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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



Manpower and mechanisation are the prime concerns now facing the marine industry. The issues are familiar as the two "Ms", and the inter-related problems of training, foreign worker employment and safety, have occupied the minds of the marine fraternity with varying degrees of intensity for the last two decades.

But these were often sidelined in the past as shipyards attended to more pressing commercial matters. With a healthy forecast, however, industry members are now facing up to these challenges. Individually, shipyards have begun to tackle the problem by introducing more mechanised methods where possible. But in the new spirit of cooperation, Singapore shipyards are also working through ASMI to seek solutions to common problems.

No one is pretending it is going to be easy to tackle the two "Ms" but the government has declared its willingness to assist. At ASMI 's silver jubilee celebration, the Minister Without Portfolio, Mr Lim Boon Heng said: "If ASMI can come up with creative solutions, the government will be only too pleased to help implement them."

It began in the 70s

The manpower problem surfaced in the mid-70s when the industry encountered its first setback after the 1973 oil shock. A seminar "Survival through Higher Productivity" was organised by SASAR to focus the minds on manpower efficiency. Given the difficulty in supervision in an open environment, then SASAR President Chua Chor Teck said: "The solution must lie in the worker himself. He has to develop sufficient self-discipline and acquire a high sense of duty in order to attain higher levels of output.”

SASAR’s effort was complemented by campaigns in member yards to convey the need for improved efficiency in the face of an uncertain future. But as the 1980s rolled in, it was not only a question of improving the quality, but also increasing the quantity. There were more vacancies than men willing to fill them. The industry was prospering, so was Singapore, with the over overwhelming success of her industralisation programme. Foreign workers has to be brought in, first from Malaysia then from India, Bangladesh and Thailand, to make up for the shortfall. From the outset, the government made it clear foreign workers were only to serve as a stop-gap measure.

A Task Force on Mechanisation was initiated by the Economic Development Board (EDB) and SASAR to reduce the industry's dependence on foreign workers. Then SASAR President Lai Park On noted: "The era of solving the problem by numbers is over." The report recommended that there should be fewer, but larger shipyards through closures and mergers, more mechanisation, better work procedures to enhance productivity and increased research and development. It added that more effort must be made to attract Singaporeans to work in shipyards. The intention was to reduce the labour force, then totalling 30,000.

With the onslaught of recession, however, plans at improvement were derailed as key players were pre-occupied with fire-fighting. Some of the problems, too, took care of themselves. But when the industry recovered, the problems came back with a vengeance. Retrenched workers were not prepared to rejoin the industry after being laid-off. And fewer Singaporeans were prepared to consider a career in an industry, which was written off as a "sunset industry". Enrolment at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Shipbuilding and Offshore Engineering Department fell to 21 in 1986, putting its future in doubt. The closure was staved off only after ASMI responded to the department's request for sponsorships.

Even more foreign workers had to be hired to fill the yawning gap. It was this easy access to workers which had contributed to the industry's success. The Ministry of Labour was troubled by the growing numbers, some hired without proper papers. This culminated in a raid in 1989 for illegal foreign workers in shipyards and construction sites, the two sectors allowed to recruit non-Malaysian workers.

Difficult though it sometimes appears to be, ASMI member yards and the Labour Ministry have continued to meet to discuss, deliberate and disagree. With a certain amount of give-and-take, the divisions between the two are not as sharp. "I am aware that the industry cannot operate without a sizeable number of foreign workers, " then Minister of Labour Lee Yock Suan told ASMI members at its 21st anniversary that year." However the industry should not merely expand by adding more and more unskilled foreign labour. "Instead, it should compete harder for suitable young Singaporeans by offering them rewarding careers with a high level of training and job satisfaction. This has to do with future prospects of the industry, its public image and safety record."

Mindful of the government concerns about migrant workers, the industry has buckled down to resolve the problems of manpower and mechanisation. But ASMI also pleaded for understanding. In a letter to the ED in December 1989, ASMI President Choo Chiau Beng wrote: "Foreign workers provide a buffer against the ups and downs of a cyclical industry. The recession that hit the marine industry only four years back has compelled shipyards to reorganise its structure and seriously relook its manpower policies. The less efficient yards have closed since, but the lessons of mass retrenchment have not been forgotten. Viewed from this perspective, shipyards need to exercise a flexible wage and recruitment policy."

Attracting Local Talent

Annual career talks have been organised with Ngee Ann Polytechnic since 1990 to generate an interest among the young. They seek to impress on students that the marine industry offers a wide scope, not just the rough end. Said ASMI Vice-President, Mr Wong Peng Kin: "The younger Singaporeans are shying away from the industry because of misconception. Recently, the image of the industry has improved. We have to project our image that the marine industry is high-tech and there are skills to be learned."

