Our man in Singapore

Meet Rick Ligthart, the Dutch customs attaché for South East Asia. “I help Dutch companies to find their way around more easily in this part of the world.”

Dutch Customs has posted attachés in locations all over the world. These representatives are making efforts to cooperate with local authorities and they help to promote international trade. In a series of interviews, we are introducing this select group of officials to you. To begin with, Rick Ligthart, our man in Singapore – who is also accredited for Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. “I help to create opportunities for Dutch business.”

“For as long as I have been working for the Tax Administration, the Fiscal Intelligence and Investigation Service and Customs, I have been attracted to the idea of living abroad”, says Ligthart. “After having worked for three years as a customs official in Berlin, I was offered the opportunity to go to Beijing in 2010, where the post for a customs attaché became available. I did not hesitate. Initially, I had quite a culture shock when I first went to the Far East. I had never been to this part of the world and there I was, suddenly as a western person among the Chinese. Everything is so different by comparison to the Netherlands, all the people, the manners, the signs and billboards I could not make sense of. I did have some lessons in Mandarin but it was not enough to cope with the language barrier.”
After four years in China, Ligthart was posted to Singapore. Dutch Customs decided shortly before to also go to South East Asia. “Singapore was very different as everything is very organized. The number of cars is regulated, it is very clean and there is generally a lot of discipline as rules are strictly enforced. Communication is mostly in English which makes life easier. However, there are other challenges. To work here, I have to be adventurous in a way, and not be afraid to rely primarily on myself. My duties cover a substantial part of Southeast Asia, it is a full-time job. I often have to carry out my duties alone and I have to be able to cope with that.”

However, Ligthart considers himself a genuine team player. “I am part of the Dutch embassies in the five countries I am assigned to and on a weekly basis, I am in touch with colleagues of our National Office in the Netherlands, including the file coordinator of the region – as well as being in touch with the coordinator who has the management of the attachés. Where negotiations take place in respect of treaties, I have to deal with the Directorate-General for Tax, Customs Policy and Legislation of the Ministry of Finance. I regularly speak to attachés from other customs services in my region and I naturally also speak to my Dutch colleagues in Russia, China and Brazil – although the time difference of twelve hours in the case of Brazil does not make it easy. I am used to flexible working hours and mobile working; when my working day is coming to an end, the working day is just starting in the Netherlands.”

Smart data exchange
Ligthart says that the choice for the post Singapore as the basis is self-evident, as the small republic is a local junction and it has good air connections and a large port, just like the Netherlands. The city-state prides itself on high levels of innovation and advanced automation. “We saw opportunities to improve and modernize customs procedures. At the moment we are in the process of a project somewhat similar to the pre-completed customs declaration. Upon exportation, transport data that do not change – such as the container number, the quantity of goods and its value – are all documented in an automated customs declaration system. These data are added at various stages in the automated system for imports. Why not link the two systems so that the data concerned can be used directly? That would benefit the reliability of the information as well as the speed of the logistical process.”

Cosmic rays
Even if the two countries have a lot in common, there are also some significant differences. Ligthart: “Singapore Customs watches over the logistical flow and all of the customs procedures that concern import and export. The physical supervision of the import however forms part of the responsibility of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority or ICA. And when I came to the local port authorities with a question, the initial response was: ‘Just talk to Singapore Customs, you are also from Customs?’ In the Netherlands, by contrast, we look more at the overall picture: who are our stakeholders, who are our partners? It has taken two years before I made some headway here, but I persevered and thanks to the contacts I have built up at ICA, the Netherlands is allowed to be part of an interesting pilot study which concerns the Cosmic Radiation Detection Scanner for cargo-scanning. This new detection device was made in America and by using cosmic rays, the contents of containers can be determined.”

Economic diplomacy
Ligthart knows that in South East Asia contacts between businesses and government institutions tend to go differently than in his motherland. “It is therefore of importance that the Embassy creates opportunities these companies are not able to generate themselves and I make a contribution in a number of ways. I organise information sessions with the economic department and we take stock of what is important to the Dutch business sector. What are the problems Dutch companies come across in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where imports or exports are concerned? What are the points for improvement? In addition, we talk to any visiting trade delegations about the relations in the region. The ASEAN countries do not have a customs union like the European Union. Certain issues come up, which in Europe are no longer relevant in intra-Community transport for the business sector.

