SMOU General Secretary Mary Liew tells Derek Wong about her passion for seafarer welfare and training, as well as how “every life matters”.
Ms Mary Liew still recalls the incident clearly. Weeks after the seafarer had caused a drunken commotion at a union event, she received news that he had taken his life at sea.
“Could I have done more?” she asked herself then in the early 1990s. He had marital problems and Ms Liew had tried to counsel and encourage him before. Following that incident, the General Secretary of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) has abided by the mantra of “Every life matters”.
Whether as a former Nominated Member of Parliament, or her current roles at the helm of SMOU and the national labour movement, Ms Liew has been a strong advocate for seafarers.
Three causes of the maritime workforce are closest to the heart of the union veteran, who joined the SMOU finance department in 1982 before rising through the ranks.
They are establishing a Singapore core for the sector, tending to seafarers’ mental health, and equipping them for the future.
BUILDING THE SINGAPORE CORE
As the Republic soars as an International Maritime Centre, Ms Liew believes strongly that it should be anchored by a pool of Singaporean talent.
“I always share with sector and tripartite partners that we need to make a concerted effort to build a Singapore core,” she said. “It is not just the role of the union or government.”
To do this, she said, more resources should be devoted to the recruitment and career development of locals. The experience of the pandemic illustrates how important seafarers are in the supply chain, yet they are often unsung heroes. More needs to be done to present maritime careers as vital and meaningful to attract newcomers.
Ms Liew also believes that ample support has to be provided to local seafarers for them to progress. An example is the Tripartite Nautical Training Award programme initiated by SMOU and facilitated by Wavelink Maritime Institute.
Together with its sister programme, the Tripartite Engineering Training Award, and with the efforts of tripartite partners, it has developed more than 400 cadets, including over 100 officers to date. This has given the Singapore core a significant boost.
The seafarer career path goes beyond life on the seas, added Ms Liew. “We also want to help them transit from sea to shore, where there are good career opportunities.” These include roles such as top management positions in the sector, as well as in-demand functions such as technical and marine superintendents which greatly value the sea-going experience of seafarers.
As many seafarers were stranded on ships for more than a year during the pandemic, their mental well-being came into sharp focus. Even before COVID-19, the job was a challenging one with issues of homesickness and fatigue.
While technology reduces manpower onboard ships, crew members may find themselves having to cover more areas in compliance with the heavily regulated shipping industry. For example, captains also have to manage administrative paperwork. “Fatigue sets in,” said Ms Liew. “Mental wellness is impacted and we do see signs of that.”
To address this, the WeCare mental well-being programme, a collaboration between the Mission to Seafarers and SMOU, provides advice and resources. For example, on how to detect such issues on board and how ship managers can help.
It is also useful for maritime workers to have the mental fortitude to adapt to the uncertainties of the future, with sustainability and technology reshaping the industry.
KEEPING UP WITH THE 2D'S
As the twin movements of decarbonisation and digitalisation threaten to leave swathes of seafarers behind, it is crucial that they have some understanding of the trends.
An example Ms Liew shared was how a younger seafarer chose not to sign off from his ship during the pandemic because only he had the requisite tech skills to fill online documentation for the crew to sign off. “He was able to see beyond himself by helping the rest,” she said.
Commendable as the action was, Ms Liew’s hope, however, is that such situations do not repeat themselves. The union’s solution is to leave no one behind in the tech and automation drive. It does this by being a part of the Tripartite Advisory Panel set up by the Maritime Industry Transformation Tripartite Committee, which reviews the training of the maritime workforce. Being deeply involved in the conversation on future skills helps SMOU provide members with the best training.
The union also leaves no one behind. Ms Liew recalled how a union training session to prepare members for a certificate of competency was met with a poor response. Only three people signed up. Still, in line with her mantra of how each person matters, the class carried on.
A similar principle applies in meeting the challenge of decarbonisation. “Everyone has to be on board as Maritime Singapore works towards a reduction in emissions by 2050,” she said. To do this, SMOU is working with shipping companies such as PIL to train members in the use of future fuels.
“The union looks after seafarers from cradle to grave,” said Ms Liew, noting how securing the future of SMOU members is a central mission. “It is important for the industry to work with the tripartite partners for Singapore to thrive as an IMC and fly the flag high.”