Piracy cases in Singapore Strait hit 5-year high, form majority of cases in Asia waters in 2020

The 34 incidents in the Singapore Strait formed the bulk of cases in Asia's waters last year.
The 34 incidents in the Singapore Strait formed the bulk of cases in Asia's waters last year.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The number of piracy and armed robbery cases in the Singapore Strait last year hit its highest mark in half a decade, with 34 incidents in total.

The figure formed the bulk of cases in Asia's waters last year, comprising over a third of the 97 total incidents, according to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (Recaap) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) on Friday (Jan 15).

Of the 34 cases, 30 occurred in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme, near the Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan, said the Singapore-based centre's executive director, Mr Masafumi Kuroki, during a media briefing.

The Recaap ISC released these figures in its annual report at the virtual 12th Nautical Forum on Friday, attended by some 100 participants from shipping companies and associations, government agencies and academic institutions.

The total of 97 incidents in Asia was a 17 per cent rise from the 83 cases in 2019.

However, the severity of incidents remained moderate, with almost three quarters of cases in the lowest category, in which perpetrators were not armed and crew members were left unharmed.

However, four crew members who had been abducted in January from a fishing trawler off Sabah still remain in captivity. ReCAAP ISC said the risk of crew abduction is high, and that it had information of planned kidnappings in Sabah and the town of Semporna on Borneo island, Malaysia, targeting ships passing in the vicinity.

Apart from the Singapore Strait, the increased number of incidents also occurred in the waters of Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and in the South China Sea, according to Mr Kuroki.

By official definition, piracy refers to attacks in international waters, while armed robbery refers to attacks within a state's territorial waters.

Mr Kuroki said the pandemic may have been a contributing factor to the rise in cases last year.

"The economic hardships caused by Covid-19 to the coastal communities could lead to more people resorting to sea robberies. It is also possible that prolonged work of crew onboard ships, due to the difficulty of crew change, causes fatigue to the crew and may reduce their vigilance," he said.

He added that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of shipping for global trade, and that the surge in cases last year is "a stark reminder that more needs be done to enhance the safety of maritime transport and safeguard the well-being of crew".

One positive development last year was that some perpetrators were arrested in the waters of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and in the Singapore Strait, noted Mr Kuroki.

"Beyond vigilance, timely reporting by ships, enhanced patrol by enforcement agencies, as well as cooperation between littoral States, we believe that arrest and bringing perpetrators to justice is an essential deterrence to stop the increase of incidents," he said.

"We urge the littoral states to take seriously petty theft and sea robbery because leaving criminals to continue their crime with impunity will only embolden them to escalate their acts."

Mr Kuroki noted that while 2015 saw 99 incidents occur in the Singapore Strait, a string of arrests by the Indonesian authorities saw the figure drop to just two in the following year.

There were also no further incidents involving larger ships in the western sector last year, following the arrest and prosecution of three attackers in March, after they boarded a bulk carrier in the Singapore Strait.

He said that the strait's three littoral states - Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - need to strengthen their collaboration and information sharing, to tackle the problem.

Private firms and vessels should also conduct risk assessments of the locations they are passing through, based on the latest updates about the security and safety situation of those areas. They should adopt preventive measures if need be, such as preparing equipment to protect their ships, he said.

"And when they pass areas of concern, the crew must enhance their vigilance and be very careful, particularly during the dark hours," he added.