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Anchored in Singapore History : The Story of the Marine Industry


Anchored in Singapore History - Book Cover

Voice for the Industry
Made in Singapore
Positioning the Keel Blocks
A Remarkable Story of Growth
No. 1 Centre in Shiprepair
A Future in Industrial Engineering
Lending Support
A Marine Powerhouse
Confronting the Issues




Indigenous. No mere transplant. The only truly homegrown industry. Variations of this theme have been used to describe the marine industry. At ASMI's 21st anniversary, the Minister of Labour Lee Yock Suan noted: "To a large extent the marine industry is a local industry, with participation from some foreign partners, mainly from Japan and the US. Singaporeans are involved in all aspects of management and control, and constitute the core of the workforce, especially in skilled trades."

In many ways the development of the marine industry chronicles that of Singapore, from an orang laut village of a thousand residents to a key node for finance, transportation, communication and trade. The earliest record of boat-building goes back to 1823, when Hallpike's Boatyard was set up in Boat quay just four years after modern Singapore was founded. From that humble beginning it has prospered even as Singapore has prospered, and is now a renowned international centre for marine services and fabrication.

The Third Leg

Trade and shipping were the twin pillars on which Singapore's early fortune rested. An entrepot port with no port dues, Singapore became a bustling centre just months after Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post in February 1819. Square-rigged vessels from Europe, India and America, junks from China, wangkang and tope from Indo-China, golekkan and leteh-leteh from the Indies, converged on Singapore River, the focal point for trade.

Singapore's convenient location, comparative orderliness and her free trade policy were responsible for her early success. She soon replaced Riau as the headquarters for the South Sumatra and Bugis trade, and overshadowed Penang as the regional centre for commerce. The growth of trade and shipping soon sprang third leg, shipbuilding and shiprepair. Boatyards began to sprout up around chief mooring areas - at the Singapore River near Ellenborough Market, at the confluence of the Rochor and Kallang rivers, and the mouth of the Kallang River on the leeward side of the Tanjong Rhu sandpit.

By the mid-50s, congestion around the Singapore River had become so bad that shipping lines were forced to shift to Tanjong Pagar. It was here in these sheltered, deep waters that the first gravity dock was built to service the increase in steamship calls.

Dock No. 1

Captain William Cloughton spotted Singapore's potential while sailing between India and China in opium brigs belonging to Apcar & Co. As there was no intermediary docking facility, the captain came ashore and in 1859, completed Dock No. 1 in Pantai Chermin. Four more graving docks were commissioned by the end of the 19th century. Early doubts over the viability of a shiprepair operation in Singapore gave way to optimism, thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The Suez sliced the journey between east and west by 6,436 km, accelerated the switch from sailing ships to steamships and reinforced the economic importance of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Its inauguration injected life into the sluggish trade, which peaked in 1864 after years of steady growth.

Building on a Solid Base

The leaders of independent Singapore built on this foundation after the country attained self-rule in 1959. With a young population growing at 4 per cent per annum, and high unemployment and under-employment, they had to consider alternative job avenues. Some 214,000 new jobs had to be created between 1961 and 1970 if the country were to attain full employment and quell the restive population.

The entrepot trade traditionally associated with Singapore's prosperity offered limited possibilities of expansion. Shiprepair and building yards held definite attractions with their capacity to absorb thousands of workers. By then, Singapore had lagged behind Hong Kong in maritime development. The headstart which Captain Cloughton provided was lost as a result of years of under-investment in new facilities. No effort was made to capitalise on its strategic location at the southern entrance of the Straits of Malacca.

Following the recommendation of a United Nations Industrial Survey Mission, however, the government mounted a systematic effort to encourage marine enterprises. Swamps were filled in and roads, water, sewage and electrical systems laid down to provide the necessary infrastructure for industry. Incentives were drawn up to court new enterprises and encourage existing entrepreneurs. And state-owned shipyards were put on a more competitive footing.

To further its commitment, the government through its investment arm, Temasek Holdings, and its bank, Development Bank of Singapore, took equity stake in key enterprises. The returns have been phenomenal. From a stagnant $40 million in gross turnover in the early 1960s, the marine industry surged past the $100-million mark in 1968, $1 billion in 1978, $2 billion in 1980 and $3 billion in 1991, making it one of Singapore's top manufacturers. Given its narrow shipowning base, foreign earnings account for over 90 per cent of the marine industry's revenue.

The industry is a sizeable employer. From 9,400 in 1960, it had well over 20,000 on its payroll by the mid-70s, making its largest employer in the private sector. That early success helped break the back of Singapore's unemployment problem.

Premier League

Today, on this 640-sq km island are over 3,000 companies covering all facades of the maritime industry. On her narrow shores are over 40 shipyards in shiprepair, shipbuilding, offshore and industrial fabrication. Their presence has encouraged the establishment of classification societies, specialist engineering workshops, equipment stockists and manufacturers.

Singapore's premier position today is due in no small measure to the port and refineries, which the government developed in tandem with the marine industry. Being a key terminalling port for general cargo and oil, it is convenient for ships to berth for repairs.

The country has had a long and profitable association with the oil industry going back to 1892, when Marcus Samuel and Company used Pulau Bukom as a storage centre for packed kerosene. Pulau Bukom became the central depot of the east, supplying the syndicate's other installations. Shell, as the company became known, extended into refining in 1961 with a $30-million investment in 20,000-bpd refinery. That act of faith by Shell, undeterred by the political uncertainties, led the way for others.

Following multi-million dollar investments by Exxon, BP, Mobil, Caltex and Singapore Petroleum Company, Singapore was by 1975, the third refining centre with a capacity of over one million bpd. This position she still retains today. Singapore has since extended into terminalling, with an independent storage capacity of 2.1 million cu metres and international oil trading. Daily, over 20 tankers berth to load and discharge both crude oil and products.

Singapore's port is the busiest in the world, thanks to her position in the heart of a most dynamic region. Annually, over 80,000 ships aggregating 580 million grt, call to take supplies and bunkers, or dock for repairs and handle cargo. The expansion in port and oil activities over the last 30 years has opened up fresh fields for the marine industry. From a narrow base in the repair of cargo ships and small-scale shipbuilding, Singapore is now an international superstore for marine and offshore services.

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