SINGAPORE: Piracy and armed robbery incidents on ships in the Singapore Strait doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period last year, according to a maritime information sharing centre on Thursday (Jul 16).
Such incidents in the region as a whole also doubled, said the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre.
In the first half of the year, 16 piracy and armed robbery incidents were reported in the channel, and 51 altogether in Asia.
According to its half-yearly report, the centre said what is "of concern" is the "continued increase of incidents" in the Singapore Strait.
The other incidents occurred in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and South China Sea.
“We had a very big increase of incidents in 2014 and 2015 in Singapore Straits. But that went down drastically in 2016,” said ReCAAP centre's executive director Masafumi Kuroki.
“But since last year, we have seen an increase of incidents.”
The 2020 incidents took place along the entire length of the Singapore Strait in the eastbound and westbound lanes of the traffic separation scheme, which ensures vessels going in the same direction stay in a specific lane.
Among the 16 incidents, 13 were in the eastbound lane, which is mostly in Indonesian waters.
“There was an increase of successive incidents in the eastbound lane this year. We advise to increase the surveillance and patrol by the littoral states,” said Mr Kuroki.
He also urged Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to enhance information sharing and coordination, and for crews to “exercise utmost vigilance”.
ARREST OF PERPETRATORS IMPORTANT TO DETERRENCE
According to ReCAAP, most of the victim ships in the Singapore Strait were bulk carriers, tankers or tug boats.
“The number of perpetrators (in one incident) is mostly two to six people and the weapons carried by the perpetrators in three instances were knives, but in most cases the weapons were not stated by the report,” said Mr Kuroki.
One of 16 incidents this year involved injured crew and the main items that were stolen were engine spares and scrap metal on barges.
Arrests were made in the Singapore Strait on Mar 16 this year, after the crew sighted the perpetrators in the engine room workshop and detained them.
“The Indonesian Navy arrested three perpetrators for investigation and persecution,” said Mr Kuroki.
The arrest of perpetrators is “very important” to deterrence and a reduction of incidents, Mr Kuroki said, adding that the sharp drop in incidents, from 99 to two between 2015 and 2016, was due to the arrests made by the Indonesian Navy.
Subsequently, there were only 17 incidents from 2016 to 2018.
"NO EVIDENCE" THAT COVID-19 CAUSED INCREASE
Speaking to the media in a virtual briefing, Mr Kuroki said that while it was widely reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused “significant economic hardship” that led to an increase in robbery, ReCAAP cannot ascertain this “causal relationship”.
“For instance, I know that some people say that with economic pressure ... there may be an increase in intent for perpetrators to conduct piracy or sea robbery,” he said.
“Concerning the ships, the less frequent changes of crew and longer hours at sea may increase fatigue of the seafarers that may affect vigilance, but it is difficult to make an assessment on how these factors affect the increase in incidents.”
For the Singapore Strait however, Mr Kuroki was certain that the increase has “no relation” to COVID-19 as cases were already on the rise before the pandemic.
Responding to CNA’s query about the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) restructuring of the Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF), Mr Kuroki said while he appreciates these efforts, a greater exchange of information and coordination between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia is more important.
“The problem is not just Singapore’s ... Criminals are moving from one territorial waters to another,” he added.
The restructuring was first announced by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen during the Ministry of Defence’s Committee of Supply debate speech in March.
The MSTF, which works with other SAF task forces, national agencies and international partners, will be restructured to better respond to the increasing maritime security threat in the Singapore Strait, Dr Ng had said.
This includes adding new purpose-built ships and refurbishing existing patrol vessels.