We can turn this crisis into a catalyst for change: MPA chief

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As the COVID-19 virus soared to its height in April last year, Singapore imposed a gradated lockdown known as a circuit breaker to combat the pandemic, closing most workplaces and its borders to travellers.

The country was shut down but its ports stayed open – around the clock – as did essential services related to shipping and ship repair. It had to – not only to ensure that goods continued to flow into Singapore, but to keep global supply chains running.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s goods are transported through seaborne trade, and among them, about 30 per cent pass by the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Port of Singapore, as the world’s busiest transshipment hub, handles nearly 15 per cent of the world’s container transhipment volumes alone.

“On top of transshipment, 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,” said Ms Quah Ley Hoon, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

“So 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 entire maritime industry in 2020, noted Ms Quah.

But there was a silver lining across the industry: a strong show of resilience.

Container throughput in Singapore registered 36.9 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) in 2020, just 0.9 per cent less than in 2019 – marking a strong showing despite the 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. 
Singapore also retained its top position in the Xinhua-Baltic International Shipping Centre Development Index for the seventh consecutive year.

“We had started 2020 thinking that 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 said.

“We thought we could take reference from the SARS pandemic, but it was so much more than that. There was no textbook solution. It required us to put our heads together as a community and exercise our IQ, EQ, and AQ (Adversity Quotient) muscles – IQ to develop adaptive yet targeted policies, EQ to collaborate with Maritime Singapore’s stakeholders effectively, and AQ to face adversity with agility.”

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 commitment to stay open and serve despite the trying situation was what allowed MPA to do 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 that global supply chains could continue to run and facilitate closer collaboration. The MPA also launched a Crew Facilitation Centre in September and set up the Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience (SG-STAR) Fund with tripartite partners to establish standards for safe crew change protocols.

Since March 27, 2020, Singapore has facilitated more than 100,000 crew changes to aid stranded seafarers on ships through its “safe corridor” for crew change.

“That is a fine balancing act for us,” said 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 that global supply chains continued to flow smoothly, while keeping Singapore safe.”

The work is far from complete.

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.

Ms Quah recalled the anecdote she shared in an interview for the Singapore Maritime Week Show Dailies 2019, in which her then 13-year-old son had questioned why he should have children when he has no idea how the environment will be like in the future. 

“If you remember, with less human movement and traffic during the circuit breaker, we actually saw animal life and nature flourish. Most of us did take a pause and think about what would we do if we could reset the world in the wake of the pandemic – how do we do things better?” she said.

“I think even as we slowly resume our lives, this consciousness has become stronger. So if there’s something I would tell my son today, it is that there’s definitely more hope for tomorrow than today – supported by the maritime industry, which is taking more responsibility for decarbonisation than before. And that he should have many kids, so that I can have more grandchildren.”

Published 1 March 2021

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