The year is not over but the number of thefts of cargo from barges towed by tug boats in the Singapore Strait has already hit a five-year high.
Scrap metal is often the loot of choice, said a special report yesterday by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre.
In all, there have been 14 theft and robbery incidents between February and the middle of this month, compared with just 13 incidents - including hijacking - in the four years between 2015 and last year. The figure was 15 in 2014.
The ReCAAP centre said a record nine cases involved theft of scrap metals from barges, with robbery making up the rest. It said the theft of the scrap metal is of particular concern as the increase is significant when compared with only 16 incidents between 2011 and last year.
The Singapore Strait links Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea.
The centre said it was concerned about the rise "although all the 14 incidents were Cat 4 (petty theft) in nature as the perpetrators were not armed and the crew not harmed".
They all took place in the western sector of the Singapore Strait.
Eleven of the 14 boats attacked were Malaysia-registered vessels, one was Cyprus-registered, another a Niue-registered ship, while the country of registration of the last one is unknown.
The centre said that in most of the scrap metal thefts, the culprits would sail their smaller boats alongside the barge and transfer the scrap metal onto their vessels.
The tow boat and barge would be moving slowly owing to the heavy cargo. In many cases, the tow boat crew would be unaware of the theft as the barges are usually unmanned.
Three people, suspected of being part of the groups of thieves, were arrested by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency earlier this month, the centre added.
To put a lid on the rising crime rate, the ReCAAP said, crew of tug boats and barges entering the Singapore Strait should refer to its website on when and where previous cases had taken place. They also need to be more vigilant in the area.
ReCAAP added: "More needs to be done to strengthen regional cooperation and coordination among the littoral states in conducting joint coordinated patrols, surveillance, enforcement, apprehension and prosecution of the perpetrators involved."