Speech by Mr David T E Lim, Minister of State For Defence, and Information and the Arts, at the Opening Of IMDEX Asia 2001 on 8 May 2001 at 10.00am


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

2.     Good morning and welcome to the International Maritime Defence Exhibition Asia, 2001. Maritime communication goes back to the beginning of human history and continues to be immensely important today. Even in this age of electronic networks and cyber communities, the sea remains a main source of livelihood for thousands of people, and a key resource for the prosperity of countries around the world. It is therefore extremely important that seas remain free and safe to navigate in. In the 17th Century, Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius argued that navigation should be free to all, and that innocent passage in the seas should not be curtailed. This principle of the freedom of the seas was enshrined, three centuries later, in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Underlining the profound importance of the seas to the international community, UNCLOS sought to lay a comprehensive international framework to facilitate and promote the peaceful uses of Sea Lanes of Communication.

3.     Importance of Maritime Trade

4.     In the days of Grotius, only a handful number of states ploughed the high seas. But today almost every country in the world is involved in maritime trade. Even with advances in other forms of communications and transportation, maritime activity continues to increase. Indeed, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has predicted that world maritime traffic would grow by up to 5% annually over the next ten years. In the Asia-Pacific, this maritime trade is important not just to its littoral nations, but to world commerce. Four out of seven major sea lines in the world related to the Asia-Pacific – the Eurasia Line, the Cape of Good Hope Line, and the North and South Pacific Lines. The Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore are among the busiest waterways in the world. And with the projected increase in trade, the number of vessels transiting in the Straits is also expected to increase.

5.     Challenges Facing Use of the Seas

6.     The need to safeguard the freedom and safety of navigation is, therefore, all the more compelling. The challenges we face can be divided into a number of broad categories - natural hazards, accidents, and criminal actions. Let me take each of these challenges in turn. With more people and vessels plying the seas, natural hazards, such as tsunamis or typhoons, are potentially more devastating. Despite improvements in meteorological technology, we still cannot predict natural disasters accurately. Neither have we devised effective means to eliminate or even ameliorate the destructive forces of nature. But we are not entirely helpless. We can reduce the number of casualties in such situations by increasing cooperation and co-ordination among countries. We can share information and establish cooperative crisis management, including search and rescue missions.

7.     Such a cooperative approach to crisis management is also helpful in dealing with man-made disasters. Accidents resulting in oil spills are one example. Major oil routes like those from the Middle East to North East Asia are particularly vulnerable to accidents as traffic increases. This is also a serious concern in South and East Asia given the increasing demand for oil imports. Besides accidents, the deliberate and irresponsible dumping of chemical pollutants, heavy metals, sewage and other toxic waste into the oceans is another major source of sea pollution. These, and other problems in environmental protection, can only be dealt with through enhanced international cooperation. Apart from the challenges posed by physical hazards, whether man-made or natural, trans-border security issues are also a growing cause for concern. These may be categorised into two groups.

8.     The first group consists of crimes that directly threaten the security of Sea Lanes of Communication, namely piracy and other acts of maritime hijacking. Far from being a fiction of children’s stories, piracy remains a real threat to the lives of men and women plying the seas. According to the International Maritime Bureau’s annual report, pirate attacks rose by more than 50% last year and were about four and a half times higher than the level in 1991. The rising frequency of pirate attacks is unfortunately matched also by the increasingly violent nature of these crimes. Modern-day piracy occurs in different forms. In simple cases, attacks at ports and in narrow waterways are the equivalent of muggings in dark alleyways. At the other end of the spectrum are highly sophisticated operations run by well-organised criminal gangs that could result in the ultimate theft of a ship. And to make counter-measures even more difficult, pirates do not operate within neatly defined country borders. Here too, it is imperative that countries cooperate more closely on a trans-national level in order to deal effectively with this serious and complex problem.

9.     The second group comprise maritime crimes that abuse the freedom of navigation and affect security in more general ways. The illegal trafficking of drugs, arms, humans and other contrabands often take place via ships. I need not enumerate at length the social impact and cost of these crimes. Illegal drugs cost lives, and illicit arms trading foment political unrest and social instability. But it the most abominable abuse of maritime navigation, the trafficking of humans, bears highlighting. This is a crime that blatantly violates international humanitarian standards and human rights. Men, women and children smuggled into foreign countries, by ships travelling under the guise of innocent passage, are often forced into the sex trade or into servitude. It has been estimated that every year, more than one million people are illegally transported around the world. Some experts believe the actual figures could be even higher. According to the UN, the trafficking of humans generates about US$7 billion for the criminal syndicates running these operations.

10.     Need for International Cooperation

11.     Ladies and gentlemen:

12.     The security of sea-lanes of communication has a strong and direct impact on the security and prosperity of the international community. There is therefore every reason and incentive for countries to cooperate with one another to ensure the continued freedom and safety of navigation. Given the nature of today’s wide-ranging challenges to maritime movement, ranging from environmental and physical hazards, to the security threats of piracy and organised crime, it is more important than ever before that we increase the depth and scope of international cooperation.

13.     Trans-national cooperation could take place through bilateral agreements, or at the multilateral level through various international or regional fora. At the bilateral level, countries can establish arrangements between their enforcement agencies to exchange information and to cooperate on operations against piracy and other maritime crimes, as well as to work jointly in managing natural and environmental disasters. At the multilateral level, organisations such as ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the International Maritime Organisation are promoting dialogue and discussion on maritime issues. The United Nations, with a truly international perspective, also has an important role to play. The recent establishment of a UN Convention Against Trans-national Organised Crime, as well as the UN’s efforts in the areas of illicit trafficking and environmental protection, are laudable efforts towards this end.

14.     Besides formal institutions, multilateral conferences and interactions also serve to enhance mutual understanding and goodwill among countries, and promote dialogue on trans-national issues. IMDEX Asia 200, for example, is an excellent opportunity for countries to exchange, at both formal and informal levels, views on the multifaceted challenges facing maritime communication and trade. On this note, it gives me great pleasure to declare IMDEX Asia 2001, the first IMDEX in the new millennium, open. I wish all of you a successful conference, and a happy stay in Singapore.

8 May 2001

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