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Speech by Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs, Mr Chee Hong Tat, at the Singapore Maritime Technology Conference 2021

20 Apr 2021 Speeches

A Resilient and Thriving Maritime Sector Through Technology -- Building an Innovation Ecosystem and Encouraging Collaboration

Your Excellency, Ms Anita Nergaard, Ambassador of Norway to Singapore,

Your Excellency, Ms Sandra Jensen Landi, Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore,

Mr Ngiam Chiang Meng, Chairman of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,


1.     COVID-1 9 has disrupted our jobs and our lives.  Border restrictions and port closures in some parts of the world have impacted global supply chains, resulting in congestions and schedule disruptions which continue to affect many countries today. 

2.     More recently, the situation worsened when container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for several days, affecting global seaborne trade. 

3.     Yet through it all, the maritime sector has remained resilient.  Ships have continued to sail, and cargoes are being delivered to consumers around the world. This outcome did not happen by chance.  It was due to the sacrifices of the men and women in our ports, shipping lines and maritime industry. They have worked tirelessly to keep global supply chains flowing.

Reflections on COVID-19’s Impact on Maritime Innovation

4.     Indeed, COVID-19 has reminded us that necessity is the mother of invention. Our industry responded to the pandemic by developing many innovative solutions.

a.     A good example is in the area of remote and contactless operations.

i.     Because public health measures made it more challenging for engineers to go on-site, ships are inspected remotely. 

ii.    Classification societies like the American Bureau of Shipping, Bureau Veritas and DNV GL have carried out more underwater inspections and surveys using remotely operated vehicles. 

iii.   These initiatives lead to greater efficiency and enhanced safety for maritime workers. 

b.     A second area of change is the higher demand for digital transactions. Now to be clear, these changes have already started before COVID-19, but COVID-19 brought about greater sense of urgency and impetus for the industry to embrace technology.

i.     ShipsFocus, a local maritime tech start-up, has developed a digital service to aggregate the demand and booking of launch services by ship agents, called “ALiSE”. 

ii.    Bookings were previously made through phone calls and hardcopy forms, but they can now be done round-the-clock on a digital platform in a contactless and efficient way. 

5.     Some of these technologies were developed before the pandemic, and what COVID-19 did was to provide the right conditions and incentives for the solutions to take off. As they say, success happens when opportunity meets preparation.  

6.     Technology’s pivotal role in helping the maritime sector stay resilient during the pandemic will continue to come through as we build the post-COVID world. To achieve this outcome, we will need to focus on two important enablers in our maritime ecosystem:

a.     First, an environment that supports risk-taking and experimentation, and

b.     Second, an industry that encourages collaborations, with both internal and external partners. 

Maritime Ecosystem that Supports Risk-taking and Experimentation

7.     We want to build an ecosystem that encourages experimentation and creative solutioning. 

a.     It is not about avoiding failure completely – it is about providing a safe space to fail, 

b.     so that companies and individuals have a conducive environment to try new ideas and are prepared for many of these experiments to fail, 

c.     before a successful idea eventually emerges that could lead to sustainable and scalable solutions.  

8.     Yesterday, during the Singapore Maritime Lecture, Mr Yee Yang Chien, CEO of MISC Group, said in his speech that it is better to try and fail, than to not try at all, and I support his approach. 

9.     This approach supports our vision of becoming the Silicon Valley of the maritime world, where ideas and talents come together to develop innovative maritime solutions that can transform the industry, and bring about more benefits and new opportunities for our companies and workers. 

10.    We plan to achieve this through three strategies.

11.    First, we aim to attract more technology firms to Singapore and work with maritime companies to develop solutions that can solve the industry’s challenges. 

a.     Through PIER71, our target is to grow the number of Singapore-based maritime technology start-ups from about 30 to 100 by 2025. 

b.     To support this effort, MPA will set aside $10 million from the MINT (Maritime Innovation and Technology) Fund to drive the growth and development of maritime technology start-ups in Singapore. 
c.     MPA will also set up a new grant scheme called MINT-STARTUP to support both start-ups and scale-ups.

i.     Through the scheme, start-ups that have completed the PIER71 or other relevant maritime acceleration programmes in Singapore can apply for a grant of up to $50,000 for their projects. 

ii.    Promising scale-ups can also apply for a grant of up to $100,000. 

