The tragic beheading of a Western hostage by the southern Philippine bandit group, Abu Sayyaf, highlights the considerable security threat posed by the malignant activities of outlaws operating in South-east Asia. The excesses of Abu Sayyaf, which is responsible for three recent kidnappings of seamen for ransom, illustrate the urgent need for maritime security cooperation in Asean. Part of the impediment to that cooperation is legal. For example, the Indonesian military cannot enter Philippine territory to help its kidnap victims because the local Filipino government must obtain approval from its Parliament first. It is such loopholes that help pirates to act with impunity in challenging the responsibility of governments to protect the lives and property of their citizens.
Abu Sayyaf has thrust the security of maritime routes around the southern Philippines and Sabah into the limelight. However, those seas are not the only waters under threat, nor is piracy the overwhelming cause for alarm. The possibility of transnational terrorism, which excels in unprotected waters distant from the writ of the state, is potentially a far greater threat than piracy.
Singapore understands instinctively the importance of collective regional investment in maritime security. With more than 1,000 vessels passing through the Singapore Strait every day, the Republic sits astride one of the world's busiest waterways. An attack on oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca would have immediate economic consequences and badly dent the security that international shipping needs to function. The 900km strait, which links Asia to the Middle East and Europe, carries about 40 per cent of the world's trade. More than 50,000 merchant ships use the waterway every year. Its security involves everyone but touches on littoral states directly.
A major terrorist attack in the strait would relegate Asean to the ranks of an ineffectual organisation incapable of protecting its own seas. Herein lies the urgency of calls for concerted action on maritime security in the form of joint patrols by regional nations. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to look into holding joint patrols. Separately, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said that Singapore and Thailand could be involved as "observers" in patrolling the Sulu Sea area, while Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia work on trying to resolve the new piracy menace.
Asean should come together to show that every attack on a merchant vessel and its crew will count as a security threat touching on the core interests of the association. The modalities can be worked out by those involved, but the objective of maritime security must remain non-negotiable: Asean must send a strong message to marauders that they cannot mess with it.