Two fatal collisions in the Singapore Strait, occurring within a month, are cause for concern. On Aug 21, an American warship collided with an oil tanker. On Sept 13, a tanker and a dredger were involved in an accident. The loss of lives in both cases underscored the gravity of the incidents. The impact was serious enough to cause substantial damage to the warship in the first case, and to cause the dredger to capsize in the second. As a maritime nation, Singapore has to respond to such accidents actively, although its authorities were not responsible for them.
The onus falls primarily on the navigators of vessels, whether merchant or naval, to follow protocols. These are enshrined in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (Colregs). Followed faithfully, Colregs functions much like the Highway Code does for vehicles. However, there are differences between land and sea. Ships are slower than cars and dwarfs the latter. It takes much longer for them to slow down, turn around or stop. Difficulties are enhanced at night, when reduced visibility dilutes the premium human reflexes offer in averting accidents. Vessels are equipped with radar and other monitoring and tracking devices, but the vigilance of those at the helm might slacken during those hours, particularly if they are not well rested.
Without suggesting that any of these issues was at work in the two collisions, the general point is that adopting a safety-first culture is crucial to navigability on the seas. That culture is critical in a narrow water space such as the Singapore Strait, particularly at night. At its narrowest, ships are sometimes separated by less than a nautical mile, or about 1.85km, their proximity magnified by their varying sizes. Observing Colregs can be challenging in the circumstances.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore should consider moving beyond the industry norm to manage and direct vessels, thus enhancing the efficiency of its vessel-tracking system. There was only one major incident at sea from 2015 to last year, which represented a 75 per cent drop compared to 2014. But the latest accidents have marred that record.
Singapore must come to grips with the challenge. The 130,000 vessel calls at the Port of Singapore every year attest to the importance of the city-state to international maritime traffic. Earlier this year, it clinched top place in a ranking of the world’s maritime capitals in a report, after having earned the honour in the report’s 2015 and 2012 surveys. In turn, the maritime cluster contributes about 7 per cent to the gross domestic product and employs more than 170,000 people. These statistics reveal Singapore’s stake in keeping the waters around it safe for commercial shipping and in maintaining naval activity that safeguards freedom of navigation on the seas.