Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have all been urged by a maritime information sharing centre, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre to bolster country cooperation to combat piracy and robber in the common waters.
In 2019, there were 31 incidents of suspected robbers invading ships in the Singapore Strait and, according to ReCAAP on Wednesday (15 Jan), this is a four-year high.
From 2016 to 2018, there were 17 incidents and this reached a peak in 2015 at 99 incidents.
In last year’s nine incidents, ReCAAP reported the involvement of armed offenders and in one of them, ship crew sustained injuries. Some crews were also tied up in two cases, and another two cases saw crews being threatened with a knife or gun.
In 19 of the incidents, items such as scrap metal, engine spares and gold chain were stolen. According to analysts, prices of metals such as copper and iron have been on the rise and that there is a black market for such scrap metals.
Masafumi Kuroki, the ReCAAP centre’s executive director, spoke to the reporters that saying that he would like for the three countries, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia to boost enforcement and information sharing in the strait.
Mr Kuroki remarked that “The message is to ask the littoral states to enhance their surveillance and patrol in the Singapore Strait because of this rapid increase of incidents… The Singapore and Malacca straits are very important for international navigation, therefore the responsibility is on all the littoral states to keep the straits safe and secure.”
On 20 December last year, one of the more serious incidents saw six offenders wielding knives invading the tanker Jag Lalit at approximately 6.5km north of Indonesia’s Pulau Nongsa. The attackers stole a gold chain from the chief engineer, bruising the neck, and stole a gold chain.
According to the ReCAAP centre, the tanker, which was bound for Taiwan, diverted to Singapore to ensure the crew’s safety. Also, the Singapore Police Coast Guard boarded the tanker and the crew members were confirmed to be safe.
WHERE THE INCIDENTS OCCURED
The 2019 episodes occurred at the eastbound and westbound lanes of the traffic separation scheme along the entire length of the Singapore Strait. The scheme helps maintain ships maintain the same direction in a specific lane in traffic.
Mr Kuroki added that “It’s a transnational crime,” being that identifying the exact jurisdiction of these territorial waters can be difficult because these offenders and attackers were always crossing country borders.
However, Jane’s Ridzwan Rahmat, a maritime expert Principal defence analyst believed that these 2019 incidents occurred on Indonesian waters. This is in accordance with the border agreements between Singapore and Indonesia signed in 1973 and 2014.
REASON FOR RISE IN INCIDENTS
Lee Yin Mui, who is the Assistant director of research at the ReCAAP centre, reasoned that decrease in enforcement by authorities and complacency of crew members could be the reasons behind the increase in these incidents.
Ms Lee suggested that “Enforcement needs to be stepped up,” as “a form of deterrence.” She stated that after the Indonesian authorities had arrested some of the offenders in the past two years, incidents that occurred declined markedly in 2016.
Also, the lack of enforcement by the Indonesian navy due to the redeployment of patrol boats across different naval bases from the end of 2018 through most of 2019, is a reason why there was such an increase in the number of incidents, Mr Ridzwan added.
He remarked that “There is a very close relation between what I think is the absence of patrol vessels that was happening because of the reshuffling and the spike in incidents right now.”
There was also a gap in the Singapore Strait due to Indonesia stationing its ships to the territorial stand-off with China in the Natuna Sea, Mr Ridzwan further added.
“The fleet that oversees the Strait of Singapore also oversees the Natuna Sea…If you were the Indonesian naval commander, where would you be prioritising your fleet?” he questioned.
Since the stand-off is yet continuing, Mr Ridzwan foresees that incidents this year will increase in number and that “there will still be a lack of resources committed to the Singapore Strait.”
Although there are growing worries among shipping companies regarding the high number of incidents, Singapore Strait is safer than places waters such as the the Sulu-Celebes Sea near Sabah and the Philippines, Mr Kuroki stated. In these areas, abduction reports are less common. Only 11 attempted and 19 actual incidents took place from 2016 to 2019. He added that “the littoral states are enhancing regional cooperation” because incidents in 2019 are less since 2015.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Representatives from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will be meeting in Singapore until 16 January (Thursday) to address the “increased incidence” of sea crimes in the Singapore Strait, as reported by Singapore’s Defence Ministry (MINDEF) on 15 January (Wednesday).
Under the Malacca Straits Patrol, combined maritime air patrols, intelligence sharing and sea patrols between these four countries have always been conducted to ensure the safety of the Singapore Straits and Malacca.
MINDEF remarked that “Member states will discuss … possible measures to strengthen information-sharing and operational coordination to deter and disrupt such sea robberies within their respective territorial waters in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore”.
On 15 Jan (Wednesday) Khaw Boon Wan, Singapore’s Transport Minister also met and discussed with ReCAAP officials about the possible cooperation efforts with regional parties in light of recent sea crime incidents.
Straits of Malacca and Singapore has “huge potential” as a cruise industry given that is an important lifeline to many countries as well as a busy waterway in the region, Mr Khaw said.
“Recent sea robbery incidents in our vicinity are troublesome…Ensuring maritime safety is therefore a priority for all. The key is regional cooperation.” He further added in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The three countries, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia could employ a “hot pursuit arrangement” that gives green light for patrol ships of each country to cross border when pursuing any sea offenders, Mr Ridzwan suggested.
“When the Singapore coast guard sees the perpetrator, for example, there is only a certain distance it can chase…The moment the perpetrator crosses the territorial line, it stops chasing, no matter what happens,” He further added.
Although high-level agreements have been signed by the countries, none of it has been carried out as standard operating procedures on the ground, Mr Ridzwan pointed out.
He further concluded that “We are going against an enemy that does not respect maritime boundaries…But our law enforcement agencies have to respect maritime boundaries.”