Keeping port strategies shipshape

Non-industry observers would wonder why expansion plans for the Pasir Panjang container port are being accelerated when it and the Tanjong Pagar port are slated to move to Tuas by 2027. However, that move is several years away, and in the meantime, growth opportunities thrown up by the market must be seized. Regional demand plays an important part in these calculations.

Thus, Pasir Panjang's third and fourth phases will be operational fully by the end of 2017, two years ahead of the original plan. This speed illustrates the reflexive urgency with which Singapore must implement its maritime strategies, given the ports' pivotal role in the economy. Maritime Singapore is a key pillar of the nation, contributing about 7 per cent to the gross national product and sustaining 170,000 jobs. No less important, it provides the connectivity that helps underpin the manufacturing and trading sectors on which the economy stays afloat.

Against this background, the Port of Singapore Authority's investment of about $3.5 billion in new facilities will enable Singapore to handle more of the largest container ships, with lengths of about 400 metres. This expansion will provide the capacity required while development work on Tuas Port is underway.

Commendably, the PSA's competitive edge lies in enabling shippers to make large-scale and complex transhipment arrangements efficiently. Playing viably and for the long term at this level calls for substantial investments to be made even when they are subsumed later by larger developments, as would be the move to Tuas. Pasir Panjang's expansion is a tactical necessity that feeds into the strategic objective of first retaining and then enhancing Singapore's status as one of the world's premier port cities. This effort is challenged as countries near and far get serious about their maritime ambitions. They oblige Singapore to compete with other nodal maritime points in Asia, each of which has its local advantages and access to technology and manpower.

What will keep Singapore seaworthy in these circumstances will be the ability to shore up its infrastructural development and human resource capabilities. The ultimate move to Tuas embodies the logic of the first imperative, while the second is exemplified by a $65-million boost to attract, develop and retain talent in the maritime sector. Singapore cannot rest on its geographical laurels but must continue to invest in human agency, through upgraded training, to expand as a global hub port and international maritime centre.

In port operations, as in shipping, size matters as vessels grow in capacity to reduce the number of sailings. To keep pace with changes, PSA needs to think big.