Kuala Lumpur – The Joint War Committee of Lloyds in London recently declared the Strait of Malacca a "war-risk zone", along with Iraq, Qatar and Somalia. The declaration is likely to encourage higher insurance premiums for ships using the Strait. Does the Malacca Strait, admittedly a piracy-prone waterway, have such a dismal record to be accorded such an alarmist label?
In a commentary published in Malaysia's Sunday Star, columnist Bunn Nagara argued that "anyone familiar with this region will know that it does not warrant 'war-risk zone' status".
"Anyone familiar with London nowadays should know that it deserves that status much more."
Bunn Nagara pointed out that latest reports from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) showed that the number of pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait had fallen in recent years. In 2000, there were 75 cases of piracy in the area. Last year, there were 37. In the first of this year, there were just eight cases. And there has been no case of terrorism in the strait.
"Instead of this data, those pushing for higher rates prefer to cite other figures by way of impressing on others the need for more insurance payments. So, there is talk of the Strait measuring a long 900km, coveying 30 per cent of the world's trade and half of its oil."
The writer said "there is no sound basis for alarm and increased premiums today, but instead quite the opposite".
"But this is conveniently ignored by insurance and security agencies, some of which are known to operate as mercenaries in a lucrative market," he added.
Profit motive aside, ignorance of the region may also be a factor in depicting the Malacca Strait in such alarmist terms.
"Some insurance industry voices have talked of a supposed 'blurring' of distinctions between pirates and terrorists. Yet, both are quite distinct categories of miscreants."
Pirates are "criminals who operate on boats or high seas" while terrorists are "politically motivated individuals or groups for whom the ends justify the means", Bunn Nagara wrote.
The writer, however, made it clear that the three littoral states, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, could not afford to be complacent when it comes to policing theMalacca Strait.
He noted that while the three countries have finally agreed to coordinate their air patrols over the Strait to complement their sea patrols, they have insufficient aircraft to do the job.
"This is where countries like China and the United States, which depend on Strait shipping and have offered assistance, can help."
However, echoing Malaysia's official position, the writer had one caveat: Those offering aid must respect the littoral states’ national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
* Not quite in dire straits (Sunday Star, Aug 7)