At the inaugural talk in February 1990, Managing Director of Sembawang Shipyard, Mr Tan Mong Seng, told the 200 secondary students who turned up: "We need planners, we need designers, engineers, people who are good in marketing and negotiating contracts. For that you don't need to be full of brawn," To this, Mr Choo added: "It (the marine industry) is a growing industry, it is a challenging industry and we work with a product we can identify with. Every ship has a name. This gives us a lot of satisfaction. It is not a small part where you don't know where it goes."

The need draw to sufficient numbers of talented young into the industry and to train them has never been important. "To ensure out future, ..the industry must step up its efforts to attract new entrants with good minds to lead and take us through the 21st century,” said current ASMI Vice President, Mr Tong Chong Heong at the association's 25th anniversary celebration.

The government has stopped awarding scholarships for marine studies since the 1970s. These scholarships were instrumental in helping Singapore built a core of keen and capable leaders for the industry. ASMI members have stepped into the fore by offering scholarships to promising students to pursue tertiary education in marine engineering and naval architecture, at home and abroad.

The skills' level of the existing staff are also being upgraded. On ASMI's suggestion, Ngee Ann Polytechnic in July 1993, introduced a two-year, part-time certificate course for mature employees who cannot qualify academically for the diploma course, but have sound practical experience. Said Mr Wong, who is also the Labour Committee Chairman: "There are those who are interested to upgrade. They should be given the opportunity to. This could be our future generation of foremen."

Preventing Accidents

As the industry's ability to recruit new entrants could be adversely affected by accidents, ASMI members are taking renewed interest in addressing the industry's accident record., A seminar cum workshop, "Accident Prevention in Shipyards", was organised on Oct 6, 1993, to review existing systems.

No stones were left unturned in the deliberations. As a result, a string of recommendations was made which sought to enhance the existing Vessel Safety Co-ordination Committee and Permit-to-Work System, enforced after an accident in 1977; introduce safety auditing systems; rein in the contract workers and improve safety training in shipyards.

A task force on safety headed by Mr T P Ng, General Manager (Production) of Sembawang Shipyard, was set up to consider the plethora of recommendations which invariably follows a major accident. The committee's tasks were to draw broad guidelines on the implementation of a safety management system, standardise safety systems, procedures, signs and colour codes, and prepare a selection criteria for contractors.

The present attention on safety is not a flash in the pan as member yards realise the untold damage accidents can cause. As the Minister Without Portfolio, Mr Lim Boon Heng observed: "The unfortunate reality is that a single accident in one shipyard affects the entire industry. The negative image is hurting the industry at all levels…At the worker level, the industry has difficulty in recruiting fresh school leavers. At the management level, the present ASMI or company sponsored scholarships are not tapping their fair share of the best brains in Singapore."

Enlarging Singapore’s Manpower Pool

The Labour Ministry has made its position on foreign workers clear: the long-term solution cannot be found in heavy borrowing of guest workers. But the ministry offered an alternative - it is prepared to extend the work permits of qualified foreign workers. That opener was too good an opportunity to miss. ASMI's Labour Committee promptly began work with the Institute of Technical Education to introduce a Public Trade Test for 20 approved trades in June 1991. Foreign workers who pass the practical tests qualify as skilled workers. Their employers benefit from having to pay a lower foreign worker's levy of $250, in place of $350 for an unskilled worker, besides having a good chance of having the work permits extended for another term or two.

With the benefit of training, the better-skilled workers could earn certificates and graduate to become supervisors. That may entitle them the right to live and work in Singapore.

Working Smarter

The difficulties of employing locals and the problems associated with getting foreigners have intensified the search for better ways of working. Improved mechanisation had been identified back in 1982 by the Task Force on Shipyard Mechanisation, but as the economic climate was unfavourable, the idea was shelved.

To kick off the second attempt a study mission was made to Japan jointly with the Economic Development Board to learn about the latest technological developments. ASMI members felt the dearth of detailed information on technical advancement was inhibiting the industry's efforts at automation. Following the mission, five projects have been identified. To be completed over the three-year period, these are computer-aided logistics management system, improvement of ventilation in confined spaces, automation of the welding process, design automation for marine/offshore installation of structures, design and analysis of multi-planar tubular joints.

For each of these projects, the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research is working with a specific company and researchers from key institutes to develop the technology. The selected shipyards, four of which are ASMI members, are contributing their manpower and resources, and offering their facilities as test sites. More energy and funds have to be mobilised in the search for alternative solutions if shipyards are to break the cycle of merely adding more workers to cope with more work.

Said Mr Tan: "There is a lot of innovation, a lot of jobs where the labour hours can be reduced. Being a premier marine centre, Singapore can no longer depend on Europe and Japan for solutions to improving her yards efficiency, as she did in the 1970s and 1980s. When you are number one in the world you should take the lead."

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