Singapore Strait a hotbed for robbery in 2019

Singapore Strait. Credit: IHS Markit

An increase in piracy and sea robberies in the Singapore Strait resulted in an overall hike in such incidents in Asia in 2019, according to the latest annual report of Asian regional piracy reporting centre ReCAAP ISC.

There were 82 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia in 2019, comprising 71 actual incidents and 11 attempted incidents.

This represents an increase of 8% (6 incidents) in the total number of incidents and an increase of 15% (9 incidents) in actual incidents, compared with 2018.

Despite an increase from 2018, these numbers are still the second lowest since 2007 when ReCAAP ISC started the report of incidents (2018 being the year of the lowest number of incidents).

The severity level of incidents has worsened in 2019 compared with 2018: two incidents of Category 1 (same as in 2018); a decrease of Category 2 (from eight to six); and 69% of incidents were Category 4 (perpetrators not armed, crew not harmed)

A significant increase in attacks was seen in the Singapore Strait – 31 incidents were reported, a sharp rise from just 7 incidents in 2018.

Analysing the incidents, ReCAAP ISC noted that 15 incidents occurred in the westbound lane of the traffic separation scheme (TSS) mostly from January to August; and 16 incidents happened in the eastbound lane of the TSS from the end of September to December.

Incidents in the eastbound lane of the TSS involved more violence, as many commercial vessels transit the waterway and the perpetrators were after more valuable items.

The 16 ships boarded in the eastbound lane of the TSS were eight bulk carriers, four products tankers, three barges towed by tugboats, and one very large crude carrier.

In 10 incidents, nothing was stolen because the perpetrators escaped empty-handed once an alarm was activated.

In six incidents, items such as engine spares, scrap metals, locks and ropes, and personal belongings were stolen.

In seven incidents, the perpetrators were discovered in the engine room; this may indicate that they targeted engine parts. There were confrontations between the crew and perpetrators; in one incident, two crew members received minor injuries and in three incidents, some crew members were tied up.

There is a disparity in the statistics of incidents in the Singapore Strait that are carried in the respective 2019 reports of ReCAAP ISC and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which is part of the International Chamber of Commerce.

The IMB’s figures stated that the Singapore Strait experienced a rise in armed robbery attacks with 12 reported incidents in 2019, including 11 in the last quarter of 2019. The same region accounted for just three incidents in 2018.

The IMB’s latest figures also reported that vessels were successfully boarded in 10 incidents across the region in 2019. Despite this rise, IMB considers the intensity of the attacks in the Singapore Strait to be ‘low level’ and usually limited to armed robbery of the vessel. 

A representative of ReCAAP ISC told SAS that its statistics are all verified with relevant government bodies.

He said, “ReCAAP ISC is a government-to-government organisation, with 20 member countries. Our figures are all based on confirmed reports from agencies such as the coastguards and navies.”

Noel Choong, who heads the IMB’s piracy reporting centre in Malaysia, told SAS that the bureau’s figures are based on voluntary reports submitted by affected shipowners, operators, and ship managers.

He said, “We can only compile reports made by the shipowners, operators, and managers of the affected vessels. We don’t take information submitted by third parties. Also, sometimes, we may receive the reports some time after the attacks and this may be a week or even a month after the attacks.

“While the figures released by IMB and ReCAAP ISC are different, it’s clear that there have been more incidents in the Singapore Strait. Our observations are that the perpetrators are opportunistic robbers and they tend to abort their attempts upon being discovered. Our advice to shipowners and operators is to maintain anti-piracy measures to prevent the perpetrators from boarding their vessels.”