Port of Singapore

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Joanna


The Port of Singapore, which provides services and facilities for ships to dock, load and unload goods, has always been a key contributor to Singapore’s economy and growth. From the early days of modern Singapore as a small town with a harbor on the river banks, the port has expanded and grown into what it is today – a transshipment hub with connections to a vast number of ports around the world. The Port of Singapore is now the world’s second busiest port in terms of container volume.

Ancient times
Trading activities on the northern banks of the Singapore River had existed from as early as the late 13th century, when a port settlement was established there by a prince from Palembang known as Seri Teri Buana. Singapore was then known as Temasek and was one of many port cities that had sprung up along the Strait of Melaka. A change in China’s maritime trade policy saw a large number of Chinese ships calling at Southeast Asian countries to source for goods for their home markets. Besides acquiring and exporting products from nearby regions such as South Johor and the Riau Archipelago, Singapore also distributed goods brought in by ships from China, Southeast Asia and India to neighbouring lands. However, the port settlement did not last very long as the 14th century saw Melaka being made the key port of call, while Temasek eventually declined as an international port. Singapore was left without a port settlement until the British colonial era in the 19th century.1

Colonial era
When Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 to establish a trading post for the British East India Company, one of the first tasks he undertook was to dispatch a survey vessel to carry out a hydrographic survey of the port. This survey resulted in the first chart of the Singapore Harbour being issued by the East India Company in 1820. Following the growth in importance of the Singapore strait as the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, more surveys were conducted which led to more admiralty charts being produced in subsequent years. In 1851, the first lighthouse in Singapore, Horsburgh Lighthouse – named after hydrographer James Horsburgh – began operations on the offshore island, Pedra Branca.2

A harbour master (or master attendant) was appointed in 1819 to administer and operate the port. His role was to keep records of imports and exports, take charge of overseas mail as well as to maintain a registry of ships, their cargo and passengers arriving at and departing from the port.3

Raffles made Singapore a free port where fees such as those paid to the town, harbour, port and dock were not collected. Ships from all over the world could trade freely in Singapore with custom duties imposed only on selected products such as tobacco, opium, alcohol and petroleum. This policy, coupled with Singapore’s strategic geographical location – lying on the sea route between India and China and thus easily accessible to ships and junks from around the region and afar – and natural deep-water harbour, attracted numerous vessels to call at its port. Thus, within five years of its establishment, Singapore’s port had become a regional entrepot.4

Towards the mid-1800s, steamships requiring the use of coal were calling at the port for refuelling. Coal was brought in for storage in the warehouses on the Singapore River and then transported to the steamships by lighters when they arrived, which created further congestion at the already-overcrowded river. A deep-water berth was thus needed and New Harbour (today’s Keppel Harbour) was the natural choice, following a survey conducted by government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in 1849.5

In 1852, a wharf was opened by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company at New Harbour. This wharf was the preferred choice of ocean shipping while the Singapore River continued to be used for coastal shipping. Cargo to be transferred to another ship waiting at Boat Quay or New Harbour would be transported overland.6 Soon, wharves, warehouses and coal stores were opening up around New Harbour. The first dry dock was built by Patent Slip & Dock Company, and the second, Victoria Dock, was opened by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company. Shipping traffic increased quickly with the greater availability of wharves and more shipping companies inaugurating regular steamship services through the port of Singapore.7

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, a ship’s journey from Southeast Asia to Europe and vice-versa was reduced by about one-third as it no longer had to go around the African continent via the Cape of Good Hope. The second half of the 1800s, therefore, saw a steep climb in the number of steamships calling at Singapore for repairs, refuelling and the loading and unloading of cargo.8 To increase the rate of cargo handling, mechanical installations such as cranes and steam winches were employed in 1874 to replace the manual loading and unloading of cargo, while land reclamation started at Telok Ayer in 1879 to provide additional land for the construction of new roads running between Keppel Harbour and the Singapore River. The new roads helped to address the congestion problem along existing roads, a result of the increased volume of cargo to be transported overland. Meanwhile, both Patent Slip & Dock and Tanjong Pagar Dock companies expanded their respective number of docks and wharves until 1899 when they merged. Control over the dock and wharf businesses then came under Tanjong Pagar Dock Company until 1905 when the Straits Settlements government took over its undertakings.9

Following the acquisition, the Singapore Harbour Board was formed to control and expand the facilities of the port.10 By 1932, the Port of Singapore under the Harbour Board was made up of the wharves at the Singapore River, Telok Ayer Basin and Keppel Harbour.11 Besides enhancements to the facilities such as replacing the wooden wharf frontage with concrete ones, the 1930s also saw the setting up of oil storage facilities on the islands of Pulau Bukom and Pulau Sebarok as well as ship-repair facilities in Sembawang.12

