Are there still pirates in our straits? — Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

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SEPTEMBER 4 — Bordered by the littoral States of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are important waterways that facilitate international trade since many centuries ago. Today, about forty per cent of the world's trade passes through the Straits on fifty thousand vessels that ply its waters every year. Due to the busy nature of the Straits and ships carrying a variety of valuable cargo, sometimes valued up to US$136 billion annually, coupled with the presence of shallow reefs and innumerable small islands that compel ships to transit at greatly reduced speed, pirate attacks on merchant ships along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore have been common in the past and Straits territories’ governments remain vigilant of its threats, in modern times.


The Straits of Malacca and Singapore have a long recorded history of predatory activities of pirates. The kingdom of Sri Vijaya was the first local kingdom to rule the Strait of Malacca region. With Palembang as its capital city, the kingdom prospered by taking advantage as an international port serving Chinese and Indian markets. The fall of Sri Vijaya in the eleventh century turned the city of Palembang into a pirate haven. Piratical activities were carried out mostly by local Malays as well as Chinese.

In the fifteenth century, pirates formed integral part of this region so much so, the Orang Laut, sea gypsies who were mostly pirates, were actively engaged in the empire-building of the Malacca Sultanate. The Orang Laut played an important role in patrolling the adjacent sea areas, repelling the threats of other pirates as well as maintaining the dominance of the port of Malacca in the Strait of Malacca area. In addition, early references to piracy in the area of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore were recorded by the Chinese writer, Lung-Ya-Men who mentioned that the inhabitants of the South coast of Singapore and Pulau Blakang Mati (now Singapore’s Sentosa Island) were addicted to piracy and conducted raids on Chinese junks carrying valuable commodities, enslaving those they captured.

Piracy activities in this region increased significantly in the nineteenth century when Europe underwent an industrial revolution; Europe’s trade with East Asian nations was experiencing tremendous growth. There was a strong demand for new products such as rubber and tin. This increased the volume and value of trade through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, which ultimately, made the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, tempting targets for pirates.


In the twenty-first century, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore continue to retain their reputation as important sea lanes for international shipping and maritime trade in this part of the world. It is also an indisputable fact that pirate attacks on ships carrying valuable cargo, are still taking place today in the waters of the Straits, particularly within Indonesian waters. In the year 2004, there were a total of 46 pirate/sea robbery attacks in the Straits; the year that recorded approximately 50,000 ship movements in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. This translated into a probability of an attack at 0.07 per cent per transiting ship.

Since most parts of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore have been incorporated as territorial straits of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, any attacks on ships sailing the Straits, with the exception of the northern part of the Strait of Malacca that has a High Seas/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Corridor, would not be deemed as acts of piracy under the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (LOSC 1982) definition. Piratical type attacks in the Straits would nevertheless be regarded as sea robberies.

War zone

A decade ago, piratical activities were so resulting in the Joint War Committee (JWC) of Lloyd’s Market Association to declare the Strait of Malacca as a war risk area beginning in July 2005; a declaration that put the Strait on par with other well-known war zones such as the waters off the war-stricken countries of Somalia, Iraq and Lebanon. These attacks posed hazards to the safety of navigation of vessels as well as threats on the marine environment of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Reports by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) revealed that ships that were attacked were normally left without anyone in command. This increased the possibility of the ship running aground or colliding with other vessels, especially in the constricted areas of the Straits.

If a fully laden oil tanker were to be sunk in these circumstances, the resultant environmental consequences to the coastal communities and the fishing industries would have been devastating.

Passage of ships through the Straits would also have been interrupted if there was a closure of the Strait as a result of an incident of this type. This could be clearly demonstrated in the 1992 collision between the Nagasaki Spirit and the Oceans Blessings. The Nagasaki Spirit was carrying oil sailing Eastbound via the Strait of Malacca when it was boarded by pirates. The vessel was looted and the crews were thrown overboard. Oceans Blessings met with the same fate, where some of its crew was locked up in a hold. This left both vessels not under control and ultimately both collided and spilled considerable amount of crude oil into the waters of the Strait of Malacca.

Realising the adverse effects these attacks may have caused to the marine environment and the traffic flow of transiting ships, the three littoral States of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have introduced a number of collaborative measures such as the Tripartite Technical Expert Group (TTEG) both in safety of navigation and maritime security, Trilateral Coordinated Patrols Malacca Straits (MALSINDO), Eyes in the Sky (EIS) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) to combat piracy and maritime terrorism in the Straits. The joint measures to suppress piracy and sea robberies by the Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities, with some cooperation from Thailand have significantly improved security and reduced the risks to the marine environment in the Straits.

Hospitable waters

From 2004, the local armed forces organised coordinated sea patrols. Each party polices its own territorial waters, but they correspond with one another on possible pirate activity, and this has greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the patrols. In 2005, aerial surveillance flights were conducted to monitor the Strait of Malacca for pirates. The flights are undertaken by crews with nationals from different States so information can be more effectively shared. As a result, there was a dip in pirate attacks from 2005 and by 2006, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore were removed from the war-risk zone list by the JWC of Lloyd’s Market Association. Since then, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore were never again enlisted as such.


Any occurrence of piracy or sea robbery attacks or acts of terrorism in the Straits would undoubtedly result in a traffic hold up for transiting ships. Such an incident may also cause oil or chemical spills to take place and ultimately could compromise the well-being of the marine environment of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

Even though piracy/sea-robbery activities are no longer considered ‘serious’, these crimes are still happening in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Consequently, the most effective remedy is for the littoral States to work collaboratively to suppress these crimes as they pose hazards not only to the security of the waterways and the economic interests of the littoral States, but also would compromise the safety of transiting vessels as well as the well-being of the marine environment of the Straits.

*Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph.D) is a senior lecturer at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and n associate fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, University Malaysia Terengganu.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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