All About The Suez Canal, Sea Lines And Singapore
STORY: Sim Ding En
26 March 2021
As with all serious topics, we begin appropriately with a meme.
This one below says it all (and since there's crude oil involved, we'll put it, um, crudely): there's a big ship stuck in a small longkang, and WD-40 solves all of life's problems. #truth
So what has the Suez Canal got to do with Singapore? What are sea lines? And why are they so important?
We break it down for you:
What happened, what happened?!
Earlier this week on Tuesday (23 Mar), a 400m long megaship called the Ever Given got stuck length-wise in the southern end of the Suez Canal in Egypt.
Operated by the Taiwan-based firm Evergreen, the vessel (with its hundreds of containers bound for Rotterdam from China) weighs 220,000 tons, and stands 57m above the water - that's almost the height of a 20-storey HDB flat!
Strong winds turned that wall of containers into a "sail" and pushed the ship off course. Then kena stuck lor.
And now, there's a pile-up of ships of all types (some carrying millions of barrels of crude oil) on both ends of the Suez Canal. Sibei jialat.
Where is the Suez Canal and why is it important?
After 10 years of construction, the 193km-long Suez Canal was finally opened on 17 Nov 1869. The artificial sea-level waterway cuts across the isthmus (that's a fancy but very precise geographical term for a narrow strip of land that connects two larger landmasses and separates two bodies of water) of Suez in Egypt.
With this canal, ships have access between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, thus reducing the time spent travelling between Europe and Asia (cuz no need to go that very cheong hay route around the African cape, which could take weeks mah).
In 2019, it was reported that almost 1.2 billion tons passed through the canal on 19,000 ships - that's apparently 13% of global trade. So if the blockage in the Suez Canal is not cleared soon, experts say it could have widespread knock-on effects on both global and local trade.
How did/does the Suez Canal affect Singapore?
According to the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, "total trade volume reached $71 million in 1870, a year after the canal was opened, up from only $39 million the year before. The trade boom would continue throughout the 1870s, and by 1879, the colony’s total trade volume was valued at $105 million."
Because of this boom, Singapore moved its port activities from Boat Quay to New Harbour (which was renamed Keppel Harbour in 1900) at Tanjong Pagar, leading to the development and expansion of the Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer area.
And nowadays, our maritime processes very tok kong okay, all digital. (See the video below.)
What are sea lines of communication and why are they so important to Singapore?
Right now, the Ever Given's sitch has choked up the sea lines of communication (or SLOCs) in the region. SLOCs are essentially the principal maritime routes between naval ports, as used for trade, military, or other purposes.
Being a maritime nation, our Little Red Dot really relies on the Big Blue Mass surrounding us, and our open SLOCs.
We often take it for granted, but a huge chunk of our very privileged lives in Singapore - from the strength of our economy to the food we consume - is thanks to the sea.
Over 90% of the food we consume here is imported, and the top three countries we get food from via sea-freight are Australia, Thailand and China, with 99% of rice imports and 84% of fish imports arriving on our shores via sea-freight.
Who protects our SLOCs?
Thankfully, we got brudder-sister in the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) to ensure that our sea lines of communication remain open, not only for trade but also as safe bodies of transport.
Pirates are a very real threat in our waters - even COVID-19 doesn't stop them. In January this year alone, three incidents were reported in the eastbound lane of the Singapore Strait (that's north-west of Bintan, Indonesia). Last year, 34 incidents of piracy took place in our waters - the highest number in five years. 😩 And that's why the RSN is always on its toes.
"Even with the global COVID-19 pandemic, our Navy remains operationally ready and continues to deploy both near and afar, partnering with Whole-of-Government Agencies and international partners to keep our waters safe," said Senior Minister of State Zaqy Mohamad in a recent Facebook post.
In another Facebook post, Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen also highlighted "the critical role our Navy plays in protecting our waters, ensuring that the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) are kept safe and secure, so that our vital supply chains – including daily essentials from all over the world – are not obstructed".
He gives the assurance that "the RSN continues to remain steadfast in their mission to protect our waters" and that we can take "comfort in the knowledge that, come rain or shine, our island home is well protected".
If you have young kids, this Storytime video above makes things simple and clear.
LTC Daniel Koh, the Commanding Officer of a Singapore warship, narrates a children's book entitled "Papa Goes To Sea". Written by Tan Winnie with illustrations by Quek Hong Shin, the book spells out the importance of our navy and the defence of our SLOCs in verse. (Actually hor, it's good for adults too. #justsaying)
Meanwhile, let's hope the enormous Ever Given is emancipated soon!