S'pore still competitive as maritime hub: NOL CEO

Neptune Orient Lines CEO Ng Yat Chung.
Neptune Orient Lines CEO Ng Yat Chung. PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The truth is that Singapore outgrew Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) a long time ago, said NOL chief executive Ng Yat Chung.

"It might have been useful in the early days," he noted, pointing to the national flag carrier's initial role of promoting and cementing Singapore's status as a global hub.

Mr Ng was speaking to reporters on Monday even as French shipping giant CMA CGM forged ahead with its $3.4 billion bid to take over the Singapore line.

"But Singapore has become such a success now. Nearly all major carriers from around the world have a substantial presence here," he told The Straits Times.

  • NAVIGATING THROUGH THE YEARS

  • DEC 30, 1968: NOL is founded as Singapore's national shipping line with a fleet of five vessels.

    AUG 22, 1969: NOL's first ship sets sail.

    NOVEMBER 1969: The Government transfers ownership of NOL to Temasek Holdings.

    1981: NOL is listed on then Singapore Stock Exchange (now the Singapore Exchange), raising $155 million.

    1997: Acquires nearly 150-year-old American President Lines - now known as APL - for almost US$825 million.

    JULY 2008: Launches US$7 billion bid to acquire Hapag-Lloyd, but pulls out a few months later.

    LATE 2000s: In 2009, NOL posts its worst quarterly loss in seven years, bleeding US$245 million in the first quarter of the year. The firm was profitable in 2010, but has been in the red since 2011.

    FEBRUARY 2015: Sells APL Logistics to Kintetsu World Express for US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion).

    DEC 7, 2015: France's CMA CGM announces a buyout offer for NOL at $1.30 a share.

    JUNE 6, 2016: The proposed acquisition clears all regulatory hurdles. CMA CGM launches all-cash voluntary conditional general offer to buy the outstanding NOL shares. The offer closes on July 4.

NOL was founded by the Government in December 1968 to pave the way for industrial development by carrying some of the nation's trade at fair freight rates, while maintaining its own ships to carry cargo in times of crisis.

Said Mr Ng: "People ask if NOL helps to bring volume to Singapore - but we don't decide where to bring volume, our customers do that. They choose to use Singapore as a major trans-shipment hub, and that is only because Singapore is competitive.

"Singapore's status as a maritime hub has outgrown NOL for some time. It is not dependent on NOL. It is attractive to the offshore sector, the LNG (liquefied natural gas) sector, there are other sectors that have come up."

Mr Ng said he remains "bullish" on Singapore's future as a maritime hub. He acknowledged that as the industry down-cycle stretches out, the intensifying competition has led some shipping firms to seek locations with lower costs.

"But some shipping companies have also come here," he noted, citing CMA CGM. "This is a constant game. Competition is on, it never stops. You gain some and lose some, that is how it is."

Still, he said that Singapore's competitive position depends on the quality of infrastructure, the transparency of laws and regulations, and good policies that promote the maritime industry - all of which are "pluses" and unlikely to change.

Both the Maritime Port Authority of Singapore and port operator PSA have announced measures to strengthen Singapore's position as the world's largest trans-shipment hub, including an additional 10 per cent concession on port dues.

Plans for a new mega port in Tuas, which will house all container operations from the next decade, will allow Singapore to handle up to 65 million standard containers a year, up from 40 million units today.

"Of course, the high cost of doing business here is an issue, but I think if we can continue to improve our productivity, we will be able to offset some of that," added Mr Ng.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore still competitive as maritime hub: NOL CEO'. Print Edition | Subscribe