Singapore Harbour Board (1913–1964)

The Singapore Harbour Board was established because the then privately-run Tanjong Pagar Dock company was unable to finance the much needed port developments and secure government control over policies affecting port, trade and shipping interests. This led the Straits Settlements government to expropriate the company and set up the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board in 1905, before replacing it with the Singapore Harbour Board in 1913. In 1964, the Singapore Harbour Board was replaced by the Port of Singapore Authority.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the launch of steamship services, Singapore started receiving more ships from around the mid-19th century.1 These ships would offload or load cargo at wharves, or seek repair and maintenance services at docks that were owned and operated by private companies such as the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and New Harbour Dock Company.2 To gain a greater share of the wharf and dock business, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company not only extended its wharves but also acquired others.3 By 1899, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, which controlled most of Singapore’s port facilities, fully merged with the New Harbour Dock Company.4

Even though the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company essentially had a monopoly in the port business, its facilities were outdated and insufficient and could not cope with the increased number of ships calling at the port as well as the rise in trading activities. By the early 1900s, dissatisfaction with the port facilities was at an all-time high but, despite being aware of the urgent need to rectify the situation, the company was unable to fund the much-needed port developments.5  

As a result, the Straits Settlements government expropriated the company in 1905 and set up the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board to take over the wharves and dry docks.6 On 30 August 1912, the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlement passed an ordinance for the constitution of boards to manage and control the ports of Singapore and Penang. The ordinance came into effect on 1 July 1913 and the Singapore Harbour Board was formed to replace the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board.7

The Singapore Harbour Board comprised a chairman and up to 10 members. The chairman was appointed by the governor, while members were nominated from the business and shipping communities. The board was to manage the business on “strictly commercial principles” as directed by the Secretary of State for Colonies. The government was to be involved in the board’s policy and not in its administration.8 The Singapore Harbour Board also employed officers and staff to manage the wharves and dockyards as well as skilled and unskilled labourers.

Pre-war period
Following its inception, the Singapore Harbour Board was not financially able to undertake extensive development plans that required large capital investment. Instead, it sought to complete the construction of Graving Dock, Kings Dock and Empire Dock. In the late 1920s, the board began to ramp up its development and extension plans, which involved an extension toward the west side of the main wharf under the West Wharf Extension Scheme, as well as the enlargement of the dry docks and reconstruction of the eastern part of the wharf. The wharf extension programme added more than 3,000 feet of new wharfage, which could accommodate large ocean-going ships. The extension programme also included 11 transit godowns, which provided an additional storage of 250,000 sq ft and was completed in 1938. In 1939, reconstruction works in the eastern wharf, expected to take two and a half years, commenced. Improvements to the dry dock facilities, however, did not make much progress and stopped when the Second World War broke out.9

Before the Second World War, the fuel oil, coal, latex and palm oil industries of Singapore and Malaya were expanding and each required either specific handling or storage facilities. Thus, besides enlarging the wharves and docks, land within the Singapore Harbour Board’s premises were also leased to companies for the storage of fuel oil, latex and palm oil. The board also provided other facilities for these industries such as floating bunkering plants for coal handling and steam heating plants for the bulk handling of palm oil.10

Post-war period

The Japanese Occupation of Singapore in 1942 saw major destruction to its port facilities with close to 70 percent of the transit sheds destroyed and ship yards extensively damaged. Maintenance work on port installations also halted during the Occupation.11 Thus, after the Singapore Harbour Board regained control of the port facilities after the end of the Occupation in 1946, it was faced with the uphill task of repairing and restoring them. The harbour also simultaneously experienced a huge flow of shipping traffic for trade and ship repair, equipment for the British military, as well as food for the population.12

The Singapore Harbour Board quickly started on a series of rebuilding works that ranged from repairs to dockyards, wharves, quays and roads to the construction of new godowns and offices. When these were completed, the board went on to implement long term development projects for the port. These included the new Queen’s Dock, with improved repair facilities capable of servicing an increasing number of large ships calling at the port, as well as the East Lagoon Scheme, which sought to expand port facilities in anticipation of increases in cargo handling.13

The board also made modernisation efforts in areas such as labour supply and management. For instance, port workers were employed directly instead of through labour suppliers, and mechanical cargo handling equipment such as cranes, forklifts and tractors were adopted.14

A new Port Authority

In 1957, a port commission chaired by Sir Eric Millbourn, an adviser on ports to the British Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, was set up to review all the port and landing facilities in Singapore and make recommendations on their future management and development.15 The Commission was set up by the government in view of the many constitutional changes taking place in other parts of the world that would inevitably have an impact on Singapore. The Commission’s primary concern, according to Millbourn, was the commercial aspects of the port.16 The inquiry led to the recommendation for a new port authority to assume the duties of the Singapore Harbour Board and some functions of the Master Attendant, such as the regulation of shipping in the port and management of lighthouses.17 This recommendation was accepted by the government and in 1964 the Singapore Harbour Board was replaced by a new port body called the Port of Singapore Authority.18

Joanna Tan

1. Maritime Museum, Singapore and Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore Port History (Singapore: Port of Singapore Authority, 1982), 7. (Call no. RSING 387.1095957 SIN)
2. Singapore Harbour Board, The Singapore Harbour Board, 1959 (Singapore: Singapore Harbour Board, 1959), n. p. (Call no. RCLOS 387.1095957 SIN)
3. Maritime Museum, Singapore and Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore Port History, 11.
4. Singapore Harbour Board, Singapore Harbour Board, 1959, 5.
5. Singapore Harbour Board, The Singapore Harbour Board, 1959, 5.
6. Ellen Wong, The Singapore Harbour Board, 1913–1941 (Singapore: University of Malaya, 1960), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 387.1095957 WON)
7. “Harbour Boards,” Straits Times, 1 July 1913, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Wong, Singapore Harbour Board, 8–10.
9. Wong, Singapore Harbour Board, 41–42, 47, 50.
10. Wong, Singapore Harbour Board, 11, 17, 26.
11. Singapore Harbour Board, The Singapore Harbour Board, 1949 (Singapore: Singapore Harbour Board, 1949), n.p. (Call no. RCLOS 387.1095957 SIN)
12. Yeo Piah Woon, The Singapore Harbour Board 1946–57 (Singapore: University of Singapore, 1975), 6–7. (Call no. RSING 387.1095957 YEO)
13. Yeo, Singapore Harbour Board 1946–57, 7, 9–11.
14. Yeo, Singapore Harbour Board 1946–57, 22, 29.
15. “Port Commission’s Work Nears End,” Straits Times, 17 September 1957, 2.  (From NewspaperSG)
16. “What Your Port Means to You By Sir Eric,” Straits Times, 30 August 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Colony Shippers Hail Port Plan,” Straits Times, 8 November 1957, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Port of Singapore Authority, The Port of Singapore (Singapore: Port of Singapore Authority, 1980), 3. (Call no. RSING 387.1095957 POR)

The information in this article is valid as at December 2018 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.

Singapore Harbour Board--History
Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore