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10 Mar 2022
6 mins
The Perfect Storm: A boycott, a fire, and a recession

The 1980s was marked by one crisis after another, but it also sparked resilience and hope. Read how the Union rode out this stormy decade in the third of an eight-part series that celebrates SMOU’s 70 illustrious years of history.

On 10 June 1982, a Singapore-registered ship, Pacific Viking, had just docked at a port in Sydney, when an official from the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) barged on board.

He confronted the master with a list of demands and detained the vessel following a round of inspection.

It was not allowed to leave the port until the master complied with SUA’s demands, or what it claimed were proper safety standards. These included repairs and supplies relating to toilet paper holders, the number of chairs and crockery, bathroom shower roses and shower curtains, and “some other 90 equally ludicrous items”, according to a NTUC press statement.

The arrest prompted a forceful response from NTUC, which considered SUA’s “demands as blatant acts of protectionism”. It also called on its affiliated 61 unions to boycott all Australian products and goods “until…good sense prevails in the SUA”. Singapore unions, including SMOU, rallied together and put their protest on record against the act.

Pacific Viking was detained for 17 days before it slipped out of Sydney Harbour under the cover of darkness. But the boycott lasted for a month. The move established Singapore’s position – that it was not to be bullied.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire


It was a dark day on 6 June 1985. Overnight, the 98-year-old Sports House building at Farrer Park, which SMOU called home since 1982, was completely razed to the ground.

An article in the June/July 1985 issue of Sea Voices detailed the incident:

The fire started at about 3.52 am…Within a few minutes, the whole building was on fire. A fire officer said it was unusual for a fire, if accidentally, to engulf within minutes, as large a building as Sports House. The police are investigating and arson has not been ruled out.

The fire was believed to have started in the kitchen of the cafeteria situation at the ground floor. A watchman at the building was about to have a meal at 3.50 am when he saw sparks and flames coming from the cafeteria. Several boys who camped nearby to book tennis courts also heard an explosion. They helped the watchmen fight the fire but in vain.

Within seven minutes, the firemen arrived at the building which was engulfed in flames. The blaze lasted an hour before it was put out.

SMOU lost about $150,000 worth of furniture and office equipment, not to mention more than half of its documents and records. Preparations on amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act were destroyed, together with statements, accounts and ballot results. A part of its history laid buried in ashes.

Fortunately, there was one saving grace – its giant fireproof safe. Inside were important Union documents, which the accounting department had stored for safekeeping.

Membership details were also safe, stored away on an electronic database linked to NTUC Income’s mainframe terminal, thanks to the Union’s foresight to digitalise its internal data.

The 1985 recession

The fire was not the only crisis. Global shipping had sunk into a downturn and shipowners were forced to sell, scrap, lay up their vessels, or operate at a loss.

For SMOU, this was bad news. In January 1985, Straits Shipping asked for a freeze in annual increments for workers’ wages in its Collective Agreement (CA) with the Union, citing the depressed market. More followed suit – and so did the level of unemployment among Union members.

The situation was worsening across the wider economy. By the third quarter of 1985, Singapore recorded a negative growth rate of -3.5 per cent, plunging into its first full-blown recession since independence.

Companies went under and workers were laid off, with unemployment rising to 4.1 percent in June 1985, the highest in a decade. By 1986, one-third of ships had flagged out from their CAs with SMOU, leaving hundreds of maritime officers without jobs.

The situation became so dire that NTUC Secretary-General Ong Teng Cheong, who was also Second Deputy Prime Minister, called for severe wage restraint that would last for two years.

Goh Chok Tong, the first Deputy Prime Minister, also announced that employer contributions to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) would be slashed from 25 per cent to 10 per cent, among other cost-cutting measures. While the CPF cut was painful, it was necessary with SMOU among the first unions to support the move to help save jobs.

A petition to the Prime Minister

But the situation got a little worse before it became better. One particular development worsened the fate for sea-going officers.

In April 1986, the Marine Department announced a slew of changes to the Merchant Shipping (Deck and Marine Engineer Officers) Regulations, in compliance with the Standard of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) Convention.

While SMOU had been consulted earlier, the finalised set of rules came with considerable differences that would significantly negate job opportunities for certain classes of sea-going officers.

The Marine Department suggested that the Union improve its public relations with shipowners and reduce wages to stay competitive. But even as officers lowered their pay scales and expectations, many were not reciprocated with any job offer.

This impasse culminated in a petition signed by about 800 SMOU officers that was delivered to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on October 13, 1986, asking for intervention and an amicable resolution.

While the bill was passed in Parliament and could not be retracted, the Marine Department did create a roster to help Singaporean officers find employment.

At the advice of NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Lim Boon Heng, SMOU also focused on reskilling and upskilling their members – a means of employee development that remains just as pertinent today and it was back then

The future of shipping must depend on the ability to upgrade both vessels and seafarers’ skills, said Ong Yen Her, Advisor to SMOU, in a message on the Union’s 33rd anniversary.

“The difficulties in getting employment faced by our ratings and junior officers should therefore serve to remind our seafarers that acquisition of higher skills, qualifications and good work attitudes are the best assets in ensuring a better future,” he wrote.

Front page of SeaVoices April 1988 issue on SMOU Seminar on C.O.U.R.S.E. programme
Seminar summary from SeaVoices April 1988 issue

SMOU focused on taking a proactive stance and helping to equip members with what they needed to face the challenges. A total of $600,000 was set aside for grants and subsidies under the Committee on Upgrading, Redeployment and Skills Enhancement programme, or COURSE, programme to help members upgrade their skills or find new work in land-based alternatives. Seminars and workshops were organised as well.

By 1987, Singapore’s economy had bounced back, as did the shipping industry. Union leaders began to call on employers to reward workers who had made sacrifices. Most shipping companies responded by restoring the payment of annual increments.

Agreements that were renewed also came with better wage terms and other fringe benefits. The storm, finally, was blowing over.