Friday, January 04, 2013

RSS Courageous – 10 years on

3rd January 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of a major tragedy of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). On 3rd January 2003 at about 11:35 pm, RSS Courageous, the 3rd of the 12 Fearless class patrol vessels (PV), collided with the container ship ANL Indonesia in the Singapore Strait near Horsburgh Lighthouse (on the island of Pedra Branca, or Pulau Batu Puteh). The collision caused the deaths of 4 female crew members and extensive damages (stern compartments up to aft engine room) to the ship. The current Singapore's Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew was the Chief of Navy then.

The first of class 55 metre waterjet propelled PV were launched by Madam Ho Ching, the wife of the then Deputy Prime Minister in 1995 at Singapore Technologies Shipbuilding and Engineering (STSE) shipyard (renamed as ST Marine). The PVs drew a lot of media focus as they were the first missile-armed military ships designed and built by a local shipyard although the basic design was modelled after the German-built Victory class missile corvette (MCV) commissioned in 1990.

(Fearless Class PV with Pedra Branca as background. MINDEF website)

RSS Courageous was a 450-tonne anti-submarine patrol vessel in the RSN fleet. ANL Indonesia was a Dutch-registered container ship owned by P&O Nedlloyd and had 293.5m in length and 51,938 gross tonnage. RSS Courageous had been on a routine patrol in the waters off Pedra Branca when it was hit by ANL Indonesia, which was en route from Port Klang to Busan.

The sequence of events:

At about 11.20pm, RSS Courageous and ANL Indonesia were both on a northeasterly course in the eastbound lane (heading to the South China Sea) off Horsburgh Lighthouse.

At about 11.25pm, RSS Courageous turned around and proceeded on a southwesterly course in the eastbound lane (i.e. sailing at opposite direction but on the same lane). According to the Traffic Separation Scheme laid down by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), for all ships heading towards the Straits of Malacca, they should take the westbound lane. Obviously RSS Courageous did not follow the traffic rule.

At about 11:30 pm, RSS Courageous altered its course to port (to the left) to bring it closer to Horsburgh Lighthouse but this meant that it would cut across the path of ANL Indonesia.

Between 11:31 pm and 11:33 pm, RSS Courageous made another two alterations to port to avoid a crash based on the assumption that the merchant vessel would not alter its course. However, ANL Indonesia responded with two alterations of course to starboard (to the right) according to international Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) laid down by International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Rule 14(a) of COLREGS states that "when two power-driven vessels are meeting on a reciprocal or nearly reciprocal course so as to involve risk of collision, each shall alter her course to starboard so that they pass each other on the port side of the other."

At about 11:34 pm, RSS Courageous made another alteration to port and increased speed; ANL Indonesia sounded a prolonged blast on its whistle to warn the navy ship. Despite RSS Courageous subsequent helm order of “hard-port” (to swing the ship to the left) and setting of its engines to full throttle, its aft (rear section) was hit and shaved off by the bow (front end) of ANL Indonesia at about 1 nautical mile (1.8km) north of Pedra Branca.

(Routes taken by RSS Courageous and ANI Indonesia. MPA report 2003)

Looking at the wreckage, it would be difficult to imagine that those steel plates that were crushed and folded  just like sheets of papers at the aft of RSS Courageous were 5-6mm thick for a typical seagoing ship of this size. You could imagine how massive was the impact force and the swiftness of steel cutting and forming actions that happened in the final seconds. In comparison, ANL Indonesia sustained slight scratches and none of its crew were hurt. Size does matter!

(RSS Courageous was towed back to Changi Naval Base. BBC 4 Jan 2003)

It was fortunate that the forward section of RSS Courageous was able to remain afloat despite the loss of buoyancy of the sheared-off stern compartments and flooding of the aft engine compartment. The ship might not survive if the sea was rough i.e. with strong wind and waves.

It is pertinent to note that although RSS Courageous was travelling in the opposite direction of general traffic flow for about 10 minutes before collision and it was against COLREGS as promulgated by IMO, IMO is a commercial entity and its rules and regulations do not apply to military vessels. Hence, it is for the corporate citizens at sea such as navies to also adopt the commercial practice in order not to create confusion.