12.    Second, we will provide sandboxes for new technology to be piloted in a safe environment, for us to better assess risks and the viability of new solutions. 

a.     MPA will officially launch the Maritime Drone Estate later today.

i.     Interest in the use of drones for maritime applications has grown in recent years. Drones can be used in many ways in the maritime sector, such as for delivering supplies and conducting inspections. 

ii.    These technologies can help the port of Singapore, and ports around the world, to become more productive and efficient. 

iii.   In the last two years, we have been facilitating  the testing of drone use cases in a sandbox environment for maritime industry players. 

iv.    The drone estate’s location at Marina South is ideal as it is next to the port waters and near active anchorages used by thousands of vessels annually.

v.     Start-ups such as the locally founded F-Drones have benefitted from the drone estate to conduct trials for technology development. 

vi.    The company has recently raised seed capital from the industry to support its growth, and I’m very happy for them.

vii.   We hope to grow more maritime start-ups like F-Drones, and will continue to support them at the Maritime Drone Estate at Marina South.

Encouraging collaborations 

13.    Let me now touch on the second area of how we can encourage the industry to enhance its collaborations with internal and external partners.  
a.     To speed up the pace of innovation, we have to first look deep within our own sector to understand the key challenges and constraints, and recognise that good solutions can come from both internal and external sources. 
b.     Likewise, new opportunities can emerge from adjacent sectors.  For example, the growth of advanced manufacturing, biomedical sciences, agri-tech and e-commerce will open new doors for the maritime and logistics sectors, including opportunities for multi-modal connectivity.

c.     This is why we also have to look beyond our sector to discover new technologies and new and better ways of doing things.  

d.     To succeed as an innovation hub, we must remain open to ideas and talents from around the world, and strengthen our links with local and global partners.  

e.     If we start to look inwards and pretend that we can do everything on our own, or reject ideas and people who are different from us, we are shooting ourselves in the foot and reducing our own chances of becoming a vibrant maritime hub.             

f.     Again, at the Singapore Maritime Lecture yesterday, the panel discussed whether collaboration allows us to move faster or to travel further. My view is that it is not one or the other, but both. It is not “or” but “and”. My view is that this is akin to how a flock of geese fly in formation. They help one another to fly not only faster, but also travel further. This is what I hope we can do in our maritime industry through our collaborations with internal and external partners.

14.    This has been why over the years, Maritime Singapore has worked closely with local and international partners, to discover and implement solutions in our maritime industry. We will renew our commitment: 

a.     On the local front, MPA will be signing the 4th Memorandum of Understanding with PSA on the Port Technology R&D programme.

i.     This MOU will support R&D programmes for our next bound of growth at the future Tuas Port. 

ii.    When fully operational in the 2040s, Tuas Port will be a fully automated and green port that can handle up to 65 million TEUs. 

b.     On the international front, MPA will extend the Memorandum of Understanding with the Research Council of Norway (RCN) for the 8th term. 

i.     This MOU will enable our research institutes in Singapore and Norway to form partnerships with maritime companies in both countries.

ii.    Both Norway and Singapore have strong maritime traditions  and this partnership will help us support our research institutes and companies go even further.

iii.   I also hope that this collaboration will allow us to develop new capabilities, in areas such as maritime digitalisation and sustainable shipping.

15.    It is also important for us to achieve this outcome by having inter-operable systems and solutions that can encourage collaborations and scale across countries and sectors.

a.     A good example is the use of containers to transport goods around the world.  

b.     While containerisation began in the 1940s and 1950s, it was only when the sizes of containers were standardised in the 1960s that container shipping took off in a bigger way. 

c.     With standardised container sizes, shipbuilders could scale the production of their vessels, and ports could do likewise with their equipment such as quay cranes and trucks.

16.    The same applies to the on-going digitalisation efforts in the maritime sector.  

17.    We have to continue pushing for common data standards so that we can integrate networks and systems. Don’t end up in silos and with systems that cannot talk to each other. We want to propel further adoption of digital solutions across global supply chains.

