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17 Jan 2022
5 mins
The SMOU Journey: The Beginnings of SMOU

In the first of an eight-part series that celebrates SMOU’s 70 illustrious years of history, this story looks back at how it all began.  

In the early 1950s, the Port of Singapore was an unrelenting hive of activity. For a world wrecked by war just a few years before, survival was on the top of everybody’s minds – and a bustling port was good news.

Singapore Boat Quay in 1950s (From National Archives of Singapore)

The shipping activities generated enormous employment and economic growth, in addition to ensuring that food and essential supplies were coming in. Seafaring was booming as immigrants from other parts of Asia gravitated to Singapore in search of a better life.

But many of these seafarers, most of whom had little or no education, were still working in appalling conditions unchanged from decades ago. They suffered low wages as well as unsafe and unhygienic working conditions.

The time was ripe for change.

A pioneering group of Local Trade Officers and Mates sought to turn their fortunes around. Together, on March 22, 1951, they formed the Malay Marine Officers’ Association (MMOA), the earliest predecessor of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU).

The MMOA[1] began life in a tiny one-room office in Jalan Sultan, where it played a small but vital role in Singapore’s budding trade union movement.

A humble house

As Singapore rebuilt the city in the post-World War II period, commercial and small-scale industrial activities expanded. With this, came the resurgence of labour activities – marking a new era for trade unions.

The first trade union registered under the Trade Unions Ordinance was as early as 1946, right after the Japanese surrender. That same year, the first seafarers’ union – Malay Seamen’s Union of Singapore – was also formed.

(From Maritime Voices 1980 / vol.3)

By the late 1950s, more than 10 seafarers’ unions were running, most of them formed along communal lines. This changed in the 1950s and 60s, as a national mood of integration saw more multiracial unions emerge, while communal ones closed.

On 30 March 1955, MMOA was renamed the Malayasian Ship Officers’ Union (MSOU) to better reflect a multi-racial representation and serve a wider group. Despite the tumultuous era, MSOU made strides – entering into its first Collective Agreement (CA) with the local shipping company Straits Steamship Company in 1957.

It marked a big achievement for MSOU, which, like many seafarers’ unions of its time, suffered from poor labour management relations, low membership and insufficient funds.

The first ripples of change

A critical turning point arrived with the turn of a new decade. It started with the Singapore Registry of Ships, which was enacted by Parliament in January 1969 as an open registry.

Tanjong Pagar terminal in operation in 1970s (From National Archives of Singapore)

In June 1972, the newly-built Tanjong Pagar Terminal welcomed its first container vessel, the M.V. Nihon – becoming the first container terminal in all of Southeast Asia. The ships registered under the Singapore flag soon crossed one million gross tonnes for the first time.

As Singapore’s maritime industry grew, so did MSOU. It became an affiliate of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) in December 1970, before gaining recognition on the international stage with its affiliation to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in 1971.

It was time for another name change to better reflect the union’s evolution in representing a wider membership and its progress in the industrial relations scene. On August 22, 1972, a collective decision made: The MSOU was to be renamed as SMOU.

The table in Winchester House at which the Union’s early meetings were held (From Maritime Voices 1980 / vol.3)

Up until the mid-1970s, SMOU was operating out of Winchester House in Change Alley. The one-room office was gritty – the roof even leaked each time it rained – but it was always filled with people.

Membership at the time had grown to nearly 2,000, comprising people from different walks of life. Once largely made up of local and home trade officers, the Union was joined by a new group of foreign-going officers. It was the gathering of like-minded seafarers, bound by their connection to the sea and the desire for a better working life.  

(From Maritime Voices 1980 / vol.3)

In 1978, the Union moved – this time to a larger, more shipshape office at International Plaza in Anson Road. SMOU was ready and eager to take on a bigger role in the maritime industry. An article in the 1980 issue of Maritime Voices sums up this crossroads in SMOU’s history:

“The SMOU is not a commercial enterprise which sees things in terms of dollars and cents that matter, but it is a rich home ground with three decades of storming difficulties and challenges. … we are an enriched institution where accomplishment and idealism pervades the minds of our new generation of officers who dares pursue for the better and higher things in life.”

It was the start of a new era.