'I'll still go back to the area for fishing': Boat captain Ricky Tan recounts his 8-month detention in Indonesia

Mr Ricky Tan had been detained by the Indonesian authorities since last August for trespassing in Indonesian waters.
Mr Ricky Tan had been detained by the Indonesian authorities since last August for trespassing in Indonesian waters.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

For eight months, Singaporean boat captain Ricky Tan Poh Hui stayed on the boat when he was detained at the Tanjung Pinang Naval Base. He recounts his ordeal.

Life as Singaporean boat captain Ricky Tan Poh Hui knew it came to an abrupt end at 8pm on Aug 20 last year.

He was on his boat, the Seven Sea Conqueress, with nine recreational anglers from Singapore and three crew members. He was heading back to the Republic when the boat stalled.

They had been on a three-day fishing trip around Pedra Branca, an island located about 40km from the east coast of Singapore.

"I was at Pedra Branca, near the Horsburgh Lighthouse," said the 45-year-old in Mandarin.

"I was just about to steer the vessel back home to Singapore. But the boat stalled, and we were drifting at sea when the Indonesian Navy approached," he recalled. They had been drifting for about an hour.

Mr Ricky Tan Poh Hui was reunited with his family in their Tampines flat on Friday morning, after he was detained last August. Despite his experience, he says it is safe to go on fishing trips if one follows the procedures and gets the right permits.
Mr Ricky Tan Poh Hui was reunited with his family in their Tampines flat on Friday morning, after he was detained last August. Despite his experience, he says it is safe to go on fishing trips if one follows the procedures and gets the right permits. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG



All his passengers were asleep at the time.

"I saw that we were near Pedra Branca and thought there wouldn't be any problems," said Mr Tan.

But the navy personnel told him to get onto their boat for checks. By then, the passengers were awake.

"They (Indonesian Navy) asked if I knew that I was in their waters. I said I really didn't know," he added.

The next afternoon, he was taken to the naval base.

"I was truly shocked. I've been sailing for so many years but have never been caught trespassing into another country's territory," said Mr Tan, who has been in the industry for around 20 years.

While his passengers and crew were checked as well, they were released 12 days after the boat and captain were held.

His Indonesian crew stayed behind, serving as witnesses during his hearing at the Tanjung Pinang District Court, and helping to maintain the vessel that they continued to stay on.

"I requested to stay on the boat because if no one tends to it, it will bump against the jetty and get damaged over time," Mr Tan explained, adding that he saw many other vessels in poor condition at the Tanjung Pinang Naval Base, which he was not allowed to leave.

Thus began his days in custody. Fortunately he still had his mobile phone, which allowed him to stay in touch with his family.

He watched television shows but the programmes were in Bahasa Indonesia, which he understood little of. He was allowed to either remain on his vessel or roam the premises of the naval base.

His crew members, who have worked with him for around four years, were allowed to leave the base to buy food and other necessities.

At least the navy personnel were friendly, he said with a smile.

As the weeks turned to months, he grew accustomed to life there, which he described as "dull".

While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was informed of Mr Tan's detention on Aug 21 and immediately sought consular access, this was granted only in January.


In March, Mr Tan's trial started. Seven months had passed since he was first detained.

"The map they showed me (when taking my statement) indicated that I was in Indonesian waters," he said. "I had no choice and pleaded guilty eventually."

That same month, Singapore's MFA issued a statement saying that the Seven Sea Conqueress had been detained by the Indonesian authorities within Singapore territorial waters.

It added that there was "no basis for Indonesia's detention of the vessel, its crew and passengers, nor for the continued detention of and purported charges brought against Mr Tan".


The trial went on and each day, Mr Tan yearned to return home, regularly calling his mother and 12-year-old daughter.

"I told them I would be home in no time," he said with a laugh. "But they ended up waiting for eight months."

His mother, in particular, had been worried sick after he called to inform her of the arrest.

"She didn't know what to do or whom to approach for help," said Mr Tan, who added that she went twice to seek help from their MP, Mr Baey Yam Keng, during his Meet-the-People Session.

Meanwhile, his daughter initially thought that he was away for work.

This was because he was often out at sea, and would usually return only twice a week to spend time with his family.

As time passed, he told her the truth, not wanting her to feel neglected because of his job, he said.

"I kept telling them the Indonesian authorities would probably let me off very soon," he said. "But after a while, there wasn't much more I could do."

He added: "I knew I'd be back, it was just a matter of time."


On April 26, Mr Tan was allowed to go home at last, after pleading guilty to trespassing in Indonesian waters. He heaved a sigh of relief when he was sentenced to six months' probation and fined five million rupiah (S$530).

If he were to re-offend during his probation period, he would be jailed for three months.

After repairing his vessel and settling some matters, he began his six-hour journey home to Marina Country Club on Thursday evening.

On Friday morning, he was reunited with his family at last, in their flat in Tampines.

"I'm glad that he is finally back," said his mother, who declined to be identified.

Mr Baey told The Sunday Times that he was glad to hear of Mr Tan's return as well.

"I remember that there was a very strong desire from his mother for him to come home before Chinese New Year, so they could have reunion dinner as a family," he said.

"Unfortunately, his release came a few months later."

He added that he had reassured Mr Tan's family of the MFA's efforts to help, and previously approached Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about the case.


Mr Tan's release leaves one more Singaporean boat captain detained in Indonesia - 50-year-old Shoo Chiau Huat, who was arrested on April 16 last year, also off Bintan.

Mr Tan said he hopes that Mr Shoo, who is a friend, can come home soon as well.

On Wednesday, the Tanjung Pinang court dismissed the charge against Mr Shoo of sailing in Indonesia's waters without a permit.

But he has to wait for the verdict on an appeal against his acquittal on an earlier charge of illegal fishing, before he can leave Indonesia as well.

His wife, who is caring for their four children, anxiously awaits his return. "I've done everything I could, and I hope that if he is innocent, he can be released soon," said Mrs Jasmine Shoo, 50, on the same day after hearing of his acquittal.

As for Mr Tan, he intends to return to work soon.

"I'll still go back to the area for fishing," he said of the place where he had been arrested. He added that he intends to seek clearance from the Indonesian authorities as a precaution in future.

"Fishing activities still go on," said Mr Augustine Chai, 49, owner of trip organiser Fishing Affairs. "Members of the public are now more careful with the routes of trips."

While some may worry about going on fishing trips, Mr Tan said it is still safe. "As long as you follow the proper procedures, you will not encounter any problems. Whichever territory you enter, you have to get the right permits," he said.

"Now that I'm back, I want to set sail again," he added.

"I like being out at sea. It's carefree and relaxing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline ''I'll still go back to the area for fishing''. Print Edition | Subscribe