June 17, 2024


Savvy business masters

Commentary: A cat-and-mouse game between pirates and Southeast Asian maritime security authorities

SINGAPORE:  “A lion never dies; it sleeps”, says an African proverb.

The same can be said for Southeast Asian pirates and sea robbers, long neglected after the academic and diplomatic world chose to refocus on illegal fishing in the South China Sea in recent years given rising tensions in those disputed waters.

Like the phoenix, regional pirates and sea robbers may rise from the ashes.

The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre, based in Singapore, rang the alarm bell at the dawn of this year.

Its report states that ships in the Singapore Strait were boarded by suspected robbers in 31 incidents in 2019. This is a four-year high, compared to 17 incidents from 2016 to 2018, although this is still low compared to the five-year peak of 99 in 2015.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has ripped through the world, may also fuel a rise in piracy and sea robberies if unemployment grows and economic activity is disrupted.


Experts say that most perpetrators of small-scale pirate attacks in the Straits of Malacca come from coastal settlements and use piracy to supplement their livelihoods.

The level of threat is also lower compared to the kidnapping-for-ransom operations off Somalia, where pirates from a failed state posed threat to all high-value shipping, and in the Sulu Sea, where pirates share deadly connections with clans of the Abu Sayyaf.

READ: Commentary: Pirates and other dangerous activities remain pesky challenges for maritime enforcement in South China Sea

READ: Commentary: Was tough talk on South China Sea to boost US export of drones to Southeast Asia?

Only nine incidents last year – out of almost 140,000 vessels above 75 gross tonnes arrivals in the port of Singapore in 2019 – involved armed perpetrators, with crew reporting injuries in one case.

Only two cases saw crew reported being tied up and another two involved crew being threatened with a gun or knife.

The truth is maritime terrorism has been less of a threat. Nasir Abas, former emir of the Jemaah Islamiyah once said it is much easier to achieve the group’s objectives by putting a sport bag full of explosives in a pub compared to turning a tanker into a floating bomb.

Security officials’ key concern remains passenger ships. 

Similarly, there is little risk for huge merchant vessels and container ships, which are too big for opportunistic but poorly equipped Southeast Asian sea robbers. These are hardly the sophisticated, cross-country pirate syndicates who carry out major attacks in the Gulf of Aden.

Natuna Islands Jokowi

This handout picture taken and released on Jan 8, 2020 by the Presidential Palace shows Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace)

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These worrying figures could also alert insurance companies. Lloyd’s Market Association’s Joint War Committee classified the Malacca Strait a “war-risk zone” in 2005, after 38 and 12 actual and attempted attacks were reported in 2004 and 2005, with most carried out in the Straits of Malacca. But the most ambitious attacks turned into kidnappings off Aceh, before the peace agreement.

We also cannot rule out a resurgence. Waters near the port of Belawan and around Bintan, which were piracy prone areas in the early 2000s, saw an uptick in such activities in 2019.


While maritime and air patrols certainly contributed in whistling the end of the game for most kampong gangsters involved in piracy and sea robberies, they were not the only nor absolute explanation. Arguably, media coverage can deter sea robbers in the short term.

Ageing pirates are getting too old to board ships at night. Those newly married with children are also less keen to take on too much risk – as what happened with the first generation of sea thieves, when the number of incidents dropped in the late 2000s.

READ: 3 arrested for attempting to rob Liberian-flagged ship in Singapore Strait

READ: Armed perpetrators boarded large merchant ships in Singapore Strait four times in last two months

This has been a function of the perception of enforcement’s effectiveness rather than reality. Patrol boats dispatched by littoral states have been too big to patrol or to track sea robbers among the mangroves.

Robbers have learnt how to deal with the patrols, while patrol aircraft have flown too high and too fast to gather needed intelligence and cannot see much from the skies.

Indonesian aircraft readiness has been very low. Many factors have also contributed to a gap between the cooperative discourses at the ministerial level and the less enthusiastic reality on the ground, for example, regarding the transnational “hot pursuits” of reported attempts by security forces.

About one-third of global trade flows through the Malacca Strait, which runs between Indonesia,

Ships ply the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Still, authorities are not letting up. Singapore has proposed extension of the Malacca Straits Patrol to surrounding waters, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed earlier this month during his announcement at the Committee of Supply Debates that the country will also purchase purpose-built ships as it restructures its Maritime Security Task Force.

Sea muggers and poor fishermen look so much alike at night, with the same equipment and waiting for their respective preys. Research also suggests they are the same people most of the time.


The establishment of the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) since 2009 has gone some way to provide rigorous reports and convene meetings to share information and situational awareness, to tackle the scourge of piracy.

Some countries, such as Philippines and, soon, Indonesia, send a coast guard officer in addition to the existing navy liaison officer to make the IFC a unique information platform, not only on piracy but on various interrelated challenges at sea.

READ: Commentary: Indonesia’s high-stakes stand-off with China in the South China Sea

READ: Commentary: Is there an arms race among navies in Southeast Asia?

The IFC has also tremendously expended its membership and networks, with twinned centres in Madagascar, India and Australia.

