How future-ready are Singapore students for new maritime landscape? 

At Singapore’s Ministry of Transport (MOT) Committee of Supply Debate on 3 March 2023, Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat affirmed MOT’s commitment to “enhance competitiveness to provide good jobs and career opportunities for (her) people.” He added that Singapore needs to simultaneously continue to build a future-ready workforce with the right skills and expertise. 

Some of the on-going programs equipping the future generation of maritime professionals include the Global Internship Award established by Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) in 2013. The 12-week program gives selected undergraduates an opportunity to gain on-the-job experience working in a leading maritime company. 

Another channel is through scholarships. In 2022, 54 MaritimeONE scholarships, totaling S$1.7 million, were awarded. Since its inception in 2007, 524 recipients have received the scholarships. There are also maritime-related Work-Study Post-Diploma Programs which develop skill sets in various roles such as seafaring and port operations. 

Sounds grand; but to contextualize these programs, what are the demands of the shifting maritime landscape in Asia?

“Now, the narrative is about digitalization and decarbonization,” said Captain Tan Kim Hock, Program Director of Maritime Studies at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). “The landscape is changing a lot towards sustainability. Therefore, there is a (fundamental) need for students to understand the scope of sustainability, environmental, social, and governance,” he added. 

Professor Chan Siew Hwa, who lectures at the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at NTU, also felt that skill sets in handling sustainable fuels are important. “With the adoption of new fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia both for ports and ship propulsion applications, the handling of ammonia from loading, unloading, storage, transport and utilization of ammonia all requires trained workers and engineers.”

He added that a trained workforce in this will also position Singapore even more as an international leader in maritime because “it is not solely an issue we shall encounter in Asia but globally.” 

Indeed, since the maritime industry is one of the most globally-linked sectors for Singapore, Dr Yuen Kum Fai, Assistant Professor and Program Director of Maritime Studies at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, NTU, said “soft skills have also become more important right now.” 

“The industry is not just about the technical aspects, but rather the EQ skills such as disciplinary thinking, problem solving skills, communication, and cultural sensitivity.”

He elaborated that the shifting landscape of the global workforce is why these skills are indispensable and very valuable in the maritime business today. 

But when it comes to whether the incoming workforces are equipped with corresponding skills and knowledge to contribute to this expanding industry, Professor Chan feels “it is still very preliminary as there are many unknowns to be answered and addressed before we adopt the alternative fuels to decarbonize the maritime sectors.” 

“This is still in a trial stage (but) nevertheless, consideration of skills training for the younger generation and current workforce are always important in adopting emerging technologies,” he continued.  

For Captain Tan, he felt the scholarships and global internship awards are very helpful because they are based a lot on the continual dialogue between NTU, MPA, and the Singapore Maritime Academy on what undergraduates need in order to be a competent workforce. 

“This is one of the very attractive features in Maritime Studies. They used to tell people that if you want to look for scholarships, and financial support, Maritime is one of those disciplines that are most supported by the industry in terms of finance, industry support, or internships.”

“Besides that, there is a lot of effort and momentum (in getting) more industry players (to) support this sector,” he added. Experts sometimes even give professional talks at NTU on a volunteer basis. Captain Tan believed this is a good move because all the MNCs come into Singapore to run their businesses and operate sustainably. Therefore, students should have in-depth knowledge of how the industry operates in real life. 

When asked about what government bodies and industry stakeholders can do more or better of, he believed that at present the curriculum and programs are adequate. “They are a reflection of what we are doing and we have been working with (stakeholders) hand in hand over the years to align industry needs with the curriculum.” 

However, Captain Tan did feel the maritime industry is not sufficiently poised as a lucrative and attractive industry to young talent. “We need to sell the maritime industry in a better way now.  You’re still not getting people or the young people coming into the maritime industry. What is the factor that is lacking? What is not attracting them? We need to look into this area,” he said. 

Captain Tan added there is a dire need to embark on some initiatives starting from school-level where experts or employees speak at schools to nurture the young so that they are aware that there is an exciting and promising career in maritime. 

Dr Yuen is of the same view. He believed there “needs to be more engagement as well in getting youths interested in the maritime industry from an early stage.” 

“Our current direction now is inculcating these types of values in them”

Photo credit: Maritime and Port Authority Facebook. S. Iswaran, Minister for Transport, with maritime cadets. 

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