Stormy seas: Singapore grapples with a spate of piracy

Singapore shippingPhoto:Paul Scott

Piracy incidents in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore spiked in 2019. What is behind the surge and how can Singapore keep it waterways safe?

By Joelyn Chan

The Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) is one of the busiest trade routes in the world. Nearly half of all global seaborne trade passes through this marine corridor making it a strategic chokepoint for Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean imports.

Between September and December 2019, there were 16 incidents of piracy in the SOMS, double the total number of incidents in 2018. With piracy threatening security in the strait, littoral states will have to come together to protect their imports.

Graph recording incidents of piracy in the Straits of Malacca

What is behind the surge in piracy in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore?

The spike in piracy incidents has coincided with a period of reduced confrontation between pirates and seafarers in Bangladeshi, Filipino and other Indonesian waterways. It is possible that pirates are redirecting their attention to the SOMS. But why?

Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at the department of political science at the National University of Singapore, told ASEAN Today that reduced marine patrol numbers was an “important factor” in the piracy surge.

The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCaap), an information-sharing centre, shared Mr Singh’s view. The organisation attributed increased piracy rates to decreased marine surveillance by littoral states and the complacency of ship crews.

The timing of the attacks also raises questions and exposes a potential vulnerability. Most attacks took place between 4 am and 6 am. It is possible that pirate crews are exploiting blind spots in patrols before dawn.

Additionally, as perpetrators see the success of others, shipping channels suddenly become targets for pirates looking to capitalise on vulnerabilities. Around the holiday period, there were six incidents of piracy in six days. The perpetrators were not violent, suggesting that their target was the theft of spare engine parts or other products.

Singapore depends on maintaining secure shipping lanes

Singapore’s port is among the busiest on earth. It handles more than 36.6 million shipping containers a year as over 2.7 billion tons of cargo arrives every year on more than 130,000 ships. Keeping these ships safe is essential.  Singapore’s maritime sector contributes about 7% of gross domestic product (GDP).

“Singapore is a target because it is seen as a successful state with many vulnerable coastal targets, ”Singh said.  

While the attacks may not be taking place in Singapore’s ports, and most were category 4 attacks (the lowest classification category deemed minimally violent) to preserve its allure as a regional logistics hub, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will wish to improve its response to the piracy threat.

In October 2019, Singapore conducted exercises to bolster its maritime agencies’ ability to defuse maritime security threats. However, Singh believes that an effective response starts with intelligence.

Republic of Singapore Navy Lt. Col. Tay Boon Chong, Head of RSN Plans and Doctrine Branch, and Lt. Col. Chew Chee Mun, Commander, Tactical Air Support Group, observe a Hellfire missile exercise from the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2009. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance the operational readiness of the participating forces.
The response to piracy starts with intelligence.
Photo: US Navy/Mass Communications Specialist Chief Susan Hammond

He told ASEAN Today the city-state needs “better intel” to adequately contain piracy. He also added that low-paid law enforcement officers were vulnerable to taking monetary incentives from pirates in exchange for their cooperation and protection.

Diplomacy kills piracy, not guns

As regional navies are increasingly asked to juggle anti-piracy, anti-smuggling and illegal fishing operations, their resources are spread thin. To patrol the vast regional waterways, therefore, requires extensive collaboration between states.

“There are too many dots out there that need joining and if any are weak or vulnerable, pirates will take advantage,” Singh said.

Regional cooperation was proven effective in curbing piracy. In 2004, the three littoral states began trilateral coordinated patrols in the Malacca Strait. Slowly but surely, the SOMS became a safer place and piracy incidents fell.

Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) acts as a regional maritime security centre and fosters closer marine ties between states. Greater intelligence sharing across regional nations in this manner can help bridge the information and reduce navy response times in the event of a security incident.

For Singh, one way to build deeper ties is to incentivise cooperation. Singapore can “use defence diplomacy to get a greater buy-in within our neighbourhood to counter pirates.”

No perpetrators have been arrested so far. Although the recent spate of piracy incidents largely resulted in material losses, and were non-violent, curbing the threat of piracy has to become a defence priority.

Singh concluded: “Singapore cannot alone fight regional piracy but we will definitely pay a high price if [regional efforts] fail,” adding, “while we are robust at home, we need to export this robustness to our neighbourhood for a win-win outcome.”

About the Author

Joelyn Chan
Joelyn is a freelance writer based in Singapore. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Double Bachelor in Accountancy and Business. During her free time, she explores the latest developments in fintech and business.