Captain's duty is to 'ensure safety of life'
A ship captain who abandons his sinking vessel without ensuring the safety of the passengers onboard is committing a crime, according to Singapore law.
Anyone found guilty of the offence under the Merchant Shipping Act can be fined and even jailed.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told The New Paper that in an emergency at sea, the ship's master has a "statutory duty to ensure orderly evacuation and an equitable distribution of the passengers and crew on the lifeboats and other life-saving appliances".
Its spokesman said it was a "serious dereliction of his statutory duty" if the master abandons the ship without due regard for passengers' safety.
The role of a ship's captain has come into scrutiny after the recent Korean Sewol ferry tragedy, where the captain was among the first to get off the sinking vessel.
Most countries do not explicitly state that a captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, experts told The New York Times, giving captains the leeway to board lifeboats or nearby ships if they can better command an evacuation from there.
Dr Sam Bateman, an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told TNP that there's nothing to stop a captain saving his or her own life once there's nothing further to be done to save other lives.
But he added: "The captain's duty is to ensure the safety of the life of the passengers and the crew.
"If the captain has, by negligence, caused the loss of life, he could face manslaughter charges."
Mr Teh Kong Leong, who was the Director of Marine under the Ministry of Communications at the time of the Royal Pacific Ferry sinking in 1992, said international regulations concerning passenger ships have been strengthened over the years.
"It's mainly as a result of other incidents and accidents," said Mr Teh, who is now a lecturer at NTU's Maritime Studies.
He said in such emergency situations, passengers should listen to the instructions of the crew.
He said: "If you are faced with a situation where you think your life is in danger, then you will very likely want to do something to save yourself.
"However, taking things into your own hands can result in chaos and panic, which will make matters worse."
Although a life jacket would help if passengers get into the water, Mr Teh said getting onto a life raft of a lifeboat would increase a person's chances of survival.
Should there be an order to evacuate, Mr Teh said passengers should go to their emergency stations and wait for further instructions.
But he added: "In general, staying outside would be better than in your cabins, unless the conditions outside are very bad and dangerous. For example, strong winds and heavy seas."