The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Pirates in Singapore? You probably didn’t have that on your 2023 bingo card.

In the tapestry of Southeast Asia, the vast blue dominates, accounting for more than 80% of the region’s geography. This preponderance of waters does not come without its perils, particularly in the realm of maritime security. This issue is of paramount concern for nations like Singapore, whose strategic position on the bustling maritime trade routes makes it particularly vulnerable. The nation faces the daunting challenge of piracy and armed robbery within its waters, threats that cast a long shadow over the safety of maritime trade and the sovereignty of its territorial seas.

Piracy, as outlined in Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is defined as any criminal act of violence or detention for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship in international waters. This contrasts with armed robbery, which, under Article 438 of the Criminal Code, is characterized by the same violent intent but occurs within a nation’s territorial waters—potentially qualifying as piracy depending on the circumstances.

For Singapore, the implications are clear: these maritime crimes not only disrupt trade but also challenge the legal frameworks that govern international waters and national sovereignty. The response to such transgressions is not merely a matter of enforcing the law but a strategic imperative to uphold the sanctity of Singapore’s waters and, by extension, its national security.

The Singapore Strait, a vital artery for global maritime trade, has witnessed a troubling upsurge in piracy incidents. In 2020 alone, the maritime information hub reported 34 breaches, marking a significant rise from previous years. Notably, 30 of these offenses occurred to the east of the traffic separation scheme (TSS), with the assailants predominantly targeting colossal vessels such as bulk carriers.

This trend has been alarming: from 2016 to the end of 2020, there was a discernible escalation in such maritime crimes. The culprits, often armed with blades and other sharp implements, focused on pilfering cash and engine components, exploiting the vulnerabilities of these large ships.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) suggests that this spike in piracy and armed robbery at sea is intertwined with the financial crises afflicting Asia. Economic desperation has driven individuals, particularly those lacking specialized skills or employability, to seek sustenance through illicit means. Consequently, many have been drawn into the murky waters of piracy.

In 2022, this trend showed no signs of abating, with 10 fresh incidents reported near Nongsa Point. The reports, filed by vigilant crew members, highlighted store lockers on bulkers, tankers, tugs, and offshore support vessels as the new focal points for these maritime marauders.

Singapore’s fight against these maritime threats is not just about upholding the law but preserving the lifelines of trade and industry. It’s a fight that demands a multifaceted approach, combining stringent security measures, international cooperation, and socio-economic strategies to address the root causes of piracy.

Amid the serene waters of the Singapore Strait, a surge in piracy cases has emerged as a critical challenge. Pirates have broadened their targets to include tugboats and barges, often stealing scrap metal and engine components. This escalating threat has galvanized Singapore to engage proactively with the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

ReCAAP’s swift action was instrumental in addressing three piracy incidents within six hours, compelling bulk carrier crews to elevate their vigilance. The organization’s advocacy for enhanced maritime patrol intensity and better communication has been a boon for regional security, particularly for Southeast Asian nations.

Highlighted by ReCAAP is the 2020 spike in piracy, a trend linked to the economic downturn wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Singapore recognizes that tackling piracy and armed robbery requires more than unilateral efforts; it necessitates robust multilateral partnerships. To this end, Singapore has forged strategic alliances with Indonesia and Malaysia to safeguard the strait, culminating in the Surface Picture (Surpic) initiative. This project encapsulates the shared commitment to maritime security, facilitating the exchange of critical information, augmenting surveillance with modern radar technology, and reinforcing patrols to maintain a vigilant watch over this vital waterway.

Singapore’s concerted efforts epitomize a dynamic and multifaceted approach to maritime security, underscoring the imperative of collaboration in ensuring the safety and integrity of crucial maritime passages.

Singapore’s position in the heart of Southeast Asia places it squarely within a complex web of maritime security challenges. In response to escalating piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Singapore Strait, Singapore has championed a collaborative approach, coordinating closely with regional counterparts. The Indonesian Navy, alongside agencies from Malaysia and Singapore, has been pivotal in conducting joint maritime operations, significantly bolstering security in the strait.

The tripartite partnership between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore is not just strategic but also comprehensive, underpinned by a shared vested interest in the security of the Singapore Strait. This alliance serves as the backbone of the region’s collective maritime defense.

Addressing piracy and armed robbery also necessitates robust legal instruments. The Singapore government has responded by reinforcing its legal framework, notably through enacting the Piracy and Armed Robbery Other Maritime Crimes Act. This legislation extends Singapore’s legal jurisdiction, allowing it to prosecute crimes that, while occurring outside its territorial waters, jeopardize its maritime security or national interests. Moreover, it facilitates the confiscation of vessels or property involved in such illicit activities within its waters.

The surge in piracy and armed robbery can be attributed to the wider financial struggles across Asia, which have driven individuals to desperate measures for survival. ReCAAP has emerged as a key player in this context, swiftly responding to multiple piracy incidents and advocating for intensified maritime patrols and enhanced regional information sharing.

Ultimately, initiatives like the Surface Picture project exemplify the tangible outcomes of multilateral cooperation, employing advanced surveillance systems and technology to keep a vigilant eye on maritime activities. Such collaboration extends beyond governments, incorporating military agencies in strategic operations, as seen in the joint efforts of the Indonesian Navy, Malaysia, and Singapore, showcasing a united front in the fight against maritime criminality.

Halifa Alena Kusuma is an undergrad student at Diponegoro University studying International Relations. Halifa's academic focus is on diplomacy, foreign policy, security, international politics, and human rights.