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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



The advent of steamships provided the catalyst for Singapore's early entry into shiprepair. Unlike sailing ships which could be beached and hauled over for scouring or urgent repairs, the early steamers with their paddle boxes and paddlewheel shafts could not be treated in such as undignified manner.

Almost 30 years after the first steamships, the SS Vander Capellan, sailed into the New Harbour, Captain William Cloughton put the finishing touch to Singapore's first graving dock. Suitably named Dock No 1, it gave Singapore a headstart in shiprepair. There were then no comparable facilities between India and China. Singapore went on to widen her lead in 1913 by launching the King's Dock, the largest east of Suez.

After the heady days however, investment slowed. Except for the HM Naval Dockyard in Sembawang, no major investment was made. Soon, Singapore slipped behind. Major shipowners would dock their ships in Hong Kong or India, but rarely in Singapore. However, with independence, the marine industry regained its former vigour. Through government sponsorship and private entrepreneurship, both local and foreign, it soon achieved world-class status in shiprepair, rig and ship construction.

Try as it may, Singapore would not have achieved so much in so short a time without the strong foundation so painstakingly laid in the first 138 years.

The Pioneers

The first known proposal for a repair dock was submitted by Dr William Montgomerie. In 1834, the resident surgeon suggested damming the Selat Sengkit, the straits between Pulau Blakang Mati and Pulau Brani, to form a wet dock. Though officially sanctioned, the idea was abandoned after it dawned on Dr Montgomerie that the task was lofty and not particularly lucrative.

More proposals followed, but it was only in 1854 before the first concrete attempt was made. Captain Cloughton recognised a drydock was needed while going back and forth between India and China. He came ashore, and against the advice of local residents began working on low-lying, marshy ground at Pantai Chermin. This pioneering attempt failed. For years after, it was referred to endearingly as Cloughton's mud-hole.

Undaunted, the strong-willed captain made a fresh excavation further east, and here a 122-metre dock was completed in 1859. With constant maintenance and upgrading, Dock No 1 remains in service today. Patent Slip and Dock was formed on Dec 24, 1861 to assume control.

But before Patent Slip could get off the ground, two competitors appeared. Displeased, Captain Cloughton protested in a letter to the Singapore Free Press that there was insufficient work to fill one dock, much less three. In its first years, the Patent Slip repaired on average 30 ships a year, of which six were bought to keep the dock employed. The information failed to impress potential rivals. Encouraged by news that the Suez Canal was taking shape, the promoters of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company (TPDC) registered the company on Sep 29, 1864.

In 1868, the Victoria Dock was launched to the sounds of trumpet and competition. Patent Slip slashed it prices forcing TPDC to do likewise, and the Victoria Dock performed much as Captain Cloughton had predicted. In such lean times it was TPDC's wharf which kept it going. The wharf also gave TPDC the upper hand, and enabled it to force Patent Slip to the negotiating table. In 1870, the arch-rivals forged a pact to standardise charges. The informal arrangement was replaced by a joint purse accord in June 1881. Both companies received a fixed percentage on profits generated from shiprepairs, with differences settled by arbitration.

The opening of the Suez, which coincided with Singapore's 50th anniversary, helped enhance relationships. It lifted shipping and trade, and with it the profitability of Singapore yards. But the Suez failed to benefit the Bon Accord Dock built on Pulau Brani in August 1866. It was leased to TPDC and Patent Slip which operated it for 10 years. Eventually, it was bought out by TPDC, which had no bigger plans than to de-commission the shipyard. TPDC steadily swallowed up almost all its rivals. At the close of the 19th century, the entire life of the port and the prosperity of Singapore, came to depend on the management of a single company.

Things Fall Apart

Monopoly sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Singapore was by 1904 the seventh busiest port. Her facilities, however, fell far short of this important standing. Built in sections at different times, the quay had an irregular face line, the wooden wharves were worm-eaten and dangerous. In shiprepair, the four graving docks and a single slipway at Tanjong Rhu could service only small ships. Even its largest, the 146-metre Albert Dock, had a draught of only 6.4 metres. By then the maximum draught of the Suez Canal, which fixed the draught limits of ships from Europe, was 8.45 metres.

The managers in Singapore recognised large-scale modernisation was needed and formulated a $12-million plan. But major shareholders in the London Consulting Committee, who were more interested in their annual 12 per cent dividends, refused to entertain any attempt at modernisation unless it was accompanied by plans to raise the necessary funds. The Straits government was approached for loans, and this brought matters to a head.

In view of Singapore's critical role in East Asian trade and her strategic importance to British interest, the Legislative Council on April 7, 1905, passed the ordinance to expropriate TPDC.

Government Rules

The Tanjong Pagar Dock Board was formed by the colonial office in July 1905 to take over the activities of TPDC. Given the hefty re-development costs, it decided to retain the powers of monopoly, forbidding private companies to repair ships at Tanjong Pagar or Keppel Harbour.

Unlike its predecessor, however, the board did not lapse in its duty. By July 1 1913, when it became a corporate statutory body, the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB), new roads and godowns had been built, and the recently reclaimed Telok Ayer Basin developed. Work had also started on a 260-metre dock. Completed later that year, the King's Dock was the largest east of Suez and the second largest graving dock in the world.

For the next 50 years, the SHB had near monopoly for large-scale commercial shiprepair in Singapore. With its sizeable facilities, including the Queen's Dock built in 1956, it overshadowed the smaller shipyards in Tanjong Rhu and Kallang, and the engineering workshops around Lavender Street. Only on the odd occasion when a specialist hand was need, were private contractors permitted to work on ships under the SHB's jurisdiction. But only after paid a considerable ''admittance" fee.

This commanding position led the SHB into the same trap as its predecessor. Capital investment was low, and so was productivity, which was worsened by a trade dispute in 1957. At times repairs took twice as long as Hong Kong. Being time-sensitive, shipowners would dock their ships in SHB only in emergencies or, when it was not cost-effective to re-route their ships. Such situation was obviously untenable, prompting the government of independent Singapore to step in.

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