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Global changes call for rethink of Singapore shipping: Chan Chun Sing

SINGAPORE’S continued success as a maritime hub must come on a broad view of trade, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing has said.

Besides existing activities such as building vessels and improving port infrastructure, the Republic has to boost its maritime service offerings by strengthening complementary sectors such as finance and logistics, he told roughly 400 shipping industry professionals at the 13th Singapore Maritime Lecture on Monday.

“To truly succeed as a maritime hub, we must see physical trade not in isolation, but as part of a multi-faceted connectivity that includes data, talent, technology and finance flows,” the minister said at the annual event, which was held in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Millenia. “Our selling point has to go beyond our geographical location and our reputation as a ‘catch-up port’.”

Mr Chan noted that the maritime industry will come to be driven by data from sophisticated fleet sensors.

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“Big Data analytics like neural networks will allow industry to extract invaluable insights from these data - such as how to better deploy resources to support shifts in global value chains, as well as to better tap the efficiency of different modes of transport,” he suggested.

“With the rise of inter-modal connectivity, shippers can also employ algorithms to gain operational and cost efficiencies, by combining road, rail, air cargo and ocean freight solutions.”

In such an environment, data will be essential to Singapore’s trade platform, “which will be open and connected, as opposed to balkanised”, the minister said, citing achievements such as the Asean Single Window for customs clearance and a networked trade platform that digitises paperwork to make government certification and third-party commercial services simpler.

These developments will provide new opportunities for the Republic, said Mr Chan, especially as more companies and countries jump on board shared platforms to enhance both business-to-business and business-to-government operations.

“Regardless if (sic) the trade physically flows to or flows through Singapore, they can all benefit from the network efficiencies by trading on this Singapore platform,” he said.

Other trends that he identified included global population growth, which is shifting towards Asia, and climate change, which forces cleaner fuel requirements but also opens polar trade routes.

“Our answer to the driving forces of demographics and climate change must be to go to where trade flows will be,” said Mr Chan.

He acknowledged that trade tensions between the United States and China are here to stay, as the two countries compete over technology and geopolitical influence.

“How competition between them pans out has a bearing on the global economy. In extremis, the world could be fragmented into different trading blocs,” he warned. “Even if the landing turns out to be somewhere in between fragmentation and global integration, the presence of protectionism will inhibit global trade, which is the raison d’être of the maritime industry.”

But Mr Chan reiterated the government’s position that “we must defend an open rules-based global trading order”, while again calling for tweaks to World Trade Organization rules.

“For example, rules will need to be updated for relevance in the new economy consisting of unparalleled data, digital and financial flows.

“We must continue to work with like-minded partners to resist the fragmentation of the world order and uphold the established rules of law. Our goal has to be to promote a predictable pro-business and open environment for all countries,” he said.

He noted that, given Singapore's small size, “trade is our lifeline”, so openness to free trade deals and diversified markets “has made us resilient in times of rising protectionism”.

Mr Chan added, as he closed his remarks: “In 1969, when no container ship sailed through the region, Singapore boldly raced to build South-east Asia’s first container terminal.

“Amidst the global uncertainties, the true measure of our strength will once again be how we rise to meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.”

The first Singapore Maritime Lecture was given in 2007 by the late Lee Kuan Yew.

The nine-day Singapore Maritime Week 2019, which was opened on Sunday by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, is expected to draw some 40,000 attendees in all.

Singapore handled 630.1 million tonnes of sea cargo in 2018, with container throughput of 36.6 million twenty-foot equivalent units in all.