Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s ex-Prime Minister said it best: “Singapore’s raison d’être was its port”.
From its founding in 1819 by the British as a trading port outpost all the way to becoming a global maritime hub today, Singapore’s meteoric rise has been nothing short of spectacular. And as a tiny island nation with no natural resources to speak of, Singapore’s rags to riches story has largely been due to its fortuitous geographical location at the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula – becoming gatekeeper of a key waterway connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
To quote The Economist: “For all its posh banks, fancy lawyers and lucrative casinos, it is the port that remains the bedrock of Singapore’s extraordinary prosperity.”
I think you get the idea about just how important the maritime industry is to Singapore.
Singapore lies at the nexus of key sea trade routes between Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand primarily). The Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the shortest sea channel between East Asia and South Asia (and beyond) is one of the busiest waterways of the world, with more than 200 vessels passing through every day.
In 1972, Singapore opened Southeast Asia’s first container port, at a time when the containerisation of cargo in shipping had just begun to take off. Remarkably, by 2005 Singapore had become the world’s busiest port (by ship tonnage handled), and held that honour until 2010 when it was displaced by Shanghai.
Today Singapore’s ports are only the world’s 2nd busiest, handling some 32.2 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers in 2013. Interestingly almost all of that is cargo bound for elsewhere though – trans-shipment cargo changing ships in Singapore, similar to the way long haul airline passengers have to catch connecting flights to reach their destinations. Singapore, with no significant manufacturing or large consumer market of its own, is all about trans-shipment, and in fact is the world’s top trans-shipment hub. That’s really quite something for a port to achieve such voluminous success based on just being a transit hub for the world’s cargo.
The Singapore Maritime Gallery, set up by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), is a good place to get a sense of what our maritime success story is all about.
Officially opened in September 2012, the 10,000+ sq ft gallery is ensconced in a rather drab building that is the Marina South Pier, which caters to small boats and ferries plying the routes to the nearby offshore islands. Day trippers and swarthy boat crew crowd the small terminal. There is no mistaking the gleaming new Marina Bay Cruise Centre and its luxury liners just down the road for this pier.
Divided into zones, the Maritime Gallery is an impressive treasure trove of maritime facts and figures. There are plenty of fun interactive and experiential exhibits, making the narrative of the story very engaging.
First stop in the gallery is an area with a panoramic video wall where a quick 2-3 minute introductory video is screened. Next is an area where visitors learn about all the items in our life that are transported over sea – some 90% of the world’s goods are transported via sea. A large “Connectivity Table” using an “IR (InfraRed) MultiTouch” system lets visitors interact with the display.
Another zone features a large port model on a big ship structure, and lets visitors manipulate the little ships around from station to station on the port model.
Visitors also get to walk through an actual 20-foot container box, learning about the different sizes and types of containers.
A fun attraction is the Ship Bridge Simulator with 5 large wrap-around screens. Sit at the console and you can play at being the ship’s captain steering the ship through Singapore’s busy waters. Next to it is another console featuring the MPA’s state-of-the-art Vessel Traffic Information System (VTIS), where visitors can see how the actual systems are used to manage traffic in our very busy port.
There are plenty of large-sized ship models lining the gallery, as well as maritime artifacts including a ship anchor, ship bell and ship telegraphs – cool equipment that look positively ancient in today’s digital age.
There is apparently a “children’s corner” somewhere as well, however I have to admit I missed that. There is a relaxation area with binoculars that you can use to look out to sea though.
For anyone who works in the maritime sector – and there are apparently over 180,000 currently employed onshore and offshore in the local maritime industry, or for anyone with an interest in all things shipping-related, a trip to the Singapore Maritime Gallery is well worth a visit. A visit should also be requisite for maritime studies students or anyone considering a career in the industry – and indeed, a reason the MPA set up the Maritime Gallery is to attract talent to the industry.
2nd floor, Marina South Pier
31 Marina Coastal Drive
Open Tues to Sun: 9:00am – 5:30pm
Closed Mondays except for public holidays
HOW MUCH TIME
Anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on how much of a shipping geek you are.
- Another first: Singapore is the world’s largest bunker port – akin to being the number one petrol station for ships. Some 42.5 million tonnes of fuel was pumped into ships last year.
- The world’s largest container ship is the “Triple-E” class “Majestic Maersk”, owned by Danish shipping giant Maersk. The massive ship is 400 m long and 73 m high, and can transport up to 18,000 twenty-footers on its voyages. It consumes approximately 100 tonnes of fuel daily though, and each time it refuels it costs upwards of US$10 million. The ship takes 24-25 days to sail from Shanghai to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
- The world’s top port, Shanghai’s Yangshan Deep Water port, is something of an engineering marvel. I had the chance to visit it a couple of years ago while I was working for a shipping company, and also caught the MegaStructures documentary about it on the National Geographic channel. Fascinating stuff.
- The MRT’s (Mass Rapid Transit’s) North South Line extension will terminate at the new Marina South Pier station right at the pier, slated to open later this year.
- There is an interesting riverboat replica parked at the pier. With a restaurant, cafe and party space you can rent, “Stewords Riverboat” is the place for you if you fancy a bit of 1800’s era Tom Sawyer Mississippi River atmosphere.