At last, sailing proudly under the Singapore flag

  • Post published:25 March 2022

The journey towards Singapore’s non-Flag of Convenience status was long and difficult – but it was not unsurmountable. Learn about this near-decade-long fight in the fourth of an eight-part series that celebrates SMOU’s 70 illustrious years of history.

The Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) of the 1970s to 1980s was buffeted by problems on many fronts. In particular, it found itself up against the giant that was the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

In March 1979, a Singapore-registered ship named Sankuru made the headlines for being held by the London-based ITF in Eilat, Israel, even though the crew was covered by a Collective Agreement (CA) certified by Singapore’s Industrial Arbitration Court.

Such ITF arrests of Singapore-registered ships took place frequently. Shipowners and shipping companies were drawn here then by Singapore’s wages, which were lower than those of their European counterparts. The ITF wanted to get SMOU and its sister union, the Singapore Organisation for Seamen (SOS), to revise wage rates in line with its own so as to drive foreign-owned ships registered here back to their countries of origin in the West.

Should this new form of industrial action gain momentum, thousands of Singapore seamen and officers could lose their jobs. SMOU had to act swiftly to protect its members.

As the Sankuru situation spun out of control, then NTUC Secretary-General Devan Nair had to step in. Still, the ITF refused to drop its action against the ship. The Singapore emissaries sent to London were rebuffed and bluntly told that this was only the beginning of ITF action against Singapore-registered ships.


So angry was Nair that he branded the ITF the “new imperialist” in a strongly-worded speech that was published in the May/June 1979 issue of the SMOU bulletin. Here is an extract:

“There is little that trade unions in the developing countries in Asia can do against ITF protectionism. We have no leverage to exert against them. The only thing we can do is withdraw our affiliation to the ITF. After all, why pay affiliation fees to an organisation whose policies result in loss of jobs for our workers?

These are clearly people who have no sympathies for our jobs, but they rush to arms over the question of trade union rights in developing countries. And this pretension of the ITF needs to be debunked for what it is – the most brazen and shameless cant and hypocrisy.”

The negotiations that followed eventually led to the release of the ship, and the seafarers’ employment left intact.

The first step

It became critical for SMOU, and Singapore, to change how it was being perceived on the international stage.

So when then-SMOU General-Secretary Thomas Tay took to the podium at the 33rd ITF Congress in 1980, he did not offer the usual platitudes and pleasantries, but zoomed in on the plight of downtrodden Asian seafarers who were treated unfairly by a protectionist ITF.

The issue revolved around the Flag-of-Convenience (FOC) ships – one that flies the flag of a country rather than the country of ownership. By “flagging out”, shipowners can take advantage of minimal regulation, low fees and taxes, and the freedom to employ cheap labour from the global labour market.

The ITF, however, has the final say in determining whether a flag is FOC.

For Singapore, its open registry (which means there are no set requirements regarding ownership, management, and manning of ships) started in 1969 due to economic volatility and high unemployment rates. As the British was withdrawing their military troops by 1970, it was critical for the young nation to develop the shipping industry for the purpose of employment and to acquire capital and expertise.

While explaining Singapore’s position, Tay saw some raised eyebrows and furrowed brows. The congress in Miami marked the start of a war with ITF, but it also unveiled how tripartism could resolve matters on the big stage.

Three years later, at the 1983 ITF Fair Practices Committee in London, Singapore scored a win when Lim Boon Heng, then NTUC Assistant Secretary-General and SMOU advisor, was elected to the ITF Executive Board. This would massively amplify Singapore’s voice on the international platform.

Singapore then made the bold proposal to be removed from the list of FOC, citing the enactment of the Singapore Merchant Shipping Regulations 1981, which effectively changed the Singapore register from an open to closed register.

In one speech, Lim pointed out that Singapore’s new regulations have incorporated four of the seven recommended measures by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as it moved to raise ship registry standards.

