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Competition between the Ports of Singapore and

Malaysia
Anton Kleywegt
The Logistics Institute–Asia Pacific and
School of Industrial and Systems Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332-0205, USA
Mee Leng Goh
Guangyan Wu
Huiwen Zhang
The Logistics Institute–Asia Pacific
National University of Singapore
Singapore 119260
April 4, 2002

1 Introduction
On 18 August 2000, the world’s largest ocean carrier, Maersk Sealand, announced that they
were going to move their transshipment operations from Singapore to the Port of Tanjung
Pelepas (PTP) in Johor, Malaysia. All Maersk Sealand’s mainline services that used to
call at Singapore, except the West Australia and New Zealand services, will in the future
call at PTP. (Maersk Sealand also had to move its New Zealand service to Hong Kong and
Taiwan following problems with PSA Corporation over the waiting periods at the Singapore
port [1, 2].) This makes the PTP operation one of the largest in Maersk Sealand’s global
network. The Maersk Sealand move was completed in 2001, and was the biggest single move
in the history of the port industry in Southeast Asia.
This was a major blow to Singapore, as it is estimated that one out of every 10 people
in Singapore is dependent in some way on the port of Singapore, and especially to the PSA
Corporation, which manages all the operations of the port of Singapore. It is estimated that
PSA lost nearly 10% of its total container trade with the Maersk Sealand relocation. PSA
did manage to increase business with other carriers somewhat, but overall container traffic
handled by PSA decreased with 8.9% from approximately 17 million twenty foot equivalent
units (TEUs) to 15.52 million TEUs from 2000 to 2001 [3, 4].
A bigger concern is that there will be a ripple effect. Economies of scale at PTP have been
improved with the addition of Maersk Sealand’s operations, which make it more attractive
for other lines to follow Maersk Sealand. It is speculated that Evergreen, the giant Taiwanese
container shipping line, is also considering relocating from Singapore to other ports, including
PTP [5]. The port-use agreement between Evergreen and PSA expires in August 2002.
Evergreen and PTP were reported to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to

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make the move by August 2002 [4]. Evergreen and its subsidiary Uniglory carry between
1 million and 1.2 million TEUs through Singapore annually, or approximately 7% of the
container traffic handled by PSA. It is estimated that the move will save it between $5.7
million per year [6, 7] and $30 million per year [8]. Evergreen also said that it was dropping
Singapore from its round the world westbound service and moving all South-east Asian cargo
to Thailand’s Laem Chabang terminal [9]. It is also reported that Singapore’s Neptune
Orient Lines’ subsidiary APL has chosen PTP for its West Asia Express service between
Asia and the Middle East [9]. Also, PSA and the Japanese carrier K Line are negotiating a
new contract as this article is being written [7].
If one takes into account that there is significant excess container port capacity in the
region, then it seems likely that competition will become even fiercer in the future. (It is
estimated that the current capacity of ports in the region, including Singapore, PTP, Port
Klang, and Johor Port, exceeds 26 million TEUs per year, whereas the region’s demand is
about 19 million TEUs per year. In addition, the completion of Phase One at PTP and
the expansion of capacity currently under way at Port Klang are expected to raise the total
capacity in the region to well over 30 million TEUs per year [5].)
At the same time, the move was a major boost for PTP, as it added an annual volume
of approximately 1.6 million TEUs to the container traffic in PTP in 2001. No other port
in the world has managed to reach a traffic volume of two million TEUs in such a short
period. This figure does not include the additional traffic contributed as a result by feeder
lines that are adding PTP to their Southeast Asian and South Asian routes. It is also hoped
by PTP that Maersk Sealand’s move will encourage other major carriers to move their
transshipment operations to PTP as well. Maersk Sealand’s move is also a major boost for
Malaysia and especially for the state of Johor. It provides improved access to international
shipping for exporters from Johor, which previously did not have such a good market reach.
Now they can ship directly to Europe, the United States and the Far East. The port has
given local employment a boost. The port’s 800 hectares of land will also be used to attract
high-tech industries which use clean technologies and produce high value cargo. PTP also
wants to encourage local research and development by establishing a center of excellence for
manufacturing, design and development [5].
Next we take a more detailed look at some of the parties involved and affected by Maersk
Sealand’s relocation decision.

