Maritime Accidents in Singapore Strait is on the Increase Should Singapore alone to be blamed? by- Capt. Francis Lansakara

Bird’s eye view Singapore of Strait’s shipping traffic - about 300 ships passing daily  

Navigation Chart marking the traffic routes 

Time line of Accidents in Singapore Strait

  • March 2013 Turkish bulker colliding with a Vietnamese cargo ship in broad daylight with perfect weather conditions.

  • January-February 2014 three separate collision incidents resulting in oil spills and environmental damages;

  • November 2015 fast ferry from Batam en route to Singapore collided with an unknown object causing panic on the high seas the passengers,mostly Singaporeans abandoning the ferry were rescued.

  • December 2015 Collision between a freighter and chemical tanker resulted in sinking of the freighter with loss of life and other sustaining damages; and

  • August 2016 collision between Very Large Crude Carrier and a Container Ship resulted in serious damages to both ships’ structures.

Singapore Strait which is the 105 kilometre long shipping lane outside our shores mainly onto the eastern seafront connecting to South China sea to the East and to Indian Ocean via the Malacca Strait from the West currently the busiest sea traffic lane in the world. Since there were only few accidents within the past three years the numbers do not automatically trigger a safety issue but, maritime disasters are not judged by numbers but by their impact on social activities, economy and environment. In comparison with other developed regions for the past 30 years USA coast experienced two world largest maritime disasters in March 1989 Tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground due to navigational error spilling large quantities of crude oil int o USA West Coast and in April 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil platform explosion in Gulf of Mexico causes heavy loss of life and very serious marine environmental damage. In the European waters November 2002 a substandard tanker ship Prestige’s structure collapsed during a heavy storm causing enormous economic and environmental losses to European coasts especially to Portugal and France and badly affecting the social lives of the millions of people after closing of beaches and fishing industry for more than 6 months due to oil contamination. Following these incidents affected nations introduce more stringent navigati onal safety and anti- pollution measures and enforced them on their coast lines.

Unlike USA or European coast whom largely having own territorial boundaries other than common and sharing, Singapore Strait is a shared waterway and its navigational safety, rescue coordination and pollution prevention measures are governed by a common agreement known as STRAITREP jointly agreed between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in accordance with regulations laid down by International Maritime Organisation. Question as to why abide by such a common agreement has its own historical reasons: Singapore Strait is a historically documented well known passage connecting the Indian Ocean with South China Sea, countries having boundaries within such a sea passage required under the international law to grant freedom of navigation and innocent sea passage without undue obstructions except for safety measures such as control of maritime traffic. 

We are not the only nation having an international shipping lane across the nation’s territorial boundaries and having shared responsibilities with neighbouring countries in maintaining the same. There are dozens of shipping lanes around the world having similar issues eg. Malacca Strait sea passage is shared between Indonesian and Malaysia, in English Channel the sea passage is shared between England and France. Where the passage with high traffic the traffic is regulated through a scheme known as Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) that will provide general direction to sea traffic and a Vessel Traffic Information System (VTIS) that will provide safety information to ships and monitor ships movements during the passage similarly the same is applied here. There are other coordinated measures such as oil pollution prevention measures and rescue operations where Singapore and its neighbours will carry out jointly in case of an accident under certain agreed rules.

Who is to blame?

Accident August 2016- badly damaged container ship in Singapore Strait Ships in transit passage through Singapore Strait are manned by crew of international origin they need not be locals or anyone from the neighbouring countries. During the transit passage they ship’s captain is in full charge of the ship for safety of navigation and all other activities that may occur from his ship. When two ships collide the well-established rule is to blame each other according to degree of their fault known as blameworthiness. Usually the vessel with a higher degree of fault will take up to 80% of the blame and pay for the damages and the other ship who was only 20% to blame for the accident will bear the rest of liabilities.

Vessel Traffic Information System (VTIS) operated from Singapore shores is a traffic information service rather than a fully pledge traffic management and control service therefore less likely it will take a portion of the blame in a shipping collision case as the avoiding collision ultimately lies with the ship’s captain.

International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has recommended since 1998 ships with higher risks to obtain the service of a pilot who will as sist the ship captain in navigational safety throughout the Singapore Strait transit passage however these recommendations are not mandatory and not cost effective for small and medium class ships. As the volume of maritime traffic as well as the number of accidents had been significantly increased since then these recommendations have no effect on the safety of navigation. Singapore Strait is an international shipping route the responsibility to enhance safety of navigation lies with all parties including neighbouring countries and the international maritime organisations. Investigations in to recent accidents point to predominant cause as human errors rather than machinery failures or natural phenomenon as such there is a good reason existence of well organised and affordable compulsory pilotage scheme among other navigational safety measures will contribute to reduce maritime traffic accidents in the Strait.