As he put it:

“Singapore is no longer an open registry. UNCTAD has confirmed this. Singapore standards of safety are stringent, equal to the highest international standards. It is committed to training skilled seafarers. Singapore should now be known as a flag of quality, and not a flag of convenience. We submit that it should now be removed from ITF’s list of flags of convenience.”

While this marked a milestone, Singapore’s fight for its non-FOC status would be drawn out for yet another seven years.

On the offensive

At every ITF meeting, SMOU continued to press the case for Singapore. But a more drastic move was needed.

Lim delivered a pointed commentary that made clear Singapore’s porcupine strategy – to defend itself by projecting power and tenacity. In this instance, the country was prepared to take the ITF to court in London.

In a commentary, “Let’s rid ourselves of the FOC label”, which ran in a September 1987 issue of NTUC News, he wrote (extracts below):

“Six years after the Government changed the shipping register to a closed registry, Singapore flag ships are still being harassed by the International Transport Worker’ Federation (ITF) and its affiliates in a world-wide campaign against Flag-of-Convenience (FOC) ships.

In these six years, the battle against the ITF’s actions against Singapore flag ships has been fought by our maritime unions (SMOU and the Singapore Organisation of Seamen) – almost always alone. No further progress is in sight, so long as the ITF position is dictated by the views of Western unions.

Yet, by international standards, the Singapore registry is not a flag-of-convenience. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) considers the Singapore flag as a closed registry. Not so the ITF. The ITF takes upon itself the role of judge and arbiter on the matter. 

Our maritime unions cannot be expected to continue to shoulder the responsibility of defending Singapore flag ships alone. Our unions’ view on the matter is clear-cut. Any ship that is registered in accordance with the 1981 regulations cannot be considered an FOC ship. The ITF has to respect any collective agreement signed with SMOU and SOS, and leave our ships alone. Our unions will be prepared to seek legal redress in any country, where such legal action is feasible, and if shipowners will cooperate with such action.”


Lim listed that between December 1972 and July 1987, 22 Singapore-registered ships had been held up in foreign ports on the instructions of ITF or Western maritime unions.


On what drove Lim to write the commentary, he explained in an interview for this article: “It’s a sense of justice. We are competing for jobs. In the world, business will go where the cost is lowest. If you can’t fix your cost, either through productivity or other means, you will simply have to lose out.”

SMOU and SOS kept up the pressure by circulating the commentary worldwide. In a show of solidarity, two other local affiliates of the ITF – the National Transport Workers’ Union and Singapore Port Workers Union – withdrew from the international body.

Such actions worked, as the ITF was both irked and intimidated by Singapore. Lim remarked: “ITF got a hold of this NTUC News copy and they were very upset. But after this article, I sensed the ITF was a bit more willing to discuss with us.”

The breakthrough

The tide was slowly turning in Singapore’s favour. After the ITF Fair Practice Committee Meeting in June 1988 at Rotterdam, the SMOU Executive Committee meeting noted that India, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and South Korea supported Singapore.

Six months later, there was a breakthrough. At the ITF Fair Practice Sub-Committee Meeting in November 1988 at Bombay, India, the board ruled in favour of Singapore.

On January 1, 1989, Singapore officially became a non-FOC country. All Singapore-flagged vessels registered to be owned in Singapore and covered by CAs with SMOU or SOS were considered national flag vessels.

Spirits ran high that night, as SMOU also celebrated its 38th anniversary with a dinner and dance at the Sheraton Towers ballroom.

Then labour chief Ong Teng Cheong, who spoke at the event, said: “At long last, the ITF has decided to take Singapore off its FOC list. It has taken us seven years of tough campaigning to get ITF to finally accept Singapore’s rightful status as a non-FOC country, and the struggle with the powerful five-million-strong ITF was very much like David fighting against the giant Goliath.”

With less turbulence in the international arena, the Union could now focus on its next mission – revamping SMOU to keep up with the times.