Straits Steamship Company
by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia
The Straits Steamship Company (SSC) was formed as The Straits Navigation Company in Singapore on 20 January 1890. It was the brainchild of Dutchman Theodore Cornelius Bogaardt, who was one of the company’s seven directors. Before the establishment of SSC, European companies trading in Singapore were served by European shipping companies, including English, German, French, Italian and Dutch shipping lines. Bogaardt realised that he must have Chinese backing if he was to compete in Chinese seas. In 1890, he included wealthy local tycoons, such as Tan Jiak Kim, Tan Keong Saik and Lee Cheng Yan, as well as Mansfield & Company directors (A. P. Adams, D. J. Mathens and J. Burkinshaw), to form the first joint Singapore-European shipping enterprise, the SSC.1
Background and history
World events, such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Industrial Revolution sweeping across Europe at the end of the 19th 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, and colonial and local – helped the SSC emerge as a vital player in Singapore’s maritime industry. The company was later incorporated into Keppel Corporation, as the Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation Shipping division.2
The SSC began with a nominal capital of $10 million. All of its shareholders were then locals and the company initially had five ships. It operated mainly on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially at Malacca, Penang and some small river ports. In its first 25 years, the SSC transported mainly tin ores. Other cargo included coffee, pepper, rice, rubber and tobacco. Besides goods, the ships also ferried passengers – mostly labourers from China who came to work on rubber estates and tin mines in the region. By 1914, the SSC had acquired 17 vessels.3 Despite going through two world wars, the company thrived and diversified.
World wars and Great Depression
During World War I (1918–19), Singapore’s international and regional trade remained buoyant. With the exception of the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Line (NDL) which disappeared, other local businesses and foreign companies operating out of Singapore did well. The SSC was no exception. Together with Blue Funnel, it filled the service gaps in Thailand and Borneo, apart from existing services to Singapore. During the war, however, the government requisitioned its vessels, which led to a drop in profits for the SSC. As law and order returned after the war, 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 SSC fleet comprised 24 vessels with a combined tonnage of 25,446. The SSC was estimated to be worth $5.5 million.4
By 1927, the port of Singapore had changed to accommodate the trade expansion. The passage for ships became more navigable as swamps were infilled. Railway terminals, docks and warehouses were built. As fast as expansion took place, so did the Great Depression and its effects, which took root in the region from 1928. The SSC registered a drop in profit from $1.07 million in 1927 to $0.99 million in 1928. By the 1930s, profits had fallen, services curtailed and tonnage laid up or scrapped. Despite salary cuts, none of the staff was laid off. Under the stewardship of D. K. Somerville, the company made a series of acquisitions and added new ships to the fleet between the 1920s and 1932. Adapting to the times, the SSC’s profit increased steadily from $332,000 to $826,000 during the period 1932 to 1940. In 1936, the SSC was party to an agreement to form Malayan Airways, which was subsequently formed and registered in Singapore in 1937. By the end of the 1930s, the company’s subsidiaries and associates were flourishing as well. The emerging prosperity was short-lived, however, as World War II broke out.5
In 1940, there were 51 vessels in the SSC fleet with a combined gross tonnage of 38,860. The SSC was able to sustain itself despite suffering heavy losses during the war period. In 1943, the company was moved briefly to the United Kingdom where it was registered as Singapore Straits Steamship Company because there was already a Straits Steamship Company operating there. The impact of the Japanese invasion was immediate. Under heavy bombings, the company lost crew, passengers, ships and records. Between 1941 and 1945, 30 ships were lost. Ports of call were destroyed, and navigational aids in Sumatra, godowns in Malaya, wharves and jetties were either in short supply or non-existent. To commemorate the loss of lives and sufferings of its members, the British Coastal Shipping Community of the Colony held a ceremony at the Cathedral of the Port of Singapore on 22 May 1946. By then, the SSC had resumed its trading activities while rebuilding its fleet.6
Malayan Airlines had not met with success, especially with the outbreak of war. Revisiting its aviation interest in 1946, the SSC flew its first commercial flight in May 1947. That same year, the SSC was re-registered in Singapore under its original name. 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 1957, it gave up managing the airline and went public, venturing into the lighterage industry.7
The SSC diversified into other ventures such as property, leisure, warehousing and distribution in the 1970s and ’80s.8 In July 1983, Keppel Corporation Ltd purchased a 58-percent stake in Straits Steamship from Ocean Transport & Trading.9 In September that same year, Keppel increased its stake in the SSC from 58 to 82 percent. In 1989, when property became the company’s core business, the SSC was renamed Straits Steamship Land (SSL). The ship-owning part of SSC was split off and named Steamers Maritime Holdings Ltd, which was listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore. In 1997, in a Keppel Group-wide exercise to adopt a fresh cohesive identity, SSL became Keppel Land,10 while Steamers Maritime became Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation (Keppel T&T). That same year, together with Singapore Press Holdings, Britain’s Cable & Wireless and Hongkong Telecom, Keppel T&T launched M1, a cellular operator in Singapore.11
1. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE); Tan, T. Y., et al. (2005). Maritime heritage of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 142. (Call no.: RSING q387.5095957 MAR)
2. Tan, T. Y., et al. (2005). Maritime heritage of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, pp. 143–144. (Call no.: RSING q387.5095957 MAR)
3. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 17, 20, 24–25, 31, 36, 43, 46. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)
4. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 45–52. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)
5. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 63–64, 56–70, 162–163, 242, 245. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)
6. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 164, 165–228, 214, 216, 233–234. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)
7. Tregonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore: A history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 227, 242–245. (Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE); Singapore Airlines. (2016). Our heritage. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Singapore Airlines website: https://www.singaporeair.com/en_UK/us/flying-withus/our-story/our-heritage/
8. J. M. Sassoon and Co. (1974). Straits Steamship Company Limited. Singapore: Author, pp. 7–9. (Call no.: RSING 398.54095957 STR)
9. Keppel to proceed with acquisition of Straits Steamship. (1983, July 23). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Keppel Corporation. (2010). About us: Significant milestones. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Keppel Corporation website: http://www.kepcorp.com/en/content.aspx?sid=112; Chan, O. C. (1983, September 27). Keppel raises stake in Steamers to 82.2pc. The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Keppel Land. (1999). Keppel Land annual report: Corporate profile. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Keppel Land website: http://www.keppelland.com.sg/ar1999/corporate.htm
11. Keppel Corporation. (2010). Heritage. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Keppel Corporation website: http://www.kepcorp.com/en/content.aspx?sid=86; 2000 collect mobile phones with free-calls offer. (1997, January 26). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2008 and correct as far 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.