4 female crew members, who were in their sleeping quarters at the aft of RSS Courageous next to the engine room, were reported missing. A massive search and rescue operation was launched and the bodies of three of the women were recovered – Corporal Goh Hui Ling, 22, was found trapped in between the bunks of the damaged vessel when the ship was docked at Changi Naval Base on 4th January afternoon. First Sergeant Seah Ai Leng, 25, and First Sergeant Heng Sock Ling, 24, were found by the fishermen at the Indonesian island of Bintan.

The search operation for Second Sergeant Chua Bee Lin, 24, ended on 13 January 2003 following the advice of forensic experts, as human body would be decomposed  after soaking in water for 10 days. Some hoped that her body was trapped in the stern, which had broken off and sank. The wreckage was raised from the 57m seabed on 14 January 2003 but her body was not recovered. Chua Bee Lin was officially declared dead by the Singapore Court about a year later so that the family could proceed with insurance claim.

(The wreakage was raised on 14 Jan 2003. MINDEF website)

The wreckage was located about one day after the disaster. However, the recovery work took another 10 days. It was perceived that the RSN had incurred some lost time by sending a small crane barge to the scene. The appropriate crane barge was only sent a few days later. In addition, the RSN had to arrange for commercial saturation divers as the water depth was beyond the diving limit of the naval divers. For water depth of more than 50m, the divers required separate diving qualification and there must be decompression facility on board in order to restore the divers back to normal land condition after the dive.

3 months after the fateful event, on 4th April 2003, MPA released a report on its inquiry into the collision. The findings were largely based on COLREGS. MPA determined that it was errors of judgement on the part of RSS Courageous led to the collision. The first alteration of course to port to stay closer to Horsburgh Lighthouse generated a risk of colliding with ANL Indonesia; the alterations of course to cross in front of ANL Indonesia and the series of small alterations of course to port had negated the evasive actions taken by ANL Indonesia.

MPA report also pointed out that although RSS Courageous was under the immediate control of Lieutenant Chua Chue Teng, a trainee officer-of-the-watch, it was her supervising officer Lieutenant Ng Keng Yong who was fully responsible for the safe navigation of the ship and he should have intervened to prevent the accident. Although MPA did not put any blame on ANL Indonesia, MPA criticised ANL Indonesia’s actions, including its failure to slow down when it realised that RSS Courageous was trying to cross its bow and its failure to switch from auto-pilot mode to manual steering so that it could turn more to the right and at a faster speed to avoid a collision. However, these criticisms had been omitted in the publicly released report. In simple term, the MPA report concluded that RSS Courageous was the main culprit who caused the accident.

On the same day, Dr Tony Tan, the then DPM cum Minister for Defence, released a well coordinated press statement to restore some pride for the RSN:

This most tragic loss of our four servicewomen is a sober reminder of the risks and dangers that SAF servicemen and women face as they discharge their duties in safeguarding the security of Singapore. While the SAF does everything possible to enhance and ensure safety, we have to accept that military operations are inherently risky and potentially dangerous.

This has certainly been a difficult period for the SAF, and especially for the RSN. But it is in such moments of adversity that the real quality and character of an organisation and its people are revealed. The Navy family rallied together with strength and compassion. The strong bonds enabled the Navy to withstand the shock and respond in the right way.

The RSN has emerged stronger from this setback, and I have every confidence that the RSN will continue to make a vital contribution to protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Singapore.

Both LTA Chua and LTA Ng faced criminal charges in court for causing the deaths of their four colleagues by negligence. After a 24-day trial that stretched from 17th November 2003 to 26th March 2004, both RSN officers were found guilty and fined S$8,000 and S$10,000 respectively. District Judge Tan Boon Gin said that it was the actions of the two officers that triggered the chain of events that ultimately led to the tragedy. The errors made by ANL Indonesia “certainly did not eclipse” those of RSS Courageous. Both RSN officers submitted an appeal to the High Court but it was dismissed by Chief Justice Yong Pung How on 13th July 2004. According to the code of conduct for Singapore civil servants, the two young officers had to leave the service.

