How safe are our waters? — Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Roman Dremliuga

Friday, 19 Jun 2015 09:58 AM MYT

JUNE 19 — It has been more than a year since the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared without a trace. This incident has caused tremendous repercussion that has emotionally affected not just Malaysians, but communities the world over. Again, this year, Malaysia is tested by another rather similar incident – this time, involving a Malaysian oil tanker, Orkim Harmony that went missing last week. Orkim Harmony was carrying a cargo of RON 95 petroleum product scheduled to be delivered to Petronas worth RM21 million when it was hijacked by pirates off Eastern Johor waters.

Orkim Harmony has recently been discovered sailing in Cambodian waters. How safe are our waters?


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 RM500 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. These waterways connect the Indian Ocean via the Andaman Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean via the South China Sea in the East. Therefore, the waters off the eastern coast of Johor are still part of this maritime superhighway.

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 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.

The Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (LOSC 1982) dictates that any maritime area within the 12 nautical miles limit (22 kilometers) from the baseline of a coastal State would be considered as the territorial Sea of that State. 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 LOSC 1982 definition. Piratical type attacks in the Straits would nevertheless be regarded as sea robberies.

According to the LOSC, a maritime crime would only be deemed as piracy if it takes place within the EEZ or the high seas. As pirates are hostis humani generis (enemies of humanity) under international law, any country would possess jurisdiction to arrest these criminals. However, if the same crime takes place within the territorial sea of a coastal State, the criminals are not defined as pirates but are sea robbers. Any legal action against them would normally be initiated by the State where the crime actually took place. The Orkim Harmony went missing 30 nautical miles from the Port of Tanjung Sedili in Johor, outside Malaysia’s territorial sea. The criminals would therefore be considered as pirates, not sea robbers.

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.

South China Sea

There have been a number of measures taken by the littoral States to ensure safety of navigation is guaranteed for mariners in navigating the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Nevertheless, recent statistics have shown that piratical activities and sea robbery crimes have shifted from the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to the waters off the east coast of Johor, which is a continuation of the main maritime route from the Straits into the South China Sea. As reported by IMB, the waters off the eastern coast of Johor, have, since 2013, been gradually transformed into ‘pirate hotspots’, making it at par with the inhospitable waters off the Horn of Africa. True enough, Orkim Harmony went missing in the exact same waters.

As these waters are bordered by the Indonesian Riau Islands, Singapore and Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore may consider extending their co-operation to include the waters off east Johor as well. The same effort has proven to be very successful in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore-South China Sea maritime route is a strategic sea lines of communication and should not be left without proper security monitoring by the authorities of these three littoral States. If nothing is done to curb this crime, an ‘Asian Horn of Africa’ would soon be replicated in this region.

Are our waters safe?

The Orkim Harmony incident is just one of the many cases involving pirate attacks or sea robbery crimes taking place in the waters off east Johor. Any unwarranted attacks againts a merchant ship is unacceptable as it may, one way or another, generate negative repercussion not only to the nation’s economy, but to the global economy as well.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are jointly capable of tackling this calamity without extra terrestrial interference namely by the United States of America, the European Union or China. This external interference may impede ASEAN’s position as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.

Therefore, these three States should enhance, intensify and entend their ongoing co-operations taking place in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to the waters off the east coast of Johor to ensure that our maritime territories and the adjacent areas are safe and pirate-free. 

* Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli a senior lecturer of the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

* Dr Roman Dremliuga is an associate professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

** 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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