May 10, 2012

Singapore Sling. Or catapult.

Comparisons between Singapore and India are odious; the former is a tiny city State whose entire population, at five million, is roughly two-thirds the number of people (7 million) that travel every day in the suburban railway system of just one Indian city- Mumbai. The politics is different too. Let us just say that Singapore's politics is differently manipulative than that in India and leave it at that.

Now that that is all over and done with:

If you are an Indian in shipping, read former Singaporean Primer Minister Goh Chok Tong's speech at Bimco's recent Annual General Meeting and weep at a future that will see India becoming incrementally less important to the industry. Weep again, because it is not difficult to reverse this slow slide to oblivion; it is just that we in India will not do anything to do so.

Singapore, already a bigger maritime hub than Hong Kong, is well on its way to taking centre stage in a future that will see, thanks to China, maritime economic power shifting to the East. The country wants to become a leading international maritime centre. To do this, says Goh, "First, we invest in maritime R&D infrastructure; second, we formulate pro-innovation policies to meet changing business needs; and third, we develop maritime talent to drive innovation across industry".

Goh called the development of the third- development of local maritime talent- as "our most important prong." India, weep again.

Amongst the slew of measures Singapore has already taken- collaboration between the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) and some excellent local universities to build up R&D infrastructure- the results are available and are being used by local industry; the setting up of the Singapore Maritime Institute on the back of a S$ 250 million fund (another S$ 150 million standing by); a S$100 million Maritime Innovation and Technology Fund (MINT Fund) to provide "co-funding support for R&D projects and test-bedding activities", and another S$100 million Maritime Singapore Green Initiative to encourage greater innovation in clean and green shipping- with concessions granted in port dues to ships that exceed IMO's EEDI requirements.

The Indian maritime world is, in contrast, still in the Stone Age. Development means just announcing the construction of new ports here, hang the environment, demand forecasts, archaic tariff structures or service innovation (which could start with coming down on rampant corruption in everything, including the constructions and operations of Indian ports, by the way). There is no R&D in India and there is no useful collaboration between industry and the Government. Nobody is looking at the future of shipping seriously. Nobody is funding it.

And developing maritime talent? What the bleep is that?
 Since India does not recognise that attracting top-notch youngsters to the industry is important, we fail the future before we have even begun to look at it. We do not recognise the need for those already in shipping to enhance skills because we treat them as casual labour on daily wages and nothing more. We set up a maritime university that is mired in corruption and mediocrity even before it is launched. Unsurprising, therefore, that we are a country that now produces- even compared to our own standards of twenty five years ago- seafarers whose competence is considered increasingly suspect internationally, many who have reached their level of incompetence and who are ill equipped- academically or otherwise- to learn anything new or more advanced.

Our organisations and people ashore, whether in government or industry, are not any better- given what is required of them, they do not have to be. They are happy in their wells, sourcing certified warm bodies and periodically declaring that the job those bodies do is not rocket science. (Neither is arranging documents, tickets, medicals and feel good seminars, actually, but let us leave that aside for now.)  This is why technical, environmental or operational innovation coming out of India is zilch. This is why we have hardly any competitive or sizeable chartering, insurance, shipbuilding, repair or reinsurance organisations to speak of. The main reason why our standards are falling across the board and why shipping is going backwards is that nobody is doing anything that will change it. Nobody is tasked- whether in the public or private sector- to produce talent that will dominate the industry in future. There is no attempt to be competitive. Nobody is funding institutions that will research, innovate or pursue the development of future maritime talent.

Singapore is doing all that and more. And that is why that tiny city State- that relied, in 1969, on the Indian origin Captain Sayeed to form NOL, its first shipping setup - will catapult itself even further beyond Indian reach. Singapore is planning to compete with London; India, in contrast, is unable to compete with even Sri Lanka, as we have seen in connection with a port or two in Kerala.

The same ex PM Goh, who worked under Captain Sayeed at NOL long ago, said later, "None of us had ever run a shipping line and Captain Sayeed was patient in teaching us the ropes". The same Goh has today outlined a vision for Singapore's maritime domination; is India capable of meeting the challenge? Are we capable of doing anything else except basking in historical- and tinted glassed- glory?

Even though we are a nation of a billion plus versus Singapore's 5 million (one and a half million of whom are foreigners), I suspect not. I suspect the fight is over before it has begun, and I suspect that the old adage has been proved once again- that sometimes, it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog that counts.

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