THE members of the shipping community attending last Friday's Singapore Maritime Foundation New Year cocktail reception had a lot to celebrate.
Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Transport, announced the advance estimates of Singapore's port and maritime performance last year. With one exception, the story is of continuous growth since 2010.
Mr Lui said that Port of Singapore achieved good growth in annual vessel arrival tonnage, and container and cargo throughput. The Singapore Registry of Ships grew steadily and ranks among the top 10 worldwide. Singapore also remained the top bunkering port in 2014, though throughput dipped.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) was also able to point to the massive size of the shipping community here. Singapore continues to attract a diverse range of maritime businesses and is now home to over 130 international shipping groups and a total of 5,000 maritime establishments. The maritime cluster employs more than 170,000 people and contributes some 7 per cent to Singapore's gross domestic product. That percentage is remarkable. In the UK, for example, the figure is less than one per cent.
Annual vessel arrival tonnage reached a record high of 2.37 billion GT (gross tonnage) in 2014, a 1.9 per cent increase over the 2.33 billion GT achieved in 2013. Container ships and tankers were the top contributors, each accounting for around 30 per cent of total vessel arrival tonnage.
The MPA figures just released do not mention ship call numbers. It would be interesting to see last year's ship call numbers as there is a remorseless trend towards very large container ships. The CSCL Globe is currently the largest container vessel in the world at 400 m long and 58.6 m wide and with an official capacity of 19,000 TEU (twenty foot equivalent units). She has just made her maiden trip from Asia to Europe. With more giants like her coming into service, it would be logical to expect vessel numbers to stabilise for a while or even dip.
But if last year's trends in container throughput continue, the medium-term outlook must be for increased ship numbers as well as higher TEU figures. In 2014 throughput was 33.9 million TEU in 2014, up 4 per cent from the 2013 figure. Total cargo tonnage handled last year also rose 3.5 per cent over 2013 to reach 580.8 million tonnes.
Meanwhile, Singapore remained the world's top bunkering port in 2014. But the total volume of bunkers, 42.4 million tonnes, was down slightly compared with 42.7 million tonnes in 2012 and and 2013. Those years represented a drop in volumes from the peak 2011 figure of 43.2 million tonnes.
The bunker market is a complex one, and becoming more so. Singapore's strategic position means that it remains the obvious place to take on bunkers, if the price is right. Generally prices in Singapore are highly competitive but there is a strong competitor, which can significantly undercut prices here. That is the Russian Far East (RFE). It now makes sense, for example, for container ships on transpacific runs to make an RFE call for bunkers.
There are other reasons that the the steam has gone out of the bunker market here, including the great efforts that shipowners go to these days to avoid burning more fuel than they absolutely need to, hence the current practice of "slow steaming". The fuel price has dropped dramatically in recent months but shipowners are unlikely to throw away recently learnt frugal habits.
The other success story announced by Mr Lui is the Singapore Registry of Ships which grew by 11.7 per cent, bringing the total tonnage of the Singapore flag fleet to 82.2 million and consolidating Singapore's position as one of world's the top 10 ship registries.
This "top table" position means that Singapore has an important role in policymaking at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The year ahead promises continuing debate on safety topics including, still after all these years of concern, bulk carrier safety and passenger ship evacuation. Then there is the near intractable debate over shipping's potential contribution to a Green Climate Fund. It should be another interesting year at IMO.