Singapore’s port and port history…why it shouldn’t be forgotten


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I wrote this book in the hope that the history of Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar Port and Anson, an important area that no longer exists today, will not be forgotten forever.

Indeed, the founder of modern Singapore, Thomas Stamford Raffles, who arrived on the south coast in 1819, never imagined that in just 200 years there would be a major transformation of the area.

If he had arrived back in a kind of time warp in 2017, he would not have recognized the place. Aside from the shock of seeing modern ships speed past his sailing vessels, he would not see the original coastline of hills and forests. There would be no small settlements with people going about their daily lives and moving along the coast in small boats. And fish from them.

The beaches would have been replaced by concrete quays. Of course he would find it strange that a large part of the shipyards would be empty. With tall metal structures to one side, standing still and silent. Looking beyond the quays he would have noticed that it was huge and wondered why nobody was there.

While he probably would have known in the 1820s that work to reclaim the coast for a port began just three years after his arrival, he could not have imagined the massive scale of work taking place at the port throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, only declining in the early 21st century.

A port would be built here. Thousands of people from Malaya, Indonesia, China and India would move here. Many would work at the port and many others would set up businesses at the port. The whole area would grow because the port, which was a conventional port like other ports around the world, would play an important role in the country’s economic growth.

In conventional ports, the cargo is in pallets, crates, bags or nets. These would be loaded from ship’s derricks or shore-based cranes, including crane trucks with booms extended.

From the mid-1960s, however, there was an unstoppable change. Ports began revising their operations to accommodate the trend towards using large containers. The Port of Singapore was quick to make this change. There was further land reclamation, notably at the East Lagoon, which was on the edge of the harbor opposite the Shenton Way business district. The first container shipyards were opened there in 1972.

As container traffic increased, making the port of Singapore even the busiest in the world, they needed more space. The authorities decided to expand to the port side, demolishing entire blocks of pre-war buildings and relocating tens of thousands of people.

Then there was a rethink. It was decided to move the port. All container operations would be moved along the southwest coast to Pasir Panjang, with the final destination being the Tuas Megaport.

The move would result in the container berths at the East Lagoon, previously called the Tanjong Pagar Terminal, and the port side, which had been vacated in the past for increased container operations, to become vacant by 2017.

This is the empty space that Raffles would have seen if he had arrived in Singapore in some sort of time warp. Anything that existed from 1819 at the time of his actual arrival through 2017 now no longer existed.

A short history by Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar and Anson Portside is available from Epigram Bookshop for $30. The author will also make an e-book available starting next week (1 August).

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