How and why pets are being smuggled into Singapore from Malaysia

It is not just dogs and cats that are being illicitly brought in, but also exotic animals.

Three brown dogs in a cage, illustrating a story on pets being smuggled through the Malaysia-Singapore border.
Animal and pet smuggling through the Malaysia-Singapore border isn't a new thing. There are numerous reasons why it still happens today. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Liani MK

FOUND guilty in April, Malaysian lorry driver Gobysuwaran Paraman Sivan is currently serving a year-long jail sentence for having illegally brought pets into neighbouring Singapore without a licence and causing the animals unnecessary distress.

The animals in question? One sole little kitten and a bunch of puppies.

Many of the young animals later died, with Singaporean authorities labelling the case "one of the most serious" to date.

Stowed in blue plastic containers and wedged within nylon laundry bags inside various lorry compartments, the kitten and 26 pups were brought in via Singapore's Tuas checkpoint on 18 Oct 2022.

Of the total, 19 dogs died; one due to insufficient ventilation and 18 subsequently, from a contagious canine virus.

The greater tragedy, however, is that this is hardly the first case of its kind and likely not the last.

According to statistics from Singapore's Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) and National Parks Board (NParks), there has been an increase in illegal pet importation, with certain unscrupulous pet shops in Malaysia found to be abetting the situation by engaging in illegal pet deliveries.

Incidentally, it is not just dogs and cats that are being illicitly brought in, but exotic animals — from birds (some endangered) to sugar gliders, poison dart frogs and even live pythons, too.

Containers containing birds of various breeds in captivity during a smuggling attempt through Malaysia-Singapore borders.
Fifteen containers of a record number of birds uncovered in a 2019 smuggling attempt at Woodlands Checkpoint. (Photo: Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) of Singapore)

From pets to pests

Pet importation is strictly regulated in Singapore.

For instance, those bringing dogs or cats into Singapore will need to get the animals vaccinated, obtain the required licences as well as health certificates and reserve an inspection and quarantine space upon arrival. This process can involve at least 30 days of quarantine for pets from Malaysia, and longer if from other countries.

Malaysian pet shop owner Kelvin Koh, who has been operating his business in Johor Bahru since 1995, thinks this is because Singapore is "trying to discourage pet ownership".

"It's a nuisance — pets get abandoned, then they reproduce. And when welfare groups receive abandoned dogs to be put down, everybody feels bad. So from pets, they become pests."

Indeed, animal welfare groups in Singapore have said that pet abandonment cases in the country have soared as more people return to the office and the costs of maintaining a pet increases.

Yet, pet abandonment is only one of the issues Singapore has been trying to prevent. It is also concerned about the spread of diseases that can impact public and animal safety.

"Smuggled animals bypass the strict regulations that Singapore has in place for the import and export of animals, which can pose a risk of diseases such as rabies spreading," explained Aarthi Sankar, Executive Director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore.

In the recent smuggling case involving the 27 pets, for example, 18 of the puppies were infected with a highly contagious canine virus, which, according to NParks, could have spread to other dogs in Singapore.

"By purchasing smuggled pets, individuals may unknowingly contribute to the cruelty and suffering of animals, as well as expose themselves and their communities to diseases and other hazards," said Sankar.

Transboundary smuggling chain

But the buying and selling of pets is big business. And considering that one could end up shelling out something like S$9,000 (approximately RM30,000) to legally obtain a furry friend, not including expenses such as food and general vaccinations, some Singaporeans have turned to the black market.

"Because the price is so high, it becomes very lucrative for some parties to fill in the gap," pet shop owner Koh said, adding that it can be 10 times cheaper to engage in illegal pet deliveries.

"A Chow Chow costs RM6,000 (S$1,800) to buy from a Malaysian pet shop like mine. In Singapore, it would cost S$8,000 (RM24,000), which is four times the price.

"Corgis cost more than that. But if one is obtained through illegal means, it can cost much less," said Koh, who claims his shop rejects up to three phone calls daily from Singaporeans requesting for pets to be illicitly sent to their homes.

The demand and potential profits are also a financial incentive for individuals from low-income backgrounds, who are easy targets for smuggling syndicates.

In the recent smuggling case, for instance, lorry driver Gobysuwaran was found to be from a low-income family and the sole provider for his ageing mother, a cancer survivor. He was offered RM250 (S$75) per live animal successfully smuggled.

Before getting caught and his eventual 12-month jail sentence, he regularly smuggled between seven to 27 animals.

In another case, meanwhile, a smuggler reportedly received S$500 for each attempt. His alleged motivation? Paying off his late father's hospital debts.

Importantly, almost all the pets sold for profit are part of a larger global pet trade.

Most of the puppies in Johor, Koh claims, are from Thailand. The problem, however, is that alongside legal channels are smugglers, who are part of an elaborate network of syndicates which offer their services on social media and "secret websites".

"If they're caught, they simply close down their site and open another one," said Koh.

The Johor Bahru pet shop owner added that when animals are smuggled, they are hidden in small containers and sometimes even clothing.

"Sometimes they are hidden in spare tyre compartments and even under dresses like sarees... some go by ship, yachts, some by motorcycle and lorries. Every day puppies are being smuggled."

Perhaps worse, however, is that these animals are often sedated to prevent them from making noise and exposing their smugglers. And sometimes, Koh explains, they are given an overdose and can end up dying.

Enforcement and Education

"It's sad… It's treated almost like (potential pet owners) are making a Lazada order, when it's really not the same," said lawyer Ashvin Hariharan, who represented pet smuggler Gobysuwaran.

Nevertheless, one way to resolve this might be through the law and better public awareness.

"The (current) penalties are not light. But we need more data to see how we can combat this, as the figures could have been affected by land border closures during COVID-19," he said.

"Once they have the facts, (Singapore's) Parliament can consider amending the laws to calibrate the sentences better."

SPCA Singapore, which has helped rehabilitate and rehome over 30 dogs retrieved from smugglers in 2022, also wants stricter penalties and increased enforcement and monitoring, along with greater public education.

Yet these calls aside, the biggest problem, as Koh highlighted, might well be a question of will.

"Strict laws are necessary. (But) if you cannot stop cigarette or drug smuggling, how do you stop pet smuggling?"

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