Singapore’s defence minister Ng Eng Hen has said that the seizure of nine of its military vehicles in Hong Kong does not comply with international or Hong Kong law.

The shipment of Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles, and other Singaporean military hardware, has been held in Hong Kong since November 23 last year. Ng was responding to questions raised by multiple Singaporean lawmakers at the first session of the city’s parliament this year.

“The legal position is that the SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] Terrexes and other equipment detained in Hong Kong are the property of the Singapore Government,” he said on Monday. “They are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers. This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad. They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries.”

Terrex AV-81 Infantry Carrier Vehicle.
Singapore displays the Terrex AV-81 Infantry Carrier Vehicle.

“This principle is well-established under international law, and we are advised by lawyers that it is also the law in Hong Kong SAR.”

Ng said that Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying requesting the immediate return of the vehicles.

The Chief Executive’s Office confirmed to HKFP the receipt of the letter from the Singapore Prime Minister to the Chief Executive.

“The matter is being investigated by Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government will handle it in accordance with our laws,” a spokesperson said.

The vehicles were en route to Singapore after an exercise in Taiwan. Singapore and Taiwan have – for decades – engaged in joint military exercises.

News agency FactWire previously cited sources as saying that mainland authorities tipped off Hong Kong Customs about a shipment docked in the coastal sea port of Xiamen in southeastern China’s Fujian province, before the seizure.

Last week, reports emerged that the vehicles had “disappeared” from their holding site at the Tuen Mun River Trade Terminal. But Hong Kong Customs told HKFP at the time that the “suspected controlled items are still kept at a storage place of Customs in Tuen Mun. They have been stored indoors since December 6.”

YouTube video

Ng said at the parliamentary meeting on Monday that “The Hong Kong authorities have responded that the investigation is ongoing and will take some time to complete, and that the Hong Kong government will handle the matter in accordance with their laws,” reported Channel News Asia.

He added that Singapore had “welcomed” this response.

According to Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, APL – the container carrier company – met with Hong Kong Customs three times but did not receive any formal reason for the seizure.

armoured vehicles
Nine armoured vehicles and three containers carrying firearms and military materials were moved to the Customs Cargo Examination Compound at Tuen Mun River Trade Terminal. Photo: Factwire.

Ng said the country’s armed forces have reviewed its shipping procedures comprehensively to reduce the risk of seizure, reported The Strait Times.

The Singaporean army avoids shipping all of its equipment directly from point-to-point owing to budgetary concerns.

Ng said the armed forces is considering other options such as housing the equipment overseas – potentially meaning Taiwan – to avoid shipping them altogether.

At a regular news conference in Beijing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang He urged Singapore to “speak and act cautiously.”

“I want to stress that, firstly, China hopes other nations, including Singapore, follow the ‘One China principle.’ This is the foundation for bilateral ties between China and any other nation,” Lu said.

“Secondly, I hope the Singaporean side can follow the laws of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.