Malaysian seafarers then and now


DUE to the country’s strategic location at the crossroads of Asian trade routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime commerce is crucial to Malaysia’s economic development. The government (makes) sea transportation a priority, so that national strategic goals and maritime geopolitical values can be met.

Significantly increased freight volumes must be managed securely and efficiently between origin and destination, necessitating the hiring of skilled seafarers. With merchant ships carrying 85% to 90% of global trade and the maritime sector operating at breakneck speed, it’s difficult to imagine life as we know it without the participation of seafarers.

Under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the 25th of June is honoured annually as the International Day of the Seafarer. The International Day of the Seafarer is a wonderful opportunity to promote awareness of the critical role that seafarers play and educate public about the importance of seafarers, who keep the world’s commodities moving behind the scenes.

Since the inaugural commemoration on June 25, 2011, the IMO and seafarers have gone a long way in publicising the contribution seafarers make to the globe and global trade, which sometimes comes at a high cost to themselves and their families.

The celebration was deemed a success by many seafarers throughout the world for removing the veil of secrecy and highlighting the unsung heroes of seafarers. Every seafarer’s voyage is unique, yet they all confront comparable obstacles, and mental health management is one of the most serious concerns. Unlike most other jobs, sailing requires individuals to leave home and spend extended amounts of time working at sea, away from regular life.

Past and Present

The four basic pillars of international maritime law, ie Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the Convention for Prevention of Marine Pollution (MARPOL), the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW), and the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), are now universally recognised and practised, representing a substantial improvement over the past 10 to 20 years.

STCW is a comprehensive set of international regulations intended to ensure that the highest standards of seafarer competence are maintained globally. STCW sets a new standard for competency, shipboard leadership, security training, refresher training, medical and mandatory rest hours, including the master’s onboard harmonised with the MLC.

The competence of seafarers is the most critical factor in the safe and efficient operation of ships and has a direct impact on the safety of life at sea and the protection of the marine environment. Seafarers are among the most fundamental components; without them, the flow of goods and international trade would halt, rendering them indispensable.

Previously, while technology revolutionised vessel navigational safety, having technology such as electronic charts instead of paper charts was considered a luxury. As an alternative to paper nautical charts, an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).

ECDIS is an IMO-compliant geographic information system used for nautical navigation. ECDIS is a complicated, safety-critical software-based system with several display and integration options.

ECDIS is now regarded as a standard for some types of ships, considerably improving navigation safety and reducing navigation officer effort for manual chart correction. Also, using artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things, people are trying to make autonomous ships a reality.

Traditionally, after the ship departs port, seafarers are cut off from the outside world. Today, the vessel relies on information and communication technology to convey commodities throughout the world in a dependable and secure manner.

With data transfer feasible onboard and ashore regardless of the ship’s position, crews are now able to remain in contact with their families and friends. Internet access should be considered a basic human right, since it allows seafarers to communicate with loved ones back home while they are at sea. In fact, internet access on board is proven to boost the mental health and general welfare of seafarers.

Due to a lack of attention and assistance, many seafarers have switched careers. If this trend continues, there will be a major shortage of qualified seafarers in Malaysia (Pic source: Ministry of Transport)

Obstacles and Challenges

As the guardian of the busy Malacca Strait, which more than 90,000 ships pass through every year, Malaysia took action on important issues during the pandemic.

Many of the seafarers had been engaged in an already complicated period. Their lives were made more difficult by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the importance of seafarers is undervalued, resulting in a lack of support. The pandemic has shown seafarers’ fragility and interdependence.

The Covid-19 outbreak highlights the predicament of seafarers and without a doubt, the mass of local seafarers is in difficulty and yet struggling much more post-pandemic. Many limitations remain in force, making it difficult for seafarers.

Seafarers are no longer able to enjoy their leave, the prolonged quarantine time, which is typically unpaid when signing on and off, and the stringent procedures of embarking or disembarking the ship after the outbreak.

Another pressing issue is why Sabah and Sarawak are refusing Malaysian Peninsular seafarers and why are authorities delaying work permit applications? Peninsular Malaysian seafarers have to compete with foreigners for jobs because of the new restrictions on work permits, but they don’t seem to have any rights.

In fact, Peninsular Malaysian sailors must wait around two to three months to acquire a work visa in Sabah and Sarawak, which formerly took approximately one to two weeks, while applying for a work visa in another country is faster.

Seafarers never criticise their fellow seafarers based on their age, gender, state, or other factors; instead, they view themselves as a tiny family aboard and work amicably throughout the contract. However, with the current issue and sentiment portrayed for Malaysian seafarers to work in Sabah and Sarawak, a rift is widening that may threaten unity.

The wage issue, which does not correspond to the growth in living costs, and at times, seafarers have been denied a bank loan to secure an asset such as a house. This indicate that the declining allure of a career at sea is expected to result in the greatest shortage of skilled seafarers, and this situation is projected to endure in the coming years.

A Way Forward

The Malaysian government, marine authorities and maritime stakeholders should take action and draw lessons from the hurdles encountered by seafarers up to today, such as abandonment, repatriation, unpaid salaries and quarantine.

Governments should designate seafarers as crucial workers in order to facilitate post-pandemic migration. Malaysia, which has one of the largest international ports in the world, should treat seafarers as key employees. This would help the port and logistics sector stay competitive after the outbreak.

Seafarers do one of the most challenging occupations and nobody knows what they go through at sea. Thus, Malaysian seafarers have high hopes of being treated as key workers in terms of industry and government support.

Malaysian seafarers prudently desired that their voyage improve over time. There were also a few suggestions from the seafarers’ community, such as eliminating the tax for seafarers who are aboard a ship for longer than two months. Malaysia has a territorial tax system, which means that income from work done in Malaysia and other areas under its control is taxed there, and exemptions or relief from taxation can be sought.

Next, to abolish Malaysian seafarers’ work permits issued by Sarawak and Sabah, reduce the influx of foreign seafarers, the remuneration of Malaysian seafarers would be reviewed to be comparable to that of seafarers from other countries, such as Brunei and Singapore, and the flexibility of bank lending arrangements are all significant considerations.

The success of Malaysia’s maritime activities is totally dependent on the talents, contributions and sacrifices of seafarers. Due to a lack of attention and assistance, many seafarers have switched careers. 

If this trend continues, there will be a major shortage of qualified seafarers in Malaysia. This is important because the maritime industry is important to the growth of the country and is the economic and commercial backbone of the country.

Today (June 25) is the day for all maritime Malaysians. It is time to express to all of you how much you mean to us and the entire globe. Your dedication and hard work have enabled international trade and the throughput of the global economy to be nourished and run perpetually. We cannot thank you enough for your immense contribution!

Dr Izyan Munirah Mohd Zaideen is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Maritime Studies, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, while Captain Mohd Faizal Ramli is an offshore oil and gas marine specialist, seafarer and alumni of the Malaysian Maritime Academy.