Singapore's port is a microcosm of its economic trajectory over the decades, mirroring ingrained outward impulses and forward-looking strategies, a sine qua non for survival. As much as the port has anchored the economy for almost 200 years and now accounts for 170,000 jobs, it has been posited that many Singaporeans cannot fully fathom its critical role, particularly when couched in single-digit terms as contributing about 7 per cent to the gross national product. The port didn't just parallel the nation's rise, it indeed helped to put Singapore on the world map by connecting it to far-flung, major centres of economic activity. It would have been a different story if it had shunned hub aspirations out of a fear of, say, being overwhelmed.
Enhancing connectivity by taking a gamble with containerisation five decades ago reflects the determined openness of pioneer leaders, especially when even global port experts couldn't predict at that time the power of the invention to boost global trade exponentially. A strategic geographical location helped, of course, but its potential would not have been fulfilled - to the point of becoming the world's biggest transhipment centre - if the hub concept had not been adopted with much vim and vigour.
Connectivity will be taken to greater levels of scale and complexity as an era of megaships dawns. To put it graphically, the containers disgorged by a single megaship if lined up would stretch from Tuas to Yong Peng in Johor, a third of the distance to Kuala Lumpur. Apart from the smart operations required to move such huge volumes in a hyper-efficient manner, there would be an even greater need to develop and maintain external relationships, with an eye on past difficulties when major customers like Maersk and Evergreen Marine had moved to the port's competitor in pursuit of relative advantages.
Once again, it's the need to stay ahead of the field that is driving the accelerated expansion plans for the Pasir Panjang container port at a considerable cost, even though all port operations there will cease over time and find a permanent home in Tuas. By pioneer leaders' famously prudent financial management yardsticks, that would be deemed wasteful. But in the current, fast-changing global environment, it would be folly to lose ground by tarrying.
Singaporeans as a whole must also embrace such change by, for example, reaffirming the value of being a hub city and the need to connect with the outside world. In this light, there is considerable merit in the proposal to integrate the future megaport at Tuas with nearby developments and to open it to the public. A better appreciation of its activities among citizens can help to ensure the port never loses momentum as challenges arise in the future.