As the early morning breeze swept gently through the trees surrounding the pavilion atop Kent Ridge Park, it formed the perfect setting for the reunion of two old friends, Anthony Ranasinghe, 67, and James Goh, 68. The location was also apt as it overlooked the Pasir Panjang Terminal, where these pioneer officers from Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) first began their friendship.

James first joined the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in 1968, four years before Anthony. Then fresh out of school, James was considering job offers that came his way, one of which was for an administrative position at the then Singapore Harbour Board (SHB). He read up on the organisation, realised its importance in Singapore’s development, and decided to begin his career at SHB.

Anthony joined PSA in 1972, after he had completed National Service. He came across a job advertisement for a Boat Operations Officer at PSA in the newspapers and applied for it. He did not know then that he would remain there for 18 years.

Mr Anthony Ranasinghe (left) and Mr James Goh (right). Photo by Terence C. Fong

The two had met at an older section of Keppel Wharves referred to as “Godown 1 to 5”. It was where ships would head for the loading and discharging of their cargo. “The funny thing is, not many Singaporeans today would know this, “Godown 1 to 5” was located in an area then known as Jardine Steps; it was at one end of the port operations area and led all the way to the container port, and it is next to where Vivocity is now,” as James related some of Singapore’s port history.

Bumboats docked at Jardine Steps between 1968–70. Image Source: John C Young Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

According to Anthony, port operations were still in its early development in the 1970s and whenever conventional ships docked and discharged their loose cargo, “they would take the cargo out of the ship, put it on pallets and then store it in the godown. It was about two to two and a half tonnes of cargo each time.” While this mode of working may seem too menial by today’s standards, the workers had to also be mindful about how fast they were working. They implemented a rate of work, which was then regulated and checked hourly to ensure that the operation was on time.

This all changed in the later half of 1972 with the advent of containers. Anthony described it as a “quantum leap in productivity because each 20-foot container would have 18 tonnes of cargo compared to the meagre two tonnes from each loading and unloading cycle each time previously.” James said in jest that they can even be regarded as the ‘pioneers’ of containerisation.

James recalled that when he joined the port, there was a godown which was the testbed of containerisation. It was where staff training was conducted before staff began work at the container port. Life at the container port became much faster as they strived to achieve targets, making sure that ships arrived at the designated times for the prompt loading of the containers and their subsequent discharging.

Mr Anthony presenting foreign visitors with a token bearing the new official PSA crest in the 1970s after its transition from SHB to PSA. Photo courtesy of Mr Anthony Ranasinghe

However smooth daily operations might have been, there were setbacks particularly during the organisational transition from what was then the Singapore Harbour Board to the present Port of Singapore Authority.

In 1968, the slogan that came to define the PSA, “the port that never sleeps”, was coined, and in James’ words, “to say [the issues that followed] caused unhappiness was really an understatement”.

“To attain this reputation, we had to go on a 24-hour shift and without overtime pay because it was costly,” shared James. In fact, after spending a couple of months in the operations department, he switched to take on administrations and was entrusted with the goliath task of rolling out the new shift-work schedule.

“Previously, everybody worked Mondays to Saturdays, with Sundays counted as overtime. Now, we took away the 9am to 5pm working hours and [placed] everybody on rotation. In other words, the 24-hour shift was now divided into three shifts, 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm and 11pm to 7am. If you worked on a Sunday, you no longer [received] double-pay. [Instead], they were given another day as off-in-lieu.” This new system caused much unhappiness then as many of the cargo hands were largely uneducated immigrants from India and Indonesia and their incomes were halved as a result of this transition.

Although the workers were unhappy, they dared not go on strike because of the strong stance the government had. Instead, they resorted to work-to-rule. James cited an example, that if their scheduled shift started at 7am and ended at 3pm, the workers would take their time and start prepping to knock off at 2.30pm. This passive-aggressive move resulted in a slow turnaround and decreased productivity at the port for three days.

What happened thereafter left an indelible mark on James’ time at PSA. “The then-Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew was on an official visit to Japan with a delegation when this happened. He cut short his visit and came back to resolve this problem because he knew how critical the port operations were to Singapore’s early economy.”

Upon his return, Mr Lee addressed the workers and James described the moment as one that was “very harsh and painful and filled with animosity as the new work schedule and significant pay cuts were there to stay.” He also recalled how the administration staff had to be escorted out by the PSA police because workers would actually wait around after work to rough them up for coming up with the new 24-hour roster and hence cutting their overtime pay.

By 1972 when Anthony joined the industry, port operations had become more systematic. Apart from handling operations, a significant area of change was also the increasing use of mechanical equipment, such as container quay cranes, straddle carriers and gantry cranes, which contributed to the colossal leap in productivity at the port. PSA also became the first container terminal in Southeast Asia. This meant that more shipping lines were drawn to Singapore as a hub for their container operations, thereby propelling its growth.

Mr James Goh (right) on board one of the vessels in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Mr James Goh

From their time in the industry, Anthony and James had different takeaways. “If I were to look back at my 18 years in PSA, one of my fondest memories is the friends I made there. I have kept in touch with many of them, we were colleagues initially and over time, many of us got to know each other better and I stayed in touch with them even after I left,” reminisced Anthony.

For James, he had a fond memory of a safety poster he came across during a training session on industrial accidents. It was a poster with a chicken and a cracked egg, with the statement “Accidents don’t just happen, they are caused,” implying that the cracked egg could not possibly have damaged itself. James confessed that after the training, the message stayed with him even till today as he would remind family members to be careful if he spotted any hazardous objects lying around the home.

After the interview, the two old friends continued catching up on their personal lives as the port activities in the background carried on ceaselessly.


Written by: Terence Cayden Fong

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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