2 Port of Singapore
Singapore is located close to some of the world’s major shipping lanes, such as the trans-
Pacific, Far East-Europe, intra-Asia, and Southeast Asia-Australasia lanes. Almost every-
thing that travels between Europe and East Asia passes by Singapore through the Straits of
Malacca [10]. Singapore is linked by more than 250 shipping lines to more than 600 ports in
123 countries. The port of Singapore has the second busiest container terminal in the world
(after Hong Kong). It has developed into the world’s largest transshipment center for con-
tainers and bulk oil products, as well as the world’s largest bunkering port. Approximately
80% of the containers that enter the port of Singapore are transshipped. Singapore claims
to be able to bunker ships more rapidly and at lower cost than other ports [5]. The port
offers fuel, pilotage and towage, cargo, vessel repairs, warehousing, and supporting services
such as banking, insurance, communications, and entertainment.
The PSA Corporation is the only terminal operator in the port of Singapore. PSA
also operates 13 other ports in Belgium, Brunei, China, India, Italy, Korea, Portugal, and
Yemen, and in 2001 PSA’s throughput in non-Singaporean ports increased 32.8% compared

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with a decrease of 8.9% in the port of Singapore. However, the Singapore operation still
contributes 15.52 million TEUs, or 81%, of the 19.13 million TEUs handled worldwide. PSA
handles about one-tenth of the world’s container throughout. PSA is the world’s second
largest container terminal operator, after Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH), a subsidiary of
the conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa Limited, which handled 25.3 million containers in
2000, and which includes Hongkong International Terminals (HIT).
Below are a few vital statistics of the container terminal facilities in the port of Singa-
pore [11, 7]:

Area: 339 hectare

Draft: 9.6 to 15.0 meter

Berths: 37 (21 main; 16 feeder)

Quay cranes: 118

Yard cranes:

306 Rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTG)


33 Rail-mounted Gantry Cranes (RMG)
46 Bridge Cranes (BC)

Ground slots: 65,614

Reefer points: 3,768

IT systems/services:

CITOS (Computer Integrated Terminal Operations System): an Enterprise Resource


Planning System that plans, tracks and controls the operations of every container,
prime mover, crane, and ship at the 4 terminals
PORTNET: developed by PSA, B2B port community system
GEMS: system to help shipping lines manage their worldwide empty container inven-
tory
BoXchange: facilitates exchange of empty containers between shipping lines and other
container owners
SlotMax: an internet exchange for vessel slots
Flow-Through Gate System: processes trucks through gates in 25 seconds

Workforce: 6204

Throughput: 15.52 million TEUs in 2001

The government of Singapore has increased the value and competitiveness of its port by
enacting free trade policies, which fuelled high growth and attracted foreign investments and
firms. To accommodate the volumes of transshipments, Singapore has created a number of
free trade zones which allow for a wide range of dutiable and controlled goods to be stored
and re-exported without customs tariffs. The free trade zones include two million square
meters of covered and open storage areas. Outside the free trade zones, there are 500,000
square meters of covered warehouse space.

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Free trade zones: The main objective of a free trade zone is to develop export-
oriented industries. A major benefit of operating in a free zone is the elimination
of customs duty on merchandise that is re-exported. Other benefits typically
include simplified procedures for import and export processes, and accessible
facilities for storage of goods waiting for processing or for more favorable market
conditions. Besides storage, free trade zone status allows an operator to carry
out value added activities on cargo, such as break-bulk, manufacturing, assembly,
packaging, and repair of goods, without having to pay import duties on the raw
materials, as long as the finished goods are exported.

3 Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP)


The Port of Tanjung Pelepas is located on the southwestern tip of the Malaysian peninsula,
at the mouth of the Pulai River. The port is adjacent to the Second Link, connecting
Malaysia and Singapore across the Johor Straits. Similar to Singapore, PTP is located close
to some of the world’s major shipping lanes—the diversion time from the main trade lanes
that pass by Singapore is about 45 minutes. Although PTP has a larger hinterland than
the port of Singapore, the immediate hinterland is not yet developed enough to sustain PTP
with indigenous cargo, and thus, similar to the port of Singapore, PTP will focus mostly
on transshipment services in the immediate future. The master plan for PTP contains five
phases, extending to 2020. Phase One began in 1995 with a budgeted cost of 737 million US
dollars, and was completed at the end of 1999.
Below are a few vital statistics of Phase One of the container terminal facilities in the
port of Tanjung Pelepas [5, 8, 7, 12]:

Area: 120 hectare

Draft: 15.0 meter

Berths: 6 main

Quay cranes: 18 (estimated 6 more under construction)

Yard cranes: 58 Rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTG) (estimated 20 more on order)

