Global cooperation necessary to digitalise shipping industry and enhance global trade

Shipping is a key component as it carries 80 per cent of the world's trade. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Digitalising the shipping industry can enhance global trade, but it will require stakeholders around the world to cooperate, said Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat on Thursday (Oct 8).

As supply chains are becoming increasingly complex, with many parties spanning multiple countries, he said shipping is a key component, as it carries 80 per cent of the world's trade.

Mr Chee was speaking at the Future of Shipping-Digitalisation webinar organised by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

During the session, the Port Authorities Chief Information Officer Cybersecurity Network was launched to enhance cyber-security awareness within the maritime sector and allow more information sharing.

The global network involves nine ports - MPA, Abu Dhabi Ports, Port of Antwerp, Port Klang Authority, Port of Kobe, Port of Long Beach, Port of Montreal, Port of Rotterdam and Port of Seattle.

"Digitalisation can lead to significant cost savings and better environmental outcomes," said Mr Chee, who took on the maritime portfolio in late July.

He cited the World Economic Forum's estimates that document processing accounts for a fifth of total transportation costs in global trade, and digitalisation benefits the environment by reducing paper documents, lowering carbon emissions from shortened waiting times for vessels at anchorages, and improving fuel efficiency through better maintenance schedules.

Digitalisation can also help businesses stay resilient, said Mr Chee.

"Data visibility and exchange allow port operators and users to obtain critical data in advance, and make quick interventions when things go wrong," he added.

He highlighted Singapore's handling of the crew change issue, which involved balancing public health concerns to keep supplies moving, and how telemedicine now enables doctors to certify crew members fit for travel via video consultations while they are still on the ships.

Instead of worrying about technology displacing jobs and replacing workers, Mr Chee said it will more likely "augment human workers and enable the maritime industry to create better and higher-value jobs".

"Manual jobs will be redesigned to become safer, with higher skills and consequently offer higher pay," he added.

In what he called a "mammoth task", Mr Chee stressed that the IMO has a vital role to play in leading the digital transformation of the shipping sector.

The IMO is a platform where countries, industry players and stakeholders, come together to set regulations and standards for the maritime community.

"Moving forward, the IMO will continue to work on harmonisation and standardisation of electronic messages, so that data exchange between ships and ports around the world can be more seamless," said Mr Chee, adding that discussions on autonomous vessels and e-navigation are on-going.

He also called on the organisation to help weaker member states build digital capacity where needed, as "the digital supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link".

"Digitalisation is a national imperative for Singapore, to help us overcome our inherent constraints in size and resources," said Mr Chee.

He said that MPA will be rolling out the second phase of the digitalPORT @ SG, a platform to digitalise port processes, next year. It will enable just-in-time marine services for vessels calling on Singapore's port, based on real-time data, and will save vessels up to two days in turnaround time here, said Mr Chee.

Singapore is currently part of the Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships Port Network looking at how autonomous vessels can communicate with ports, and the DigitalOCEANS effort to set common data standards and exchange data with other ports to make port clearances more efficient, said Mr Chee.

"As the busiest transshipment port in the world, Singapore is also ready to serve as a test-bed for new initiatives and ideas from the global maritime community," he said.

On Thursday, Mr Chee reaffirmed Singapore's support for the IMO and its member states in digitalisation efforts.

"We will participate in the discussions at IMO and its various committees, and share our experiences," he said, adding that the MPA Academy will also include lectures and courses on digitalisation.

IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim said that digitalisation is key to the post-Covid-19 recovery of the global economy to take shipping into a new era.

He said cooperation between stakeholders, including those from the shipping, ports and logistics sectors, will be vital in the digital push.

"IMO is working to ensure shipping can embrace the digital revolution, while ensuring safety, environmental protection as well as cyber security," he said.

In one of two panel discussions on the digital future of shipping, Dr Heike Deggim, IMO's director of Maritime Safety, said there is a strong need to balance the benefits of new technologies with safety and security, particularly cyber security, as it is fundamental for the future of digital services.

"We got a stark reminder of this last week when IMO's IT teams were experiencing a cyber attack of unprecedented severity, which paralysed almost all of our systems. Luckily, everything is backed up, but despite the efforts of our hard-working IT staff, it is taking a rather long time to restore everything back to normal," he told the panel discussion.

Mr Ninan Oommen Biju, senior port and maritime transport specialist at the World Bank's Transport Global Practice, noted that Covid-19 has exposed a gap in technological capabilities within the sector.

"Amidst the small group of smart ports, there are many others that have barely grasped the essentials of digitalisation, and continue to struggle with larger reliance on paper-based transactions," he noted, adding that only 49 of the 174 IMO member states have functioning port community systems.

He cautioned that the delay in introducing a digital platform would threaten business continuity in subsequent waves of the pandemic, and that establishing global standards is an area in which the IMO, leading maritime nations and partners like the World Bank can collaborate.

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