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Pirates At Sea! 19 Attacks In Southeast Asian Waters In 2023  

For centuries, the waters surrounding Malaysia and Southeast Asia have been plagued by the menace of pirates, instilling fear among vulnerable seafarers. These notorious pirates have not only left a mark on history but have also become legendary figures woven into the fabric of traditional folklore. 

Even foreign writers were inspired by their daring exploits, such as the renowned Italian author Emilio Salgari, who brought to life the adventures of Sandokan, a courageous Borneoan prince and pirate. In Salgari’s classic novels, Sandokan fearlessly confronted James Brooke, earning the moniker “tiger of Malaya,” a title that both locals and foreigners in the fictional series hold in high regard[1].

A glance at the map of the East India Islands must convince us that the region must, from its natural configuration and locality, be peculiarly liable to the seat of piracy. These islands form an immense cluster, lying as if it were at the high roads which connect the commercial nations of Europe and Asia with each other, affording a hundred fastnesses from which to waylay the traveller. – A quote from Charles Ellm’s 1837 book, ‘A Pirate’s Own”[2]

Source: The Collector

Contrary to prevailing beliefs, it is the waters surrounding Malaysia, rather than the Horn of Africa, that face the greatest risk of pirate attacks[3]. Astonishingly, a staggering 41% of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2013 occurred in Southeast Asia, firmly placing Malaysia one of the countries at the epicentre of this maritime issue[4].

While piracy might seem like captivating bedtime tales or engaging dinner table discussions, the reality is far from amusing. It is a grave concern, and our nation stands to suffer significantly due to the perils of these treacherous waters.

Lurking Pirates Can Cost Us A Lot 

Malaysia is particularly vulnerable to piracy as most of our waterways make up part of the maritime silk road connecting major Asian economies to the West. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore, which includes Malaysian waters, for example, is a favourite hunting ground for sea bandits: a report noted that within the first three months of 2023,[5] there were 19 incidents of piracy that had occurred within the region.

Source: Llyodslist

More than 300 ships pass through its narrow waterways daily, many of them being very large crude carriers (VLCCs) carrying crude oil, manufactured products, coffee, and precious raw materials[6]. Each of these vessels is worth billions of dollars: one pirate attack is all it takes to temporarily cripple supply chains, producing a cascading chain of financial loss for all parties involved.

Take the hijacking of the Malaysian-registered oil tanker, MT Budi Mesra Dua, as an example[7]. Manned by a crew of 23 people, it was on its way to Labuan from Singapore on 11 June 2014 when 10 heavily armed pirates hijacked the tanker, locked all crew in a cabin, and proceeded to syphon 1 million litres of Diesel that the tanker was carrying into a separate ship nearby. After 10 hours on the MT Budi Mesra Dua, the pirates fled, leaving the crew unharmed but with a painful loss of approximately RM2 million in cargo stolen.

There were about 10 of them who boarded the tanker by climbing the sides of the ship and they were armed with parang and hammers. They transferred the diesel onto another vessel and also took crew members’ belongings, such as cameras, mobile phones, computers, shoes and clothing. – Commander Mohd Sufi Mohd Ramli, Bintulu’s MMEA Chief[7]

Source: NST

Such incidents have grave implications for the country’s reputation and economy. Increasing numbers of pirate attacks could sway investors’ confidence in the country’s stability and deter tourists from coming to Malaysia, losing the potential revenue that could be generated from various industries. 

Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be tackled wisely and with urgency. What then, has the Malaysian government been doing to curb these incidents? 

The Unified Fight Against Piracy 

Source: Splash247

Marine security is transnational and collaborative in nature, where the fight against piracy is a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, especially with neighbouring countries that share our waters and local law enforcement authorities.

At a regional level, Malaysia has been working closely with Singapore and Indonesia in patrolling the seas. Since 2004, all three countries have upped their collaborative efforts to combat piracy by exchanging intelligence, conducting coordinated sea and air patrols as well and capacity-building sessions to strengthen understanding in dealing with maritime incidents[8]. The Malacca Straits Patrol, for example, was co-established with Singapore and Indonesia in 2004 and has since expanded to include Eyes in the Sky, a joint programme of combined maritime air patrols[9].

The nation is also actively involved in a number of multilateral security frameworks aimed at strengthening maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, such as the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which was established in 2017 to further facilitate collaboration between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in strengthening maritime security. 

In 2022, the countries came together once again to further strengthen the pact by including measures to help safeguard global supply chains and improve communications between the nations’ maritime agencies by installing a permanent trilateral marine officer.

At a national level, the Malaysian coast guards (MMEA) are not letting their guards down and have been vigilantly patrolling vulnerable areas. By working closely with locals, they were able to foil piracy attempts: in 2017, after being tipped off by local fishermen who saw pirates boarding the Thai oil vessel MT- MGT 1, the MMEA successfully pulled off a rescue mission to save all 14 crew members, all unharmed, while also managing to capture 13 out of the 16 pirates that hijacked the tanker[10].

Looking outwards and learning from counterparts who have made significant progress in enhancing maritime security, Malaysia has also engaged external experts to train and upskill local coastguards. One such counterpart is the Japanese Coast Guard, whose officials conduct frequent training with the MMEA. 

One of their most recent training had seen 18 MMEA officials graduate in the Arresting Technique Course 2023, which equipped them with knowledge on enhanced arresting techniques specifically used for violent criminals at sea[11].

Japan aims to realise the Free and Open Indo-Pacific regional concept together with Malaysia through capacity enhancement of arresting techniques for MMEA officers..which will help them prevent and suppress piracy and trafficking of drugs in the seas. – Takuma Hashimoto, Japanese trainer for MMEA officials[11]

Is a Future Free Of Pirates Possible? 

Indeed, a zero-piracy future is necessary for our nation to thrive. While ambitious, it is not impossible. It’s commendable that the government is taking substantial measures to curb such incidents, but there is always more that can be done.

With a little faith, a whole lot of willingness to put aside differences and personal gains and the implementation of effective, targeted strategies, we can inch closer towards achieving a zero-piracy future. Every effort counts: there is no doubt that this is no easy feat and will require tremendous effort from all parties involved, but fighting off pirates is worthwhile and will definitely pay off in the long run. 

Explore Our Sources: 

  1. Roh Press. Sandokan, The Pirate Prince. Link
  2. Sejarah Melayu. An Authentic History of Pirates of the Indian Ocean. Link 
  3. Smithsonian Magazine. (2014). The Waters Around Malaysia, Not Somalia, Are the World’s Worst for Pirates. Link 
  4. Time. (2023). The Most Dangerous Waters in the World. Link
  5. ReCAAP. (2023). Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Malaysia: 1st Quarter Report 2023. Link
  6. Nippon Foundation. Safety in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Link
  7. NST. (2014). Security Alert for Diesel Pirates.  Link
  8. MINDEF Singapore. (2022). Fact Sheet: Collaborative Efforts between Singapore Enforcement Agencies Ensure Security of Singapore Waters. Link
  9. University Malaya. (2022). Middle-Power Security Agreements Help Maintain Maritime Regional Order. Link
  10. NST. (2017). Special MMEA Team Foils Tanker Hijack, Nab 10 Indonesian Pirates Off Pulau Tenggol. Link
  11. NST. (2023). Japanese Experts Train MMEA Instructors in Enhanced Arresting Techniques at Sea. Link

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