18.    The first area that MPA and partners have been working on is the bill of lading (or BL).

a.     It is a document of title, providing proof of ownership of cargo during transit. 

b.     As such, supply chain players have traditionally relied on holding the physical copy as a safeguard. 

c.     The processing of physical copies of BLs has been a bottleneck against greater efficiency in the maritime sector.

d.     The industry has been discussing the use of electronic bill of lading (or eBL) for some years now, but has been encumbered by multiple implementation challenges. 

e.     eBLs, like their paper counterparts, need to be commonly recognised and accepted by industry and across borders.  

f.     Only then can there be more widespread adoption of eBLs.

g.     Singapore knows that the future lies in digital trade.  We are one of the first maritime nations to enact a legislative framework that is aligned with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s (UNCITRAL) Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records.

h.     We have successfully completed an eBL trial between the Singapore and Rotterdam ports in January 2021. 

i.     This marks a milestone towards the digitalisation of the important Europe-Far East trade route, which these two major transhipment ports serve.

i.     This trial is significant in two respects. First, it demonstrated interoperability of electronic title transfer across different trade platforms – #dltledgers from Singapore and NaviPorta from the Netherlands. 

ii.    This was facilitated by MPA and IMDA’s TradeTrust digital utility which is based on open standards. 

iii.   Second, there is tangible commercial value. The trial showed significant time savings in using the eBL – from an average of six to ten days when using a hardcopy to less than 24 hours when using an eBL. 

j.     To accelerate adoption of eBLs, MPA, supported by IMDA and the Digital Container Shipping Association, will be issuing a call-for-proposal to bring together industry players and solution providers to develop and pilot e-BL solutions leveraging recent technology and legislation developments. 

i.     I hope the industry will participate in this call-for-proposal. Let us have your ideas, and I hope that this will be one further step that we can take together to advance what we have achieved.

19.    The second area is digitalOCEANSTM, a key project that will facilitate seamless ship-to-port connectivity through effective and harmonised information exchange between ports and ships. 

20.    This will help to speed up port clearances and reduces the administrative load on vessels, shippers and agents. 

a.     The Digital Container Shipping Association, or DCSA, will be officially joining MPA and six other MoU signatories of this key project. 

b.     As an industry body representing nine of the top container liners in the world and accounting for about 70% of global container trade, DCSA’s partnership will give a huge boost in this collaborative effort towards greater interoperability of digital maritime platforms.

21.    Our strive towards greater standardisation is part of our broader efforts to integrate networks and systems. 

a.     We will be making further moves to digitalise our bunkering sector, to enhance Singapore’s position as the world’s largest bunkering hub port in the world.

b.     MPA is launching a digitalisation plan for the bunker sector and it will cover two key areas.

i.     First, MPA will enhance the regulatory reporting process to receive data from bunker companies automatically and securely. 

ii.    A new MPA system, digitalBunker@SG, will be developed to save the sector an estimated 1,400 man-days annually.

iii.   Second, MPA will be issuing a call for joint industry projects to digitalise the end-to-end bunker purchase and delivery process as well as documentations such as the electronic bunker delivery note. I believe this will improve the security and efficiency for bunkering.

iv.    The sector can benefit from a highly digitalised workflow across many stakeholders including customers and financial institutions. 

v.     This will lead to higher productivity and stronger confidence in Singapore’s bunkering operations. 


22.    Ladies and gentlemen, I want to end my speech with a story I had shared at the Ministry of Transport’s Committee of Supply earlier this year. in the Summer Palace in Beijing, there was a stone boat built by Emperor Qianlong. 

a.     He had hoped the Qing Dynasty would be like the stone boat – unshakeable and unsinkable. 

b.     Unfortunately, the stone boat is also un-sailable, because it cannot move. 

c.     And we know what eventually happened to the Qing Dynasty when it became risk averse and closed its doors to the world. 

d.     When we build ships, it is not to anchor them in the harbour or in some lake in the Summer Palace. 

e.     It is to sail out to the oceans and open seas, including going into uncharted waters.

23.    To be an innovative maritime hub, we must have the pioneering spirit and sense of adventure that run in the blood of seafarers: 

a.     willing to leave our comfort zones and take calculated risks,

b.     never giving up when we encounter challenges and setbacks,

c.     and always looking to discover new lands and that pot of gold under the rainbow. 

24.    I wish you an enriching conference ahead, thank you.