SINGAPORE - The number of piracy and armed robbery cases in the Singapore Strait hit a six-year high in 2021, even as such cases in Asia fell to their lowest since 2018.
There were 49 incidents in the Singapore Strait - recognised as one of the world's busiest shipping lanes - in 2021, compared with 34 in 2020 and 31 in 2019.
The 49 cases are the highest since the 99 incidents in 2015.
In the whole of Asia, 82 piracy and armed robbery incidents against ships were reported in 2021 - a 15 per cent decrease from the 97 in 2020.
The figures were released on Tuesday (Jan 18) in an annual report by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (Recaap) Information Sharing Centre.
The centre's executive director Masafumi Kuroki said during a media briefing on Tuesday that the pandemic may have contributed to the rise in cases in the Singapore Strait.
"Covid-19 has deteriorated economic conditions in many regions and that could have led to more people (in coastal communities) resorting to sea robberies," he said.
Mr Kuroki added that the Singapore Strait is a busy sea lane, which makes it prone to being targeted by perpetrators.
Of the 49 incidents in the strait, 43 occurred in the east-bound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme, with a growing cluster of incidents off Tanjung Pergam in Indonesia's Bintan island.
The perpetrators did not harm the crew aboard ships in the majority of the incidents, apart from two reported case of crew members being assaulted.
Most of the cases were carried out after dark by three to five perpetrators in small boats. They mostly targeted bulk carriers and stole engine spares to resell in the region.
Mr Kuroki recommended that the strait's three littoral states - Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - strengthen their collaboration and surveillance of the area to tackle the problem.
He added that crew aboard ships should "keep abreast of the latest situation, exercise utmost vigilance and adopt preventive measures".
The Ministry of Defence, Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Police Force said in a joint fact sheet on Tuesday that the transit of vessels through the Singapore Strait remains safe. “These (sea robberies) largely comprise cases of petty theft and most are opportunistic and non-confrontational in nature.”
They also outlined current efforts to tackle the issue, which include conducting joint exercises with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to better deal with maritime incidents, patrolling Singapore waters and sending regular alerts to remind vessels to exercise vigilance.
One positive development in 2021 was the decrease in piracy and armed robbery cases against ships across many countries, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
By official definition, piracy refers to attacks in international waters, while armed robbery refers to attacks within a state's territorial waters.
There was, however, an increase in the violence level towards crew at the Manila Anchorage in the Philippines.
Of the nine incidents reported there in 2021, four involved perpetrators armed with guns or knives who threatened crew members and tied them up.
No such incident has been reported there since the Philippine authorities arrested the leader and members of a criminal group between September and November 2021.