Straits Steamship Company


The Straits Steamship Company was formed as The Straits Navigation Company in Singapore on 20 January 1890. It was the brainchild of Theodore Cornelius Bogaardt, a Dutchman who was one of the company's seven directors. Before the establishment of Straits Steamship, European companies trading in Singapore were served by European shipping companies which included English, German, French, Italian and Dutch shipping lines. Mansfield & Company directors (A. P. Adams, D. J. Mathens and J. Burkinshaw) teamed up with wealthy tycoons such as Tan Jiak Kim, Tan Keong Saik and Lee Cheng Yan to form the first joint Singapore-European shipping enterprise in 1890. This was the Straits Steamship Company. World events such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping across Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, boosted trade relations between Europe and Asia. Singapore's status as a port-of-call grew in importance as a result. The partnership of sorts, of old and new, East and West, colonial and local has caused the company to emerge as a vital player in the future of Singapore maritime. It was later incorporated as part of Keppel Corporation, as Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation Shipping division.

The company began with a nominal capital of $10 million. All of its shareholders were locals. There were initially five ships to the company's name. The company operated mainly on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially at Melaka, Penang and some small river ports. In the first twenty-five years, the company transported mainly tin ores. Other cargoes were coffee, pepper, rice, rubber and tobacco. Besides goods, the ships ferried passengers, who were mostly Chinese labourers from China who came to work on rubber estates and tin mines in the region. By 1914, the Straits Steamship had acquired seventeen vessels. Despite going through two world wars, the company thrived and continued to make acquisitions. It went through diversifications. 

Wars and The Great Depression
During the First World War (1918-1919), Singapore international and regional trade remained buoyant. With the exception of the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Line (NDL) which had disappeared, other local businesses and foreign companies operating out of Singapore did well. The Straits Steamship Company was no exception. Straits Steamship together with Blue Funnel, were able to fill in the service gaps in Thailand and Borneo, apart from existing services to Singapore. However, during the war, the government requisitioned the company's vessels as the company suffered a drop in profits. After the war, as law and order returned, trading conditions improved and European purchases of Asian goods rose steadily. The rubber industry also expanded and the company saw the need to expand its fleet. By the beginning of 1922, the Straits Steamship Fleet stood at twenty-four vessels with a combined tonnage of 25 446. Its worth was estimated to be $5.5 million.

Under the stewardship of Somerville, the company made a series of acquisitions over the next 12 years other than adding new ships to the fleet. The port of Singapore changed to accommodate the expansion. The passage for ships was more navigable as swamps were infilled. Railway terminals, docks and warehouses had been built. As fast as expansion took place, so did the Great Depression and its effects which began to set in the region in the 1930s. By mid-1930s, profits had fallen, services were curtailed, tonnage was laid up or scrapped. Despite salary cuts, none of the staff was laid off. The company recovered from depression as profits began to rise from 1937. In the same year, Straits Steamship was party to agreement to form Malayan Airways in 1937. It gave up management of the airline in 1957. This airline became known as Singapore International Airlines since then (SIA). By the end of the 1930s, its subsidiaries and associates were flourishing as well. The prosperity that was beginning to ensue was short-lived however, as the Second World War broke out. 

At the outbreak of war, the Straits Steamships Fleet stood at 51 vessels with a combined tonnage of 38 860 gross. It was able to sustain itself despite suffering heavy losses during the period. In that year, the company was shifted briefly to United Kingdom where it was registered as Singapore Straits Steamship Company. (There was already a Straits Steamship Company which operated in Menai Straits.) The impact of the invasion of the Japanese was immediate. Under heavy bombings, crew, passengers, ships and all records of the company were lost. As between 1941-1945, 33 ships were lost. Ports of call had been destroyed; navigational aids in Sumatra, wharves, godowns in Malaya and jetties were either in short supply or non-existent. To commemorate the loss of lives and sufferings of its members, a ceremony was held at the Cathedral of the Port of Singapore on 22 May 1946 by the British Coastal Shipping Community of the Colony. The Straits Steamship was able to commence its trading activities while rebuilding its fleet a month before the service. 

Post-war developments

The company recovered as much as it could from the loss and damage of war in the 1950s. After recovery, it began its path of expansion again and started to diversify. In 1946, it revived its interest in aviation. Malayan Airlines had been registered in 1936 by the company together with Wearne Brothers but it did not take off especially with the outbreak of war. The company revisited the idea in 1946 and flew its first commercial flight in April 1946. In 1947, the Straits Steamship Company was re-registered in Singapore under its original name. It was only in 1957 when Malaya gained independence that the company went public. Straits Steamship then entered the tug and lightirage business in the same year but faced difficulties trading with other emerging new nations especially Indonesia, particularly in the early 1960s.

The Straits Company diversified into other ventures such as property, leisure, warehousing and distribution in 1970s. In 1983, Keppel Corporation Ltd (KCL) of Singapore bought Ocean Transport and Trading majority share holding in the Straits Steamship Company (58%) and Straits Steamship then became a subsidiary of KLC and the Keppel's Group property arm. In 1989, when property became the company's core business, Straits Steamship Company changed its name to Straits Steamship Land. The ship owning part of Straits Steamship Company was split off and named Steamers Maritime Holdings Ltd and was listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore. In 1997, Straits Steamship Land became Keppel Land and Steamers Maritime became Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation (Keppel T&T). In the same year, together with Singapore Press Holdings, Britain's Cable & Wireless and Hongkong's Pacific Century CyberWorks, Keppel T&T launched M1, Singapore's second cellular operator.

Joshua Chia

Tan, T. Y et al. (2005).  Maritime heritage of Singapore (pp. 142-145).  Singapore: Suntree Media. 
(Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 MAR).

Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890-1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)

BroadGroup. (2005-2007). Press centre. Keppel T&T announces major investment in premier data centres. Retrieved January 5, 2008, from

Keppel Land. (2003). Keppel Land: Our history. Retrieved December 31, 2004 from (then click on Shareholder Information > Corporate Profile > Our History)

Keppel Telecommunications & Transformation. (2003). Keppel T&T milestones. Retrieved December 31, 2004 from

Singapore Press Holdings Limited. (2007). Other businesses. Mobile One. Retrieved January 5, 2008, from

Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore. Retrieved December 31, 2004 from (then click on History > The History of Straits Steamship Company Part 1)

The information in this article is as valid as at 2008 and correct as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Commerce and Industry>>Transportation
Shipping companies (Marine transportation)--Singapore
Straits Steamship Company
Law and government>>Safety administration>>Marine transportation

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2008.