasing pressures from protectionist and nationalistic sentiments all over the world. It is in our interest to resist these trends, to stand together with like-minded countries, and do our part to promote free multilateral trade. Given that Singapore is such a small, open economy, and trade is more than three times the size of our GDP, we cannot afford to close up. So we have to do more to promote the seamless flow of goods across borders. How can Singapore Customs then do its part to meet these future challenges? Let me offer some suggestions. 

Promoting free trade as part of a rules-based multilateral trade order

9. First, Singapore Customs should continue to promote and support free trade as part of a rules-based multilateral trade order. In fact, you are already doing a few things. 

10. Through the Networked Trade Platform (NTP), which was launched a year ago, Singapore Customs has been helping businesses, especially Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), to digitalise their business processes and digitally connect their entire trade ecosystem. 

• Businesses, through the NTP, can access a whole suite of services from leveraging on FTAs to optimising the supply chains, to arranging trade finance and payments. By enabling data reuse, the NTP helps to reduce costs associated with errors, delays, and inefficiencies. 

11. The NTP not only connects businesses within Singapore; it also connects our businesses with their counterparts in our major trading partners to facilitate exchange of digital trade documents and data. 

12. Singapore Customs is already in active discussion with international counterparts including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and the United States to connect our respective national single windows. 

• For example, we have recently implemented the transmission of electronic certificates under the Singapore-China FTA via the NTP to China Customs. That will be a big help in facilitating trade.

• On the ASEAN front, Singapore Customs started exchanging electronic certificate of origin with ASEAN member states who are ready. 

• As the incoming chair of the ASEAN Single Window Steering Committee, Singapore Customs will also be working with other ASEAN member states to exchange more trade documents electronically. 

13. There are many ongoing efforts, be it the NTP or the electronic exchange of documents. All these efforts by Singapore Customs will ensure that we can streamline and expedite customs and border clearance processes, which will be crucial to promote the seamless flow of goods across borders, and reduce the costs of trade for businesses. This is one tangible and concrete way where Singapore Customs can help push for more seamless trade, and help promote a more open and free trading system around the world. That is completely in Singapore’s interest to keep pushing on this front.

Combating transnational illicit trade

14. Second, as we continue to strengthen our trade connectivity internationally, we need to remain a secure and trusted node in the international supply chain. Otherwise, Singapore’s excellent connectivity could be exploited for illicit and illegal trade, and then our reputation for trust and integrity will be completely undermined.  

15. We take our international commitments on combating illicit trade very seriously. This is where Singapore Customs plays an important role too. So you have to do two things. You’ve got to facilitate trade very well, but you’ve got to be a good enforcer too – enforcer against illegal and illicit trade.  

16. To tackle cross-border trade-related illicit activities, international collaborations with our foreign customs and law enforcement counterparts are critical, either bilaterally or as part of multilateral joint enforcement operations. Over the past year, Singapore Customs has worked actively with their counterparts with some success.

• For example, in March this year, Singapore Customs led an inter-agency operation that seized four containers of sporting rifles and ammunition suspected to be bound for Sudan in violation of UNSC resolution. This was an operation that involved many government agencies, and the Whole-Of-Government collaboration allowed the interdiction of the containers to be conducted with minimal public safety risk and impact to trade. Singapore Customs swiftly conducted investigation of the case and successfully applied to the State Courts for a disposal order of the rifles and ammunition. That was one example that happened in March this year.

• Also, another example which was successful, Singapore Customs together with intelligence provided by China Customs conducted three joint operations this year with the National Parks Board (NParks) and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). That led to the record seizures of pangolin scales and ivory. This successful international collaboration also won us the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards 2019, and this is an award that recognises outstanding achievements by public organisation and individuals in Asia to combat transboundary environmental crime. 

• So for the Customs officers who are doing the enforcement work, it is not easy. There will always be attempts to circumvent our rules, but together with our close collaborations with other countries, the intelligence that we pick up, and the operations that we do, I think we have been successful, and we have to continue to stay vigilant.

Leveraging on technology

17. Thirdly and finally, Customs as an organisation will have to continue to upgrade and transform itself. Make full use of new technologies to improve your operations, re-design jobs and processes, and upgrade the skills of your officers. 

18. This is something we ask of businesses today. We have been implementing Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). We identified 23 sectors of the economy, which cover 80% of the economy. We go to businesses in each of these 23 sectors, we ask them: How are technologies impacting your business? How will it disrupt your business in the next few years? How are you preparing and re-designing jobs in anticipation of these disruptions? How are you upgrading the skills of your workers, so that they can stay relevant to these new jobs that will be re-designed in the future? These are questions we ask the private sector. I think the public sector cannot sit back and relax, thinking that all these transformations are only happening in the private sector. The public sector is not immune too to the challenges and stresses that we see around us. Within the public sector, we are making efforts to transform ourselves, and Customs too will have to, likewise, transform itself as an organisation, and upgrade the skillsets of its officers.

19. I am glad to hear that at the organisation level, Singapore Customs has now set up a new Plans and Technology (P&T) Branch to drive science and technology capability development. Singapore Customs will be collaborating with the new Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) and the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) under the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). The work is to operationalise identified technology initiatives in the pipeline.

• For example, Singapore Customs’ regulation of the free trade zones (FTZ) could be transformed through more extensive use of data analytics with data collated from shipping lines, importers, exporters, and FTZ operators to identify high risk containers. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to analyse x-ray images of containers to identify and pick any potential anomalies. These are all ways in which you can make full use of technologies to improve your abilities and your operational effectiveness. 

20. Of course, technology is just an enabler. You can do a lot of things with technology, but the key to transformation is the mind-set of every officer within the organisation. This must happen not just at the leadership level; it must happen across all levels of the organisation – everyone being prepared to embrace new technologies, to embrace new work processes, to upgrade your skills, and to do things differently and better. So individually, Customs officers should take the initiative to reskill and upskill, so that you are able to master new technologies, you don’t have to be afraid of changes that are taking place in the organisation, and you will be ready to take on new roles. 

• Singapore Customs has already lined up a series of programmes to help you to pick up skills and expertise in Data, Design, and Digitalisation, so I hope you will participate fully in these programmes and will stand ready to play an active role in Singapore Customs’ transformation.

Closing

21. To conclude, with all the challenges faced around us, I think we should be realistic about what we have to do, but we also don’t have to despair. I think we can take heart that we are starting from a very strong foundation. We have already built a good base, a strong foundation, and we are building from there to put ourselves in a much stronger footing for the future, even in a more challenging and uncertain world. I am confident that Singapore Customs will continue to do its utmost to ensure that Singapore continues to grow and thrive as a major global trusted trading hub. 

22. On that note, it gives me great pleasure to declare the Customs Operations Command, officially open. Thank you very much.  Published on : 15 Nov 2019