SINGAPORE - The number of robbery incidents against ships in the Singapore Strait increased to 31 last year, compared with seven in 2018.
This is compared with eight actual and attempted cases reported in 2017. There were two in 2016, and 99 in 2015.
Most of the incidents last year took place in the hours of darkness, and resulted in no or minor injuries to ship crew. Items stolen include scrap metal, engine spares and tools.
In most of the cases, the weapons carried by the perpetrators were not specified in reports. In other cases, robbers were unarmed, carrying knives or machetes or, in one case, a gun and jungle knife.
The number of armed robbery and piracy cases in Asia last year also increased. There were 82 reported incidents last year, compared with 76 in 2018, which was the lowest since 2007.
These statistics were released by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre on Wednesday (Jan 15).
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), "piracy" is defined as any act of violence or detention committed for private ends in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state, while "armed robberies" take place in a state's internal waters.
Mr Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of the Singapore-based centre, said that the number of incidents last year was a significant increase, although it was not as high as the 99 incidents in 2015.
"It is important for littoral states in the area to enhance their surveillance and control in the Singapore Strait, as well as for the shipping industry to step up their vigilance," he said, adding that one possible measure was having more crew to keep watch at night for suspicious small boats that approach.
The littoral states which manage the Singapore Strait are Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Mr Kuroki said it was difficult to identify whose territorial waters the Singapore Strait incidents took place in, when asked about this.
"This is especially as the ships are moving from the waters of one state to another. This is why information sharing between the states are important."
ReCAAP has been keeping records since 2007. Other types of incidents include the abduction of crew, which is more common in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and waters off eastern Sabah.
The highest number of incidents on record for the whole of Asia was 203 in 2015.
In the Singapore Strait, 16 incidents took place in the eastbound lane in the four months from September to December last year, compared with 15 in the westbound lane over the course of January to August.
ReCAAP assistant director for research Lee Yin Mui said on Wednesday that they were not aware of any arrests that have been made for the series of incidents in the eastbound lane.
"One possible reason why there were a number of incidents in quick succession might be that the perpetrators were not successful and so they made more attempts," she said.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he had discussed possible cooperation initiatives with regional players with Mr Kuroki over lunch.
He wrote: "Recent sea robbery incidents in our vicinity are troublesome. First, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore is a busy waterway and an important lifeline to many countries.
"Second, the region is developing the cruise industry, which has huge potential. Ensuring maritime safety is therefore a priority for all. The key is regional cooperation," he added.
Mr Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at defence publication Jane's, said that one way the littoral states could improve coordination was by having operational procedures for "hot pursuit".
Having such an arrangement between the countries mean that a law enforcement agency can chase a suspect into other countries' territorial waters.
Mr Ridzwan, who was at Wednesday's briefing, said: "However, it might be difficult to implement such procedures due to historical sensitivities regarding maritime boundaries."