Storage capacity: 110,000 TEUs

Reefer points: 2100

Two container freight stations of approximately 10,000 square meter


IT systems/services: PTP is said to have good IT systems [5], but not much details
are known about IT systems/services at PTP yet

Workforce: 700 (400 more under training)

Throughput: 2 million TEUs in 2001

PTP has good connections with other modes of transportation. Phase One included an
access road of 5.4 kilometer which links PTP to the Second Link Expressway and thereby
to the North-South highway, and a rail link of 31.5 kilometer to the national rail grid at
Kempas. In addition, Malaysia’s state railway plans to develop an east coast rail landbridge
from PTP to Bangkok, Thailand. (The west coast network is congested with 50 freight

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train services daily, and, in contrast, there are only two freight train services daily on the
east coast line.) With these facilities, PTP is able to handle an annual throughput of 3.8
million TEUs. In addition to containers, PTP will provide facilities for liquid, dry bulk, and
conventional cargo.
On June 16,1999, the Malaysian government approved a Free Zone Authority within
PTP to administer both a Free Commercial Zone and a Free Industrial Zone (the zone
status relates to the types of activities that can be carried out). The free zone covers an area
of about 815 hectare. Of this, approximately 405 hectare has been designated as industrial
land, 162 hectare is reserved for warehousing, distribution and logistics activities, and the
remaining 248 hectare for light, medium and heavy manufacturing industries.

4 Comparison of the Ports of Singapore and Tanjung


Pelepas
Important factors taken into account by carriers when choosing a port include the following:
1. costs,

2. quality of service,

3. adequacy of port facilities,

4. access to connecting modes of transportation and supporting services,

5. efficiency of the port, and

6. industrial relations with the government and other businesses.


Next we compare the Ports of Singapore and Tanjung Pelepas in terms of the factors
mentioned above.
1. Costs: PTP has a cost advantage over Singapore—it is estimated that PTP’s costs
are 30–40% lower than those of Singapore [5]. PTP has much lower land costs and
operating costs, especially labor costs [8]. PTP also offers lower warehousing costs
and lower office rental rates. Malaysia also has the advantage of a weaker exchange
rate. According to John Lu, president of the Singapore Shippers Council, some ports
including PTP had been offering 30% lower tariffs than Singapore even before Maersk
entered into an agreement with PTP [13]. However, it is also reported that PTP’s
tariffs are 20–30% more than other Malaysian ports [5]. (It should be remembered
that although most ports have a public list of fees and tariffs, the fees and tariffs
charged to individual carriers are based on negotiations with the carriers, can differ
from carrier to carrier, and are usually confidential.)

2. Quality of service: Both the port of Singapore and PTP have advanced information
systems to process customs documentation, manifests, and free zone declaration forms,
and to allow agents to submit documentation electronically to the relevant authorities
for processing and approval, and to view the status of the submission and approval
processes online. Other important quality of service factors are the security of the
containers and their cargo against theft, vandalism, and sabotage, and the proportion
of containers placed on the wrong vessel (the service failure rate). The performance of
the ports with respect to these factors can be compared only when sufficient data have
become available.

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3. Adequacy of port facilities: From the description in Sections 2 and 3 it is clear that
both the ports of Singapore and Tanjung Pelepas have outstanding port facilities.
4. Access to connecting modes of transportation and supporting services: Singapore has
been able to offer a multitude of direct calls to key destinations at a frequency that
Malaysian ports could not match. At the same time, Malaysia exports and imports
goods worth more than $78.9 billion annually, making it the 17th largest trading nation
in the world, and approximately 95% of Malaysia’s total imports and exports moves via
ships. In the past Malaysian ports were unable to handle all Malaysia’s imports and
exports, and an estimated two thirds of Malaysian container traffic moved through
Singapore. For example, in the early 1990s Malaysia was shipping over 3 million
TEUs through Singapore annually, which was more than the overall capacity of all
Malaysia’s domestic ports at the time. (There still are many feeder services from Port
Klang to Singapore.) The development of PTP is part of the Malaysian government’s
attempts to move more of Malaysia’s imports and exports through Malaysian ports,
and to compete more effectively with Singapore in the area of logistics. As described
in Section 3, PTP has good connections with other modes of transportation, and
PTP provides easier access to Peninsular Malaysia and especially the development in
Johor, as well as to Thailand. Also, PTP provides access to other Malaysian ports
by navigation wholly within Malaysian waters, which apparently is an advantage. In
summary, it seems that Singapore still has an advantage in terms of access to connecting
services to other parts of the world, and that Malaysian ports has the advantage of a
much bigger hinterland, including a large part of Southeast Asia.
5. Efficiency of the port: Productivity and efficiency have been cited as problems in
Malaysian ports. According to Malaysian ports, their productivity and efficiency have
been improved.
6. Industrial relations with the government and other businesses: Unlike PSA, PTP makes
provision for dedicated berthing arrangements. This latter point is particularly impor-
tant, as it was something that apparently was very important to Maersk Sealand, and
that they could not obtain from PSA. Section 5 addresses this issue in more detail.
PTP has made a good start, but only time will tell whether they can perform well
consistently over a long period. In this regards, Singapore remains well ahead.

