Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Monday called on the international community to set up a fund to fight piracy and help clean up oil spills in the Straits of Malacca.

These straits are among the busiest in the world. Because of the region's geography most ships sailing between Europe and the Far East must pass through this narrow channel. Singapore, where most vessels call to refuel or load, has over 50,000 ship calls annually.Piracy has been on the rise recently in Southeast Asia.

"The pirates are not after the cargo but the cash and valuables belonging to the crew," the prime minister said. "In the dark of the night they clamber onto the ship and tie up the crew while they pillage and rob."

Mr. Mahathir went on to say that crews are often left tied up after the pirates leave, resulting in vessels sailing off unguided.

"It may deviate from its course and it may collide with another vessel or run aground, causing all kinds of damage," he said.

The Malaysian leader criticized the United States for opposing his call for establishing an East Asia Economic Caucus, as he and other heads of state from Southeast Asia met in Singapore to sign a regional free-trade pact (Story, Page 5A).

Mr. Mahathir also cited the dangers of pollution in these busy waters and said the international community should ante up.

"If the world is fond of claiming rights then the world must also accept responsibility," the head of states said in a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Monday.

Asean is comprised of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei.

"It is time that the international community appreciate the problems and the dangers faced by littoral states," he said.

Prime Minister Mahathir said pollution and dangerous cargo spills were of little concern when ships passing through the straits were smaller, less frequent and laden with little dangerous cargo.

But now with their enormous size, greater frequency and volatile cargoes like oil and chemicals, the situation has changed.

The Malaysian head of state, known for his often fiery criticism of the industrialized world, did not specify who should sponsor such a fund.

In comments to reporters after the speech, Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's trade minister, said the proposed fund could be similar in concept to the international pooling of funds when forest fires break out.

Ms. Rafidah also was asked whether Malaysia wanted to try and route its cargo through its own ports. The country is currently heavily reliant on neighboring Singapore.

Government officials have called on exporters to use the country's own cargo insurance companies, port authorities and cargo service firms whenever possible, leading some to wonder whether the country would institutionalize some form of transport nationalism.

But Ms. Rafidah said Malaysia's trade volumes are expanding rapidly, which will provide enough for both countries to handle more.

"We recognize for a very long time a substantial portion of our trade will be through Singapore," she said. "But as it grows, we want a portion of that through our ports."

In a related issue, Ms. Rafidah was looking to markets other than the United States, but this was not due to any perceived weakness in North America.

"Malaysia has always believed in the diversification of its export base, its export markets," she said. "Now we're identifying new market niches, even in our traditional markets. In the United States, for instance, there are so many states that we haven't sold to. We're also looking to the newly emerging markets like China and Indochina."