SINGAPORE: Amid the risk of COVID-19, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) personnel are wearing additional personal protective equipment to board merchant ships that pass through Singapore waters.
Based on land, Accompanying Sea Security Teams (ASSeT) personnel from RSN's 180 Squadron must now put on protective goggles, face masks and latex gloves when heading out to board ships.
Their task is to ensure that vessels do not carry terrorists, stowaways and contraband items that threaten Singapore's security, said 180 Squadron commanding officer Major (MAJ) Brandon Choo on Monday (May 18).
Speaking to reporters via video conference, MAJ Choo, 38, said his men are maintaining the frequency of boarding – up to two to three ships a day – to continue acting as a deterrence against potential threats.
Singapore's maritime industry contributes 7 per cent to its gross domestic product, and the threat of sea robberies in the region is an ongoing one.
Data from a maritime information sharing centre showed that sea robbers boarded ships sailing through the Singapore Strait in 12 incidents from January to April.
This is a three-fold increase from the four incidents in the same period last year, according to figures from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre.
"The sea robbery incidents continue to happen, but we still continue to ensure that these robberies do not affect our maritime trade," he said, stating that the enemy "doesn't rest" regardless of the outbreak.
"We also offer the global maritime community greater confidence to operate in our waters. This encourages their willingness to come to Singapore and to operate in our ports to deliver our essential goods, especially during this time."
This is why there is such a need to keep the boarding operations going while protecting the RSN's operators during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These personnel would take a small craft out to the anchorages and climb ladders to get on ships entering Singapore waters.
The potential of getting infected with COVID-19 while engaging with foreign crew on board these ships "is of course a concern", MAJ Choo said.
He added that the crew must have completed a health declaration and indicated that their last five port of calls were not "affected" by COVID-19, even before their ships are boarded.
"These additional measures ensure that ships coming in will have already a layer of inspections prior to 180 Squadron doing their boarding operations," he said.
On board the small craft, personnel will leave alternate seats empty for safe distancing. This means two members have to sit inside the inner cabin of the craft, which is reserved for ship crew and is usually empty.
When on board, personnel must again maintain a safe distance from ship crew, and because they are wearing masks, communicate with additional hand gestures. This usually involves telling crew where to go.
Once done, personnel must also clean the small craft and their individual gear, including helmets, armoured vests and weapons.
"I DEFINITELY FEEL SAFER"
ASSeT operator Private (PTE) Nigel Lim, 22, said the wearing of masks means speaking louder and using clear gestures.
"Because we’re not able to show our face, we have to learn to smile with our eyes to appear less intimidating to ship crew," the full-time national serviceman said.
Most crew have been cooperative, he said, except for one who got annoyed that his ship was being boarded.
Nevertheless, PTE Lim said the extra gear is necessary to minimise the risk of COVID-19, noting that the latex gloves provide an extra layer of protection under his usual gloves.
"I definitely feel safer with all these items," he stated.
Back on land, PTE Lim also has to spend weeks stuck in camp while on 24-hour shifts, as compared to the situation pre-COVID-19 when he could book out every day.
But he feels it is worth it.
"My parents were initially worried because they were afraid that the exposure is very high when boarding merchant ships. But I assured that the squadron takes necessary precautions," he added.
"I feel that we are very important to the safety of our sea lines. So by performing these operations daily, we make sure that important necessities such as food go from sea to Singapore safely."