Postwar developments
When the Japanese invaded Singapore in early 1942, port facilities were badly damaged by the bombings. In addition, machinery and equipment at the dockyards subsequently fell into a state of disrepair because no maintenance of the port and its facilities was carried out during the Japanese occupation (1942–45). The Harbour Board was thus faced with the difficult task of rebuilding and restoring the damaged port infrastructure before passenger and cargo services could resume after the war ended. With port facilities restored, the shipping tonnage began to climb and hit a total of 82.9 million net register tonnage (NRT) in 1963, a four-fold increase from 1947 when the total tonnage registered was 20.4 million NRT.In 1964, the Singapore Harbour Board was replaced by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA).13

Port developments in the 1960s and ’70s were linked to the rapid industrialisation programme that was underway then. A cornerstone of the Jurong industrialisation project was Jurong Port, opened in 1965 to handle bulk cargo used by the industries located in the Jurong Industrial Estate. The PSA also took over and converted the former British Naval Base Store Basin into Sembawang Wharves in 1971. By 1974, Pasir Panjang Wharves had begun operations.14

In the late ’60s, the PSA invested millions of dollars to build Southeast Asia’s first container terminal at a time when demand was not clear, as no shipping companies would commit to building container vessels that sailed between Europe and Southeast Asia. The Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal opened in 1972 with three container berths, and welcomed the first container vessel, M.V. Nihon, on 24 June 1972.15 Container shipping was initially slow to take off, but during the 1980s, container volume mounted steeply and more container berths had to be built to cope with the demand. With the rise in container shipping, computerisation was adopted to serve the needs of the vessels that called at the ports as well as other related businesses.16

Expansion of the various port facilities and enhancement of capabilities continued in the ’90s. These included the addition of berths at the new Brani Terminal, redevelopment of facilities at Tanjong Pagar Terminal, and increased capacity at Jurong Port to handle the growing volume of bulk cargo.17 In 1996, the PSA’s port regulatory functions were taken over by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, while PSA was corporatised in 1997 and became known as PSA Corporation Limited. The company still manages and operates the port today with the exception of Jurong port.18

Singapore is connected to many ports in numerous countries and draws a large number of ships to its port. To meet the changing needs of the shipping industry, two new Pasir Panjang Container Terminals equipped with the latest technology were opened in 2000.19 Phases 3 and 4 of the Pasir Panjang Terminal development were launched in 2012, with the PSA investing heavily in the latest port technology such as unmanned cranes and automated container yard. That same year, an official decision was made to consolidate all the existing container terminals into one mega port in Tuas. The Tuas Port project, which is being rolled out in stages, marks a new phase in the development of the Port of Singapore.20

In August 2017, the Tanjong Pagar terminal, one of Singapore’s oldest terminal, ceased operations and moved to newer facilities at Pasir Panjang, where it is expected to operate till the lease at Pasir Panjang runs out in 2040.21 With the closure of the Tanjong Pagar terminal, the Port of Singapore now comprises terminals at Keppel, Brani, Pasir Panjang, Sembawang and Jurong.

Joanna Tan

1. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng Thiam Soon and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore, a 700-Year History: From Early Emporium to World City (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009)), 19, 20–24, 27–29, 32. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 KWA-[HIS])
2. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History (Singapore: Public Relations Dept., Port of Singapore Authority, 1982), 1. (Call no. RSING 387.1095957 SIN)
3. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 5.
4. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 2, 7.
5. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 5.
6. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 5.
7. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port: A Pictorial History of the Port and Harbour of Singapore 1819–1984 (Singapore: MPH Magazines, 1984), 12. (Call no. RSING 779.93871095957 SIN)
8. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port, 12.
9. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 7, 11.
10. A Short History of the Port of Singapore: With Particular Reference to the Undertakings of the Singapore Harbour Board (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1922), [n.p.]. (Microfilm NL8173)
11. Maritime Museum (Singapore), Singapore Port History, 14.
12. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port, 14.
13. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port, 14–15.
14. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port, 17.
15. Chris Yap, A Port’s Story, A Nation’s Success (Singapore: Times Editions, 1990), 69 (Call no. RSING 387.1095957 YAP); PSA Corporation, PSA: Full Ahead (Singapore: PSA Corp, 2003), 23, 27. (Call no. RSING q387.1095957 PSA)
16. Yap, A Port’s Story, A Nation’s Success, 98. 
17. Tan Tai Yong, Aileen Lau and Laure Lau, eds., Maritime Heritage of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2005), 234. (Call no. RSING q387.5095957 MAR)
18. PSA Corporation, PSA: Full Ahead, 94.
19. “All Prepared for the Future,” Business Times, 31 March 2000, 43. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Alvin Foo, “Tuas To Have Mega Port for all Container Shipments,” Straits Times, 2 October 2012, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chern A, “Tanjong Pagar Terminal: A Giant Goes to Sleep,” Straits Times, 19 March 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 

The information in this article is valid as at 19 April 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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