5 Why Did Maersk Sealand Move?


An interesting question is why Maersk Sealand made the decision to move their operations
from the port of Singapore to PTP. Maersk Sealand has not given an official explanation
(although, in a phone interview with The Straits Times, Maersk Sealand’s chief executive for
Asia, Mr. Flemming Ipsen, said that cost-savings and a desire to take an active approach in
operating a container terminal were the reasons behind their move to PTP chan:00). Several
contributing factors have been found, and are discussed next.
The container shipping business has become very competitive. Standard complaints in
the industry include the following [10, 14, 15, 16]:
1. With the growth in the number and sizes of container vessels, container carrying ca-
pacity has grown to the point where there is substantial overcapacity. (However, such
a judgment depends on the point of view—shippers tend to complain about a shortage
of capacity during the peak season, especially when international trade was at a higher
level.)

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2. Revenue per TEU has slipped to the lowest levels in history. It is reported that some
freight rates have fallen by almost 50%.

3. Maintaining flow balance of containers, and repositioning empty containers, remain a


costly problem. It has been reported that about 20% of containers transported around
the world are empty, and that about $500 million per year is spent on transporting
empty containers.

4. Port visits in Singapore and Hong Kong are expensive. Charles de Trenck, an analyst
at Schroder Salomon Smith Barney, estimates that it costs twice as much to handle a
container in Hong Kong as in a port on America’s west coast. Ports have high profit
margins, whereas shipping lines barely survive.
The last point addresses the relationship between carriers and ports, and is investigated in
more detail for a better understanding why Maersk Sealand made the move.
The issue of expensive port visits is investigated first. As mentioned before, the container
shipping business has become very competitive, and profit margins have become very small.
In fact, it is expected that many carriers made losses in 2001 [14, 15]. (However, early
indications are that 2002 will be a better year than 2001 [17, 18].) In such an environment,
the pressure is especially high to cut costs. PTP offers the same services as PSA but for
approximately 30% less. PSA claims that it is more efficient than PTP in terms of vessel
turnaround time and service failures (misplaced containers), and that it does not compete
on the basis of price [7, 19]. The last point is an oversimplification, because, as noted by
Charles de Trenck, a shipping analyst at Salomon Smith Barney in Hong Kong, at some price
difference it becomes better not to choose the efficiency that PSA offers [20, 8]. However, it
is true that port fees and tariffs form only part of a carrier’s total costs. The tendency may
be to put more emphasis on port fees and tariffs than on costs related to service time and
reliability, because it is easier to measure the impact of port fees and tariffs on the carrier’s
bottom line than the impact of service time and reliability.
Several shipping analysts say that one reason for Maersk Sealand’s departure was that
the Singapore port was so used to the lack of serious competition that it may have started
taking its customers for granted [9, 5, 13]. It is hard to justify or refute such a subjective
statement.
It seems that the most important factor affecting the decision by Maersk Sealand to
relocate, is the relative profitability of ocean carriers and terminal operators. To obtain a
better understanding of this issue, we compare the profitability of some carriers and port
operators, using the most up-to-date annual financial performance data available, namely
that for 2000 (it is estimated that 2001 was an even worse year for the carriers [14, 15]).
Table 1 shows summary financial results for a few container carriers, and Table 2 shows
summary financial results for a few container port operators (profit margin equals profit
divided by revenue, return on assets equals profit divided by total asset value).

Carrier Total Assets Revenue Profit Profit Margin Return on Assets


[US$ thousand] [US$ thousand] [US$ thousand] [%] [%]
Evergreen Marine Corp. [21] 1,751,984 572,369 30,844 5.39 1.761
Maersk Sealand (shipping activities) [22] 8,790,058 8,936,306 517,962 5.80 5.893
Neptune Orient Lines [23] 4,359,880 4,672,893 207,574 4.44 4.761
NYK Line [24] 10,313,862 4,712,964 259,582 5.51 2.517

Table 1: Profitability of container carriers in 2000.