But the IFC’s effectiveness will continue to depend on countries’ appetite for cooperation. Are countries represented to share views and data, or primarily to fly the flag?

With more than twenty international liaison officers (ILO) stationed there, the question is whether the IFC can remain an efficient network for the exchange of information or whether its size will result in unwieldiness.


National initiatives are often overlooked and underestimated, but can be the deciding factor in how much piracy thrives in this region.  

The appointment of brilliant Indonesian Navy officers in the Riau Islands helped fight corruption and established Western Fleet Quick Response teams to fight sea crimes. But these leaders see a quick turnover in the country’s bid to professionalise the armed forces and do not stay long.

Indonesia's navy carries out regular patrols to protect its vast archipelago from poachers,

Indonesia’s navy carries out regular patrols to protect its vast archipelago from poachers, pirates and drug smugglers. (Photo: AFP/BAY ISMOYO)

Today, the reinforced fight against illegal fishing, intially led by former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia Susi Pudjiastuti’s ministry from 2014 to 2019, and now by the new Indonesian Armed Forces joint regional command in Tanjung Pinang to oversee security of Western Indonesia, are promising.

The new Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) has also been given a strong mandate to lead this multi-ministry enforcement charge as the chief maritime law enforcement agency in the archipelago. Their mission has been given fresh impetus, after Indonesia’s stand-off with Chinese vessels in late-2019, but will take time to come into their own.

Today, however, pirates seem to be still one step ahead of authorities. A few who claimed involvement in serious incidents of hijacking explained that they don’t gather anymore in the usual coffee shop in Batam, based on my field research.

They coordinate via Whatsapp. Once they agree to deal together, a gang leader calls his teammates across Indonesia. They gather on a quieter island than Batam, where a logistic team waits for them and from where they embark on a mothership.

READ: Commentary: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting

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Their targets are tankers involved in illegal bunkering and trafficking, who might be less inclined to reports such incidents to authorities.


The world economy may be taking a turn for the worse, as concerns over the economic fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak have led to historic plunges in stock markets and more businesses holding off investment decisions.

Indonesia too is grappling with the pandemic, as deaths in the country surged to 58 on Wednesday, bringing total cases to over 700, and workers struggle when self-isolation could end already shaky income sources for entire families.

An economic downswing, especially in the Riau Islands Special Economic Zones, could lead to more frequent pirate attacks. Cutbacks in shipping could lead to increased unemployment among Indonesian and Filipino seafarers. A lack of economic opportunities could drive such individuals towards piracy.

International cooperation can help revitalisation efforts to prevent a further surge of piracy over 2020.

Malacca Straits Patrol meeting Singapore Strait

Participants from the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand at the 14th Malacca Straits Patrol Joint Coordinating Committee meeting on Wednesday. (Photo: MINDEF)


The European Union could expand its Critical Maritime Routes programme to Southeast Asia in the coming months. Beyond improving intelligence sharing through support of new fusion centres, Brussels can contribute experience and knowledge of counter-piracy missions at sea and on land, and build capacities of national agencies.

France, as an emerging Indo-Pacific actor, can also bring food-for-thought in sharing its unique “State Action at Sea” model – parked under the prime minister, via maritime prefects in coastal provinces, as maritime agencies are given dedicated and specified missions.

Non-government organisation can also play a useful role in helping to counter illegal activities at sea. For instance, the Stable Seas programme, within the One Earth Future Foundation, can provide information on broad criminal networks and help alert governments and shipping companies.

READ: Commentary: To manage the South China Sea dispute, keep incidents at sea in check

READ: Commentary: How to catch a pirate in Southeast Asia

This approach mirrors the United Nations’ emphasis on “human security”, which considers the community, economic and environmental spheres in understanding the implications of these forces on security.

An important corollary is this: Maritime security must come together with human development. Indonesian pirates and sea robbers are rational and lucid. To feed families and make a living, they are ready to move to safe, legal jobs – if there are any.


This leads us to mention a last transnational actor: The business community.

Knowing that the inevitable stage to eradicate the roots of piracy is the Riau Islands province, there have already been many attempts to develop this archipelago since President Habibie’s term in the late 1990s, including the idea of a Singapore-Johore-Riau Triangle, and the promotion of the islands with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s efforts to establish Special Economic Zones in Batam-Bintan-Karimun in the 2000s.

FILE PHOTO: A view of shipyards, seen through a window, in Batam island, Riau Islands province

A view of shipyards, seen through a window, in Batam island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia, April 3, 2019. Picture taken on Apr 3, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Henning Gloystein)

While none of these initiatives fulfilled expectations, owing to a variety of reasons from local interests to the lack of national funding, boosting investments and developing these regions are our best chances of stemming sea robberies and complementing actions at sea.

Perhaps it’s time for Singapore to reinvigorate ideas to encourage economic collaboration with the Riau islands, which could reap returns for regional security in a way money cannot buy. 

Eric Frécon is research consultant within the Stable Seas programme and instructor at SUSS (Singapore University of Social Sciences) and researches on pirates and sea robbers in the Riau Islands.

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