Countering maritime piracy in Southeast Asia

Maritime piracy is a concern for the relevant authorities in Southeast Asia. According to the 2023 mid-year report of the ICC International Maritime Bureau, which keeps track of piracy worldwide, from Jan to Jun, there were a total of 35 incidents reported in Southeast Asia.

The report stated there is an increase in incidents in the Singapore Straits. The incidents were considered low-level opportunistic crimes, with large vessels being targeted and boarded by pirates. There is a significant 25 percent increase in reported incidents compared to the same period last year. Seafarers are at risk and weapons are reported in at least eight incidents.

According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC), its Half-Year Report (Jan – Jun) of 2023 on Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, 59 incidents of armed robbery against ships were reported. Of these, 41 incidents were reported at the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS), compared to 27 incidents during the same period in 2022.

38 incidents occurred in the Singapore Strait, a 41 percent increase compared to 27 incidents in the first half of 2022; and three incidents occurred in the Malacca Strait compared to no incident in the first half of 2022.

Experts said factors contributing to a rise in piracy include economic uncertainty and poverty driven by global crises like the Ukraine war, regional geopolitical tensions and high inflation.

Anti-piracy measures 

There is strong cooperation among the relevant countries along SOMS, i.e., Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, to tackle maritime piracy, including conducting coordinated patrols, and sharing information of incidents and suspicious activities.

According to the Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN)’s Maritime Security Command works closely with Indonesian and Malaysian maritime enforcement agencies, including their navies and coast guards, to exchange information, discuss ways to strengthen cooperation, and take action both at sea and ashore, through the International Liaison Officers attached to the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) under the Maritime Security Command, and via direct operation center linkages, to cue prompt operational responses. 

For example, on May 9, 2021, IFC was alerted by the captain of a Greece-flagged tanker, of a small boat carrying five perpetrators, attempting to board the tanker using a hook and rope. The Indonesia ILO contacted his navy’s operation center and an Indonesia Navy patrol vessel was swiftly deployed to the scene, preventing the successful boarding of the tanker.

In addition, Singapore has long-standing cooperation with the neighboring countries through the Malacca Straits Patrol, which began in 2004. This arrangement with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand includes regular conduct of coordinated sea and air patrols, sharing of information, as well as joint training and exercises to strengthen understanding and collaboration to deal with maritime incidents together.

Singapore also recognizes that the fight against piracy and armed robberies against ships is a shared responsibility that requires strong collaboration with the shipping community and international organizations such as the ReCAAP. 

On September 29, 2006, ReCAAP, with headquarter in Singapore, came into force. It is the first regional government-to-government agreement to combat piracy through information sharing, capacity building, and cooperative arrangements. To date, ReCAAP includes 21 states (14 Asian countries, five European countries, Australia, and the United States). 

Together with RSN, other national agencies, which include the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), the Singapore Police Coast Guard (PCG), work in concert to ensure the security of Singapore territorial waters 24/7. The Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre, a whole-of-government setup for maritime security, also maintains comprehensive situational awareness and coordinates responses to rule out maritime security threats.

MPA partners closely with the shipping industry to raise awareness in the SOMS about maintaining vigilance. MPA regularly issues information on piracy incidents in the SOMS to vessels most commonly involved in such incidents, such as bulk carriers and tankers, which depart from the Port of Singapore. 

This is in addition to MPA’s reminders to industry to adopt the counter-piracy measures recommended in ReCAAP’s Regional Guide to Counter Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia.

MPA also collaborates with the shipping community in Singapore through dialogues and forums to remind vessels to adopt the necessary precautionary measures as well as to gather feedback from the community. 

In terms of day-to-day operations, MPA works together with RSN and PCG to ensure that vessels have a safe passage when travelling into and out of Singapore waters. For vessels transiting through the SOMS, MPA’s Port Operations Control Centre (POCC) broadcasts regular alerts over the Marine VHF radio to remind vessels to exercise vigilance.

The PCG works closely with maritime security agencies in ensuring the safety and security of Singapore’s waters. PCG leverages on international cooperation, patrols, and a network of cameras and systems to detect and respond to criminal activities within Singapore’s territorial waters. 

Should any vessel encounter armed robbery incidents in Singapore’s waters, PCG will board the vessel and investigate accordingly. For vessels that subsequently enter our waters after encountering such incidents beyond Singapore’s waters, PCG will only board the vessel upon the captain’s request and conduct checks on board to ensure the safety of the crew, and take action against persons onboard suspected to be involved in the armed robbery.

The IFC also works closely with the shipping industry to promote best practices, such as encouraging ships to adopt ship protection measures to deter and delay unauthorized boarding. 

IFC hosts regular shared awareness meetings with the shipping community to strengthen collaboration between regional authorities and the shipping companies against pirates. An example is the Voluntary Community Reporting (VCR) for the shipping community to report maritime security incidents or anomalous behaviors out at sea, enhancing shared awareness.

ReCAAP is using data analytics to provide deeper insights to draw correlations between different data sets, identify relevant trends and provide visualization of data to aid understanding of maritime piracy.

ReCAAP has recently completed Phase 2 of the data analytics project which explores the impact of external factors such as wind speed, weather conditions and moon phases on incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships. Ship captains can refer to insights featured in the reports to make informed decisions on risk assessment when planning their voyages through the areas of concern.

A perennial threat

MPA notes that the insurance premiums for vessels transiting the SOMS have remained stable during. Nonetheless, piracy remains a perennial threat against sea-borne trade.

However, with the Singapore government cooperating closely with regional counterparts, and MPA working together other government agencies and the shipping industry, piracy incidents are of low severity, and do not have a major impact on shipping traffic. Therefore, there has not been a rise in insurance premiums. 

According to ReCAAP, in recent years, most incidents were limited to petty theft and robberies which were opportunistic and non-confrontational in nature. In 80 percent of the incidents, the seafarers were not harmed, and the remaining 20 percent mainly involved seafarers being threatened, tied up, locked up in engine room, etc.

All stakeholders can do more to mitigate the following issues. Bureaucracy in reporting, lack of clarity over which authority to report the incident to, and language barriers and communication issues between the ship captain/crew and the coastal state law enforcement agency.

Shipping companies need to work closely with the law enforcement agencies of the littoral States, share information on suspicious looking vessels, and report actual or attempted boarding of their vessels in a timely and accurate manner to the nearest relevant authority.

Timely and accurate incident reporting is important for prompt response and the timely arrest of perpetrators. Delays in incident reporting by the ship masters have often resulted in slower responses by the maritime law enforcement agencies and perpetrators easily getting away.

Also, shipping companies need to adopt and strictly implement anti-piracy measures while travelling through high-risk areas, and to make sure all seafarers are trained accordingly. The management has to manage crew fatigue when transiting SOMA and other high-risk areas so as to maintain a high level of alertness and vigilance. Additionally, if need be, shipping companies can look into the option of hiring armed guards from private maritime security companies.

Photo credit: iStock/turk_stock_photographer

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