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Port Operator Total Assets Revenue Profit Profit Margin Return on Assets
[US$ thousand] [US$ thousand] [US$ thousand] [%] [%]
Hutchison Port Holdings [25] 56,619,117 1,823,963 684,787 37.54 19.208
International Container Terminal Services (ICTS) [26] 525,686 185,808 25,575 13.76 4.87
PSA Corporation Ltd. [11] 3,069,282 1,348,217 640,346 47.50 20.863

Table 2: Profitability of container terminal operators in 2000.

In spite of the small sample of companies included in the tables, there are clear signs
that the port operations business is much more profitable than the carrier business.
In the port of Singapore, PSA is the only terminal operator, and makes huge profits. At
the same time, Maersk Sealand has become more involved in the port operations business,
with operations in several ports in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. It is
therefore understandable that Maersk Sealand had been begging PSA for years for permission
to operate its own terminal in Singapore [27]. It is also understandable that PSA wanted
to retain as much of the profitable business for itself, and definitely did not want to allow
a competing operation in Singapore [1]. Some shipping officials in Singapore claimed that
a disadvantage of allowing a carrier to operate a terminal is that it will frighten off other
large carriers. They claimed that PTP will be labeled “a Maersk port”, and hence other
large carriers will not be keen to call on PTP as they would not be comfortable with their
ships being handled by a competitor [13]. Another argument has been that a number of
independent terminals could reduce port efficiency [28]. These arguments do not seem to
be plausible, as there are many successful ports, including the even bigger port of Hong
Kong, where several carriers operate their own independent terminals, and act as terminal
operators for competing carriers.
In contrast with the port of Singapore, PTP allows multiple terminal operators, and
individual lines have the opportunity to negotiate individual arrangements and have more
control over their business. Thus it is not surprising that Maersk Sealand decided to enter
into an agreement with PTP. Under the agreement, Maersk Sealand purchased 30% of the
equity in PTP for an estimated $192 million, and PTP allowed Maersk Sealand to operate
their own terminal [20].

6 Conclusion
With the information available at the moment, it seems that Maersk Sealand made the right
decision to establish their own operations in PTP, and that PSA made the right decision to
hold on to their position as the only terminal operator in the port of Singapore, and not to
allow a competing operation in Singapore.
The current challenge for PTP is to attract more carriers to improve its connectivity with
various international ports and to improve its economies of scale. The current challenge for
Singapore is to prevent too many carriers from moving operations to other ports, because if
that happens PSA’s decision will turn out to have been the wrong decision for Singapore.
The port of Singapore is facing growing competition from not only PTP but also other
regional ports. P&O Nedlloyd and Evergreen have taken up stakes in ports in Indonesia and
Thailand, respectively. Hutchison Port Holdings has acquired stakes in the Port of Jakarta
and Westport in Malaysia [4]. S. Premchandra, a consultant on maritime and shipping,
thinks four ports will share the transshipment business in the region, and guesses that they
will be the port of Singapore, PTP, the port of Jakarta, and a port in Brunei, which PSA
Corporation is developing [13].
Competition between ports is not a uniquely South-East Asian phenomenon. There is
also fierce competition between the ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Le Havre
in Northern Europe, between the ports of Algeciras, Marseille, Gioia Tauro, and Piraeus in

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the Mediterranean, between American and Canadian ports along the Great Lakes, between
the ports of Hong Kong, Yantian, Shekou, and smaller ports along the Pearl River Delta, and
between the ports of Kaohsiung and Shanghai [29, 16]. It is expected that the competition
will become more intense as companies and governments are attracted by the lucrative profits
made by ports the past several years, and as carriers develop their networks to operate more
in a hub-and-spoke fashion.

7 Postscript
As this article was being completed, news was received on 4 April 2002 that the Taiwanese
carrier Evergreen had signed a terminal service agreement with the Port of Tanjung Pelepas
on 1 April 2002. It is reported that the agreement will commence when the current agreement
between PSA and Evergreen expires on 31 August 2002, and that most of the Evergreen
freight currently transshipped in Singapore, except some alliance freight, will be transshipped
in PTP thereafter [30, 31]. It is also speculated that the Swiss based Mediterranean Shipping
Company is considering moving half of its freight of 200,000 TEUs per year from the port
of Singapore to PTP [19]. On 5 April 2002 news was received that the Japanese carrier K
Line had extended its service contract with PSA for just one year, instead of the usual two
to three year contract [32].

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