Can Singapore port survive the digitization storm ?

Singapore has the second largest container terminal and had maintained a competitive edge so far compared to regional peers. Can it continue compete effectively as the industry is disrupted by digitization?

Given that 90% of global trade moves on the ocean, sea ports are critical nodes of the global supply chain1. Ports handle complex operational environments with multiple stakeholders-shipping lines, freight forwarders, terminal operators, government agencies and merchants. With digitization, lines between shipping, e-commerce, and logistics are blurring. For instance, CMA CGM, the third largest shipping liner globally, signed with Alibaba for online booking of container space2. Customers are demanding more from the ports.

Digitization is a potential tool for ports to respond and adopt to changing logistic landscape. To stay competitive in this evolving eco-system, ports need to be agile to accommodate varied quantity and type of cargo without impacting efficiency, productivity and security of the terminal operations. Sharing data and information in real-time among stakeholders becomes more critical.

Push for ports to digitize and become “Smart Port” provides a unique challenge and opportunity for Maritime and Ports Authority of Singapore (MPA) – statutory board in-charge of regulating and managing port services and facilities. Singapore has the second largest container port in the world, handling more than 1066 tons of cargo handled per minute- equivalent to total weight of 22 blue whale. Maritime sector is strategically important to Singapore, contributing 7% of GDP and employing 170,000 workers3. Singapore is facing increasing competition for transshipment from regional ports in Malaysia and Thailand. Furthermore, alternative trade routes such as arctic routes can impact Singapore’s edge as container terminal.

MPA focused on productivity gains through technology and value-added services as point of differentiation. MPA had taken a targeted approach on digitization of the process to complement its automation efforts. In 2015, MPA launched myMaritime@SG mobile app platform, which provides comprehensive real-time information services to the local maritime community. The app also enables reporting of suspicious and illegal activities via the feedback function4. Real time information platform allowed increase transparency, stream-line customer queries, crowd-source surveillance and facilitate e-payments.

MPA also focused on establishing the basic infrastructure needed for IoT connectivity. It launched 4G@Sea services to provide the shipping community with low-cost, high bandwidth and secure wireless broadband access in the port waters with coverage up to 15km from shore5. Real time data sharing among “intelligent equipment” with sensors gives a better insight into the location, performance and safety of large asset bases of container terminal operator.

As long term strategic bets, MPA had partnered with multiple stakeholders to develop the technology and capability required to become a “Smart Port”. MPA partnered with terminal operator TSA in R&D initiatives since 2013 committing SGD 15 million6. As a part of the initiative 30 Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), replaced the existing prime movers in container terminal operations to reduce manpower need and to improve efficiency. Automation of process in ports through AGVs and other technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicle for oil spillage surveillance will further increase the scope for digitization by providing new type of high quality data without human errors.

MPA also recognized the fact that big data can only be useful to the extend its leveraged to solve business/operational issues or to innovate. For example, using data from multiple sources to improve strategic sea space planning and higher level navigational safety in the face of growing vessel traffic. To encourage innovative solution for the port with Big Data, MPA has launched hackathons to collaborate with the start-up eco-system. It also partnered with Port of Rotterdam and Shell7.

As mega port Tuas project (SGD 1.8 MN) phase 1 opens in 2020, MPA should take a more holistic approach for its digitization push8. Currently there are multiple on-going initiatives with various stakeholders and educational institutions. It is important to ensure that overall supply chain is optimized. Furthermore, MPA should focus on developing human capital required to support and sustain the digitization effort. New type of talents such as data scientist, statistician, data engineers and software engineers will be key for a dynamic digitized supply chain.

As MPA embraces digitization, it should gear up for cyber security challenges. Ports are responsible not just for customer data, but for physical goods as well. Many stored goods can be regarded as strategic in nature for countries, increasing the need for robust security system. Currently the port security is limited to ISPS code, which focuses on physical threats only. MPA should develop a resilient framework to address cyber security threat and action plan. With interconnected ports, line of control becomes weak and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link9. Hence MPA might have to trade-off between efficiency gains and data security. ( 757 Words)


  1. International Maritime Organization website,
  2. World Maritime News,
  3. Ministry of Transport, Singapore ,
  4. The Maritime Executive Portal,
  5. MPA website,
  6. OpenGov website,
  7. World Maritime News,
  8. Channel news Asia,



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Student comments on Can Singapore port survive the digitization storm ?

  1. Fully agree with your analysis. It seems that, in the push to digitization, organizations have prioritized the rollout of digital solutions, but often forget about how their plans fit into the industry as a whole – with wasted resources as an inevitable consequence.

    It seems that Singapore in particular has done an excellent job of not only leading the charge, but ensuring that the rest of the industry follows the same standard. According to this (, the port has done an excellent job of integrating its solutions with other leading ports around the world, notably Rotterdam. I keenly look forward to watching the shipping industry follow a single digital standard in the years to come!

  2. Very interesting essay. I didn’t know that this traditional industry has been changed this far. This digitization could be a good way to keep their customers to stay at Singapore port considering the competition among ports in Asia. In addition to this, if they can reduce the lead time of the ships at their port, which is a huge cost for their customers, they can attract more customers to change their route. But like you mentioned on this essay, the cyber security issue should be managed wisely. I want to see how other ports react on this new industry shift.

  3. Excellent write-up. Your analysis makes me think of the data asset the ports now collect. Not only can they track container traffic, but with the technological advances you mentioned they are able to more precisely track the type of goods and product mix. This data provides information on supply / demand of particular goods, which is extremely valuable to multiple parties. Hedge funds will crave this data as in order to analyze leading indicators for economic cycles. Producers will want to know how supply and demand is changing in real time to better plan production schedules. This type of data reminds me of an analog in the energy space. The company Genscape ( has developed creative methods to monitor the supply / demand of energy. For example, they have heat sensors that deduct flows of oil through pipelines and use satellites to track the movements of oil tankers. This information is sold to market participants and investors who want more information on the forces impacting the price of oil.

    Ports will develop a very valuable data asset, and they will have the potential to monetize this data. Customers may fight back for control over the data, but ultimately ports are mission critical for shipping goods and they may have the upper hand in negotiations.

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