On importing a product here, it is good to know that you do not only have to deal with Customs but that you also have to deal with enforcement agencies or other Ministries. And that the communication between these various parties is often very different from how we do things in the Netherlands.”

Ligthart does stress that he is neither a customs consultant nor a customs advisor. “I do not provide advice about commodity codes or about determining the value for customs purposes. But in the process, I do attempt to coordinate and help to resolve matters if these are a result of not being familiar with the local rules and regulations. Typically, a Dutch company approached me as their consignment was stopped at the border. The dispatching party did not understand the problem and they were afraid of losing their customer. The consignment consisted of old façade panels for a designer who was going to make reproductions of these panels. The panels had just been taken off a building and they were simply thrown in a container, together with bits of concrete, cement and rubble. Had there been a proper customs declaration and supporting documentation, such a consignment would not be a problem. However, when it was physically checked and inspected, Customs believed that it was waste that was being dumped. The importer got a substantial fine. All I can do in such a case is to explain how the authorities came to their decision. It is not possible for me to get involved in a course of proceedings and to ask to release a consignment as that is not done.”

Steady improvement
Ligthart continues saying: “Where facilitating trade is concerned, Singapore is in the lead in the region. Only four product groups are subject to import duties including tobacco and motor vehicles, and all other goods are subject to a tariff of 0%. The other four countries have also started reducing customs duties thanks to various free-trade agreements. As a result, we see a shift in the traditional customs duties of levying taxes to enforcing matters which were initially monitored by other services. The cooperation between the various governmental parties could be coordinated in a better way, which would benefit the logistical flow. I attempt to convince my hosts that it is a good thing that Customs applies risk management to its supervision and that a limited quantity of goods is targeted and stopped for a check; it is not helpful if subsequently, another enforcement agency checks those goods 100%. The business community will benefit once such mutual coordination improves. And in the same way, more consultation between the government and trade and industry would be a benefit as it generates mutual understanding and trust.”

Ligthart asserts that the mutual differences which concern innovation and modernisation of the Customs section in this region are substantial. “When I was about eight years old, my father once took me to the port of Amsterdam. He was in charge of all the paperwork being the customs coordinator at the KNSM, the Royal Dutch Steamship Company. We entered a large office with numerous counters. At every counter, he had to get a stamp or hand in a document or pay something. I still see similar systems in some Asiatic countries. In the Netherlands, Customs have made a lot of progress as a coordinator of the supervision on goods with its focus on the logistical chain. Our approach does not generate all the duties being paid at the border, however it benefits domestic tax proceeds and as a result, the whole of the economy. If we can make the point that, together with the host country, we are able to work faster and to have more reliable customs procedures, our business community in the Netherlands will also profit in the long term.”

A multi-tasker abroad
At the moment four Dutch customs attachés are active in Brazil, Beijing, Singapore and Moscow. In addition, there is a counsellor Customs Affairs in Brussels and a financial counsellor in Washington. The financial counsellor maintains contact with IMF and the World Bank and partly represents Dutch interests where Customs are concerned.

The attachés are posted abroad for three to four years and they have their working base at the Dutch Embassy in the host country. Their duties consist of the coordination of their work with the economic department and with attachés from other departments such as agriculture and police. Other duties comprise giving advice to Dutch Customs and local customs authorities and helping in the drawing up and the implementation of mutual assistance treaties and Memoranda of Understanding (MOU’s) and arranging training sessions for the customs section. Furthermore, they contribute to combating fraud, and they cooperate with other enforcement agencies including the Dutch Public Prosecution Service. The attachés indirectly support the Dutch business sector by aiming for smarter customs procedures together with the host country.

In turn, a number of other countries have customs officials in the Netherlands – such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States – but they often have somewhat different positions. The British focus more on fiscal intelligence whilst France and Germany mainly focus on criminal investigations. The Americans are mainly concerned with safety issues such as pre-clearance.

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