Based on “the errors made by ANL Indonesia certainly did not eclipse those of RSS Courageous”, it could be interpreted that ANL Indonesia should be partially blamed. In November 2004, the Singapore government sued P&O Nedlloyd for asset damages arising from the collision. The civil suit was eventually settled out of court.

For occasion like this, it would be very hard for the navy ship captain.  Major Tang Yang Yong, in his 30s, turned up at all three wakes in Telok Blangah, Bedok North and Clementi and was present at the funerals. He led his RSS Courageous crew to step forward to pay the last respect to their colleagues.

10 years after the tragedy, we could look back to the RSS Courageous case without much baggage now although my heart still fell for the 4 naval specialists who died during this incident at their golden era. They could have, just like other young women, settled down on land. They could go shopping during weekends and raised their respective happy families.

To quote Dr Tony Tan during the parliamentary meeting on 20 Jan 2003: There were a number of violations in the two weeks before the incident, and there have been several since then. ” Dr Tony Tan was implying that Malaysia had scaled up their naval activities at the Singapore territory water near Pedra Branca. This drove the RSN to step up their patrols and met the eventual accident. This tragedy was avoidable if Malaysia respected the sovereignty history of Pedra Branca.

Pedra Branca lies 25 nautical mile (46km) east of Singapore, and 7.7 nautical mile (14km) south of Johor. Pedra Branca is just a small island of about the size of a football field. It appeared on Admiral Zheng He’s sea chart as 白礁 in 15th century.

(Pedra Branca appeared on Admiral Zheng He’s sea chart as 白礁. 15th century )

Since 1979, both Singapore and Malaysia had a territorial dispute over this small islet as it is strategically situated at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait overseeing about 50,000 passing by ships every year. From economic point of view, whoever owns the islet could possibly claim larger territorial sea waters termed as Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the law of the sea. This might be seen by the Malaysian government who owns Tanjong Pelapas as a means to limit the economic development of Singapore. From military perspective, whoever control this islet control the access to the west.

Probably the most drastic event between the two countries happened in 1989. The then Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad made an unannounced visit to the vicinity of the island. His boat was intercepted by Singapore naval vessels. Eventually, Mahathir directed his boat to leave in order to avoid an international incident.

The 30 year dispute was largely resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2008. The ICJ hearing was held over three weeks in November 2007 under the name Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia v. Singapore)

(Pedra Branca and its infrastructures. Phtograph credit: Singapore Memorial)

For the hearing, Singapore argued that Pedra Branca was Terra Nullius, and that there was no evidence the island had ever been under the sovereignty of the Johor Sultanate. In addition, Singapore contended that sovereignty over the island had passed to Singapore due to the consistent exercise of authority over the island by Singapore and its predecessor, the United Kingdom. The actions taken included selecting Pedra Branca as the site for Horsburgh Lighthouse and constructing the lighthouse, requiring Malaysian officials wishing to visit the island to obtain permits, installing a military rebroadcast station on the island, and studying the feasibility of reclaiming land around the island. In addition, it had confirmed in a 1953 letter that Johor did not claim ownership of the island, and had published official reports and maps indicating that it regarded Pedra Branca as Singapore territory.

(1925 Malaya map showing Pedra Branca)

If we really dwell on the past history, the legacy could probably traced back to year 1824’s Anglo-Malay Treaty where Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman sold Singapore and its surrounding islands to the British to generate personal wealth. Between 1824 and 1851, at least 16 sizeable vessels were wrecked in the vicinity of Pedra Branca and Point Romania (on the Johor coast). John Thomson and Captain S. Congalton, commander of the East India Company's steamer, carried out surveys and in a report dated 25 August 1846, they said Pedra Branca was the only proper position for a Light to be placed for the safety of Shipping whether entering or departing for the Straits of Singapore. On 15 October 1851, Horsburgh lighthouse was permanently turned on.


(Horsburgh Lighthouse sketched by John Thomson, 1851)

On 23 May 2008, the Court ruled that Pedra Branca is under Singapore's sovereignty. With this final verdict, may the four women rest in peace.

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