Singapore gears up to tackle shipping backlog from Suez Canal blockage

Singapore is a hub port that is intimately linked to the Suez Canal, connecting Europe, Middle East and Asia. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - The port here is readying itself to deal with the shipping backlog caused by the Suez Canal blockage last month, with many vessels heading this way.

Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore chief executive Quah Ley Hoon said on Monday (April 12) that more workers have been roped in to handle the expected increase in traffic, and shipping companies are being updated on the availability of berths so they can better plan their schedules.

"We are doing our best in terms of berth, machinery, equipment and manpower to work with the shipping lines to clear the backlog when they arrive in Singapore. As of now, the ships are still on the way," she said, adding that when the bottleneck will be cleared is as yet undetermined.

Singapore is a hub port that is intimately linked to the Suez Canal, connecting Europe, Middle East and Asia. Following the five-day blockage, ships that have been delayed and those that followed are piling up, putting pressure on the port authorities to speed up the clearance process.

The Straits Times has asked the port terminal operator, PSA Singapore, how many vessels it is expecting to dock here, as well as how many more workers are needed to keep traffic flowing, and is awaiting a response.

Ms Quah was speaking at a media briefing for next week's Singapore Maritime Week, which will see key international and local maritime figures address important issues for the industry in a post-pandemic world.

Themed "New Frontiers, Shifting Paradigms", the event will run from April 19 to 23, focusing on digitalisation and how best to attract young talent, as well as the industry's continued bid to reduce carbon emissions.

Key speakers include International Maritime Organisation secretary-general Kitack Lim, the World Bank's global director for climate change Bernice van Bronkhorst and Cargill Ocean Transportation president Jan Dieleman. More than 6,000 people are expected to tune in or attend the event.

Singapore's port activities have not been as severely impacted by Covid-19 as its aviation sector, with shipyard activities quickly rebounding to 70 per cent to 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels within two months of the disruption.

A reduced workforce, however, still keeps it from regaining full capacity. Mr Simon Kuik, president of the Association of Singapore Marine Industries, who was also at the Monday event, said some 30 per cent of the maritime workforce left the country during the pandemic, forcing companies to rely on a smaller pool of resident and migrant workers.

"To recover to that 100 per cent, we will need the number of workers in our workforce to (rise)," he said.

Another challenge facing the industry is the increased cost of operations, which include vaccination costs and other precautionary measures to prevent a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus.

As of now, about 99 per cent of the maritime industry's front-line workers have been vaccinated, while others who do not necessarily board ships are also in line for the jab.

Ms Caroline Yang, president of the Singapore Shipping Association, said: "The insurance premiums have increased quite a bit. You have to give higher salaries to the crew to come and stay on board so that has also added to the cost.

"Covid-19 has also really not been easy for crew changes. The cost is just so mind-boggling but we decided that we needed to do it, to make sure that the crew can go home and that ships continue to move."

Ms Quah said the pandemic and the Suez Canal blockage have both focused attention on the industry.

"During the pandemic, the port remained open so that the global supply chain remains intact for goods and cargoes to be transported from one country to another. We have witnessed the importance of ports and shipping and the critical roles that seafarer port workers and maritime personnel play," she said.

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