Straits Steamship Company


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 SSC’s establishment, European companies trading in Singapore were served by European shipping companies, including English, German, French, Italian and Dutch shipping lines. Bogaardt realised that he needed Chinese backing if he was to compete in Chinese seas. In 1890, he got 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. As a result, Singapore’s status as a port of call grew in importance, and 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, the government requisitioned the vessels of the SSC, and its profits declined. 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. During 1918–19, Singapore’s international and regional trade was buoyant. With the exception of the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Line (NDL), other local businesses and foreign companies operating out of Singapore did well. The SSC was no exception. Together with Blue Funnel ships, it filled the service gaps in Thailand and Borneo, apart from existing services to Singapore. 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 then.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. However, the effects of the Great Depression were felt 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 further, 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. From 1932 to 1940, the SSC’s profit increased steadily from $332,000 to $826,000. 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. In 1940, the SSC fleet had 51 vessels with a combined gross tonnage of 38,860.

The emerging prosperity was short-lived, however, as World War II broke out. During the heavy bombing of the Japanese invasion, the company lost crew, passengers, ships and records.5 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.

In 1943, the company was moved briefly to the United Kingdom, where it was registered as Singapore Straits Steamship Company, since there was already another company named Straits Steamship Company operating there.

The SSC was able to sustain itself despite suffering heavy losses during the war period. To commemorate the loss of lives and suffering 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.

Postwar developments
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. After recovering from the loss and damage of war in the 1950s, the company began to expand and 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, while Steamers Maritime became Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation (Keppel T&T).10 That same year, Keppel T&T launched M1, a cellular operator in Singapore, together with Singapore Press Holdings, Britain’s Cable & Wireless, and Hongkong Telecom.11

Joshua Chia

1. K. G. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore: A History of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890–1965 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1967), 17 (Call no. RSING 387.5095957 TRE); Tan Tai Yong et al., Maritime Heritage of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2005), 142. (Call no. RSING q387.5095957 MAR)
2. Tan et al., Maritime Heritage of Singapore, 143–44.
3. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore, 43.
4. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore, 53.  
5. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore, 165–221.  
6. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore, 227–29.  
7. Tregonning, Home Port Singapore, 227, 242–45; “Our Heritage,” Singapore Airlines, accessed 30 December 2016.
8. J. M. Sassoon and Co., Straits Steamship Company Limited (Singapore: J.M. Sassoon & Co., 1974), 7–9. (Call no. RSING 398.54095957 STR)
9. “Keppel to Proceed with Acquisition of Straits Steamship,” Straits Times, 23 July 1983, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chan Oi Chee, “Keppel Raises Stake in Steamers to 82.2pc,” Business Times, 27 September 1983, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Jacqueline Woo, “Keppel Started as First S'pore-European Shipping Firm,” Straits Times, 11 August 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
11. “Our Heritage,” Keppel Corporation Limited, accessed 1 December 2021; “2000 Collect Mobile Phones with Free-calls Offer,” Straits Times, 26 January 1997, 24. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 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.

Straits Steamship Company
Shipping companies (Marine transportation)--Singapore