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22 Dec 2022
6 mins
The 2000s: Into uncharted business waters

Read about how Wavelink spearheaded a modernised SMOU for a new millennium in the sixth chapter of an eight-part series that celebrates the Union’s 70 illustrious years of history.

Having overcome the challenges posed by the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the 21st century presented a new dawn for SMOU.   

Taking the Union into this exciting era was the creation of Wavelink Cooperative, jointly founded by SMOU and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) on June 29, 2000.

This was after SMOU General Secretary Thomas Tay floated this idea in his Master’s of Business Administration thesis written in 1991, which advocated setting up cooperatives for the Union to secure its financial future.

With advice from then Secretary General of NTUC Lim Boon Heng, Wavelink was set up. It was similar to how the NTUC launched NTUC Fairprice and other cooperatives in insurance and transport – not just as a means of moderating the cost of living for members, but to also build up the organisation’s reserves.

Wavelink’s primary purpose was thus to keep SMOU viable so it could continue to serve members by providing them with services at competitive prices while providing additional streams of revenue for SMOU’s long-term future.

There were six Wavelink units with different functions. Wavelink Cooperative held ownership of the Lavender building, Wavelink Holdings oversaw the Union’s professional services internally such as accounting and human resources, Wavelink Education was a training arm which preceded the Wavelink Maritime Institute, and Lighthouse Bistro was the restaurant business. Wavelink Travel aimed to provide affordable travel services to members, but was later closed in light of uncertainties in the industry.  

Certain prescient moves as part of the Wavelink initiative, such as the acquisition of Wavelink Building, have turned out to be highly strategic decisions.

Building a dream in Lavender

With its modern glass façade, curved exterior that resembles a ship’s bow, and bold splashes of blue and red that make up the SMOU logo, the Wavelink Building stands out in sleepy Jellicoe Road.

SMOU invested into the Cooperative, which bought the building in 2001 for $9 million was well-calculated. SMOU leaders saw investment potential in the city-fringe location and smelled a bargain.

It also created more space for the Union, housing members’ amenities such as a lounge and Lighthouse Bistro, as well as the added headcount from Wavelink Holdings, Cooperative and Education Group.

Today, the building comfortably comprises around 50 employees and is estimated to be worth at least twice the purchase amount. Besides its good investment returns, the building is also a comfortable abode for other Wavelink subsidiaries such as its restaurant, Lighthouse Bistro.

A wave of services

Lighthouse Bistro – To provide a place for SMOU members and the shipping community to meet up and enjoy a semi-fine dining experience at affordable prices. To function as a space for SMOU to host networking, membership and community events to value-add to the members, the community, and maritime industry.

Wavelink Maritime Institute – To provide quality and affordable training in certificated and technical skills to the maritime community, to improve employability of maritime professionals.

Wavelink Thrift – To enhance the welfare of seafaring members who serve onboard vessels covered by SMOU collective bargaining agreement through the management and administration of funds for training and welfare.

Food for the soul

Walk up to the Wavelink Building and what greets you are the rich smells of lovingly made mushroom soup and lobster pasta as patrons dine at the alfresco section of the bistro.

Today, the eatery sees healthy crowds, due to its well-reviewed food and savvy advertising online and value-for-money meals for members.

Members' Chinese New Year Night at Lighthouse Bistro in January 2004

However, it was not always so smooth sailing. When the seafood-themed restaurant opened in 2003, even SMOU’s top brass had to double as servers and kitchen helpers to cut manpower costs.

Bao ga liao (doing everything)” was the order of the day. The bistro had to undergo several revamps and today it features a classy and cosy interior, offering semi-fine dining at casual bistro prices.

The restaurant is not solely driven by profits. Besides being a gathering place for members and serving them heavily subsidised meals, the eatery has also hosted community events for the elderly living in the Jalan Besar area.

Its social mission also extends to providing free meals for marooned sailors. An example was the MV Lady Belinda, which was stranded for months on Singapore shores in 2008.

Extending a helping hand

Equipping members with skills to ensure they would not be obsolete, as well as providing safety nets, came to define the other arms of Wavelink.

Graduation of CadetsPlus Chennai in 2019

Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI), established in 2007, provides quality and affordable maritime education and training to members. Such services extend beyond borders. WMI’s CadetsPlus Programme has trained more than 3,000 cadets since 2007, across 21 cities. The first batch was trained at Qing Dao in eastern China.

Graduation of TNTA 16th cohort
Graduation of TETA 3rd cohort

Through WMI, SMOU also sought to offer Singaporeans a career on the seas amid the downturn. The Tripartite Nautical Training Award, run by WMI with funding support from the authorities, was rolled out in 2009. Its sister programme, the Tripartite Engineering Training Award, was launched in 2016. Together, both have produced more than 400 cadets and around 100 officers.

Besides training seafarers, the Union also cared about their welfare. Wavelink Thrift, set up in 2001, is responsible for disbursing various funds set up by SMOU for members.

One example was the Seafarers’ Provident Fund (SPF) that was launched in 2001 and co-managed by NTUC Thrift & Loan Co-operatives. The fund had more than 40,000 members with savings totalling more than $32 million, and it paid out interest to members at a rate pegged to the Central Provident Fund until the economic downturn of 2009.

For years, the SPF worked like a social security scheme for members and their families who needed financial aid in the event of poor health, disability or death. But it ceased operation from June 2012 due to a remodelling of the NTUC cooperative, and the funds were distributed back to members. Other examples include the Singapore Maritime Training Fund, Seafarers’ Medical Scheme and Seafarers’ Accommodation Scheme, which cater to seafarers’ welfare and training.

While schemes and economic conditions change, SMOU’s aim to benefit members remains steadfast. The Union will spare no effort in delivering quality training to ensure members remain employable, while providing value-added services such as a range of amenities and affordable meals at Lighthouse Bistro.