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Engage public on Singapore's maritime future

The pieces are finally starting to fall into place - making the Singapore port part of the community experience.

It is a dream I have long harboured. Every time I go for a vacation cruise, a major highlight comes when the ship leaves, or enters, Singapore waters. It passes by a vast array of other vessels - some docked, some anchored - while loading and unloading activities can be seen quayside.

The petroleum and chemical hub on Jurong Island is also part of the intriguing vista from the deck.

At such times, I always wondered how instructional and educational it would be if people could tap on a fuller, close-up experience of the port.

In June, good news came. When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opened the latest phases of the Pasir Panjang Terminal, he also spoke about the mega port in

The masterplan for Tuas can take lessons from other ports elsewhere on how to engage the public better. The Port of Houston in the United States, for example, runs a boat that offers a free 90-minute tour five days a week.

Similarly, Long Beach in California offers what experts call industrial tourism. Some 2,000 participants a year sign up for a free 90-minute boat tour, from April to September. Free boat trips are also conducted by the Port of Ghent in Belgium.

Tuas, which will consolidate all of PSA's port activities by 2040.

He said he hoped the port would be able to integrate with the neighbourhood instead of being closed off, as it is now.

That is wonderful news for those who have a keen interest in all things nautical, such as ships, port operations and maritime trade.

But it is also important to get many more people to develop a better understanding of how such a complex business - Singapore is the world's second-busiest port after Shanghai, and handled 33.9 million 20-foot containers last year - is managed.

It is ironic that while the Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Pasir Panjang terminals are visible, with highways skirting their perimeter, few people, save for those who work there, get more than glimpses of an industry that has put Singapore on the world map for efficiency, productivity and innovation.

This is unlike, say, Changi Airport - another symbol of Singapore's prowess in a competitive world - where many people have sampled its services, whether taking a flight, patronising its many retail and F&B options or just viewing planes from the observation areas.

But the port remains securely locked from public participation, though much of what Singapore consumes or makes is shipped in, from cars and clothes to raw materials.

So, what can be done at Tuas to engage the public?

How about conducting daily tours of its site?

How about giving people a chance to try out complicated manoeuvres at a dedicated visitor centre on-site, where one can, say, unload or load cargo, like PM Lee did in June?

Or figure out how to dock a ship at night or efficiently place the containers in the ship?

These options could also spur young people to join the industry, which the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) is already pursuing, such as a newspaper series profiling the varied jobs in the sector.

In September, at the 30th anniversary dinner of the Singapore Shipping Association, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said attracting and grooming talents to build a strong Singapore core is key to further growing the maritime industry, which accounts for 7 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, and hires more than 170,000 people.

More than 4,000 vessels are now flagged under the Singapore ship registry, but only 1 per cent of the crews on board - numbering just 500 - are Singaporeans.

Some 5,000 companies span the entire spectrum of the maritime industry, touting also value-add services from ship-brokering and finance to legal and insurance.

Even as there are more plans to raise public awareness about the industry, surely nothing beats being there on ground zero to get a better feel of the pulse of the port and how it has stayed ahead of rivals.

Some of these competitors are even visible from Singapore, said PM Lee, no doubt alluding to Tanjung Pelepas in Johor, which is a transhipment hub for shipping giants Maersk and Evergreen.

The masterplan for Tuas can take lessons from other ports elsewhere on how to engage the public better.

The Port of Houston in the United States, for example, runs a boat that offers a free 90-minute tour five days a week.

Similarly, Long Beach in California offers what experts call industrial tourism. Some 2,000 participants a year sign up for a free 90-minute boat tour, from April to September.

Free boat trips are also conducted by the Port of Ghent in Belgium.

In Singapore, food, of course, also makes a splash. Just like the food centre in Keppel Road just outside the Tanjong Pagar terminal is a big draw, a mega one can be part of the Tuas facility to forge closer bonds with the community.

Maybe the cruise terminal could also be part of the Tuas set-up, either to complement or replace the existing one in Marina South as the industry becomes more entrenched. Which means that with passengers moving in and out, there could be room for a mega retail facility too - similar to the Project Jewel to further elevate Changi Airport's allure as both a travel and lifestyle destination.

Indeed, some wheels are finally in motion, with ideas in the Next Generation Port (NGP) 2030 initiative announced last month.

Among them is an important suggestion to include "possibly commercial-residential areas" for those working at and around the future Tuas mega port.

Mr Andrew Tan, chief executive of the MPA, said that more "deliberate thought" in masterplanning the port will be needed, so that it "becomes a vibrant hub and not just a place where container boxes are being moved around".

But while you may want to submit your ideas to the MPA, there is no need to wait for these proposals to take fruit in Tuas.

For a start, free boat tours of the current port could be a good start to engage Singaporeans and tourists.

And I will be the first one to sign up for these.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Engage public on Singapore's maritime future'. Print Edition | Subscribe