Faced with the crew-change crisis, Singapore quickly responded, facilitating 500 to 600 crew changes daily, while keeping global supply chains running
As the Covid-19 virus soared to its height in April last year, Singapore imposed a graduated lockdown known as a circuit breaker to combat the pandemic, closing most workplaces and its borders to travellers.
However, Singapore’s ports stayed open around the clock as did essential services related to shipping and ship repair. They had to – not only to ensure that goods continued to flow into Singapore, but to keep global supply chains running.
Over 80% of the world’s goods are transported by sea, about 30% of which pass by the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Port of Singapore, as the world’s busiest transhipment hub, handles nearly 15% of the world’s container transhipment volumes alone.
“On top of transhipment, we are the ‘one-stop-shop’ for ships to call on for essential marine services including refuelling, ship supplies, crew change and cargo operations – quite like a 7/11,” says Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore chief executive Quah Ley Hoon.
“It was impossible for us to shut down even during a global pandemic or national lockdown. Because without the port, essential goods cannot reach our shores.”
Covid-19 was a big challenge for the maritime industry in 2020, notes Ms Quah.
But there was a silver lining across the industry: a strong show of resilience.
Container throughput in Singapore registered 36.9M TEU, just 0.9% less than in 2019 – marking a strong showing in a difficult year. It remained the world’s top bunkering port, while the international maritime centre (IMC) grew in scale and diversity, with 17 new international shipping groups establishing their presence or expanding their operations in the country.
“We had started 2020 thinking the transition to the new sulphur limit would be the biggest challenge. Then Covid hit, and it continues to be this invisible enemy that evolves all the time,” she says.
To help keep the supply lines running, MPA continuously introduced and enhanced regulations and safety measures, while auditing procedures to protect its onshore workers.
This allowed MPA to play its part in addressing the global humanitarian crisis of crew change as well. As national health authorities imposed restrictions on crew change, hundreds of thousands of seafarers – a number that ballooned to 400,000 by September – were trapped at sea, unable to leave their vessels.
In May 2020, Singapore, together with more than 50 port authorities, signed a declaration to keep ports open to seaborne trade to ensure global supply chains could continue to run. The MPA also launched a Crew Facilitation Centre in September and set up the Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience Fund with tripartite partners to establish standards for safe crew-change protocols.
Since 27 March 2020, Singapore has facilitated over 100,000 crew changes to aid stranded seafarers on ships through its ’safe corridor.’
“That is a fine balancing act for us,” says Ms Quah, adding that Singapore is carrying out 500 to 600 crew changes every day currently.
“Our priority was to balance the public health risks and avoid any chance of community spread, as well as protect the seafarers, so we had to think out of the box, whether it was by coming up with a strict ‘bubble-wrapping’ procedure for crew change or prioritising our maritime workers as part of the national vaccination exercise. We were one of the first countries in the world to do so.
“We recognise that seafarers and maritime workers are key to our industry. This is how we play our part to ensure global supply chains continue to flow smoothly, while keeping Singapore safe.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of change specifically in the areas of the 3Ds: digitalisation, decarbonisation, and disruption.
The MPA has embraced the crisis as a catalyst for growth and transformation, while positioning and reinforcing Maritime Singapore such that it is better prepared for whatever the next big challenge may be.
*This is an abbreviated version of remarks made by Ms Quah in support of Singapore Maritime Week 2021, scheduled for 19 – 23 April 2021