A pillar for the protection of the welfare of Singapore’s seafaring marine officers, the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) has been a key partner in the development of Singapore’s maritime industry across more than a half-century.
In the beginning, the pioneering group of the Malay Marine Officers’ Association (MMOA) comprising local trade masters and mates was registered on 22 March 1951. With humble beginnings, the MMOA operated out of a tiny one-room office on Jalan Sultan before moving to Winchester House at the Change Alley.
To better reflect a multi-racial representation in the mid 50s, the MMOA was renamed the Malayasian Ship Officers’ Union (MSOU) in 1955. Despite the social and political tensions during the era, the MSOU was able to enter into its first collective agreement with the Singapore Maritime Employers’ Federation (SMEF) in 1957. At the time of the agreement, the SMEF had 18 members, of which the Straits Steamship Co Ltd was the largest employer. Much of the rest of the 1950s and 60s were plagued by riots, strikes and industrial unrest.
In December 1970, MSOU became affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress.
The MSOU embarked on its first efforts into the international labour movement by becoming recognised as an affiliate to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in 1971.
On 22 August 1972, the MSOU was renamed the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU). The new name reflected SMOU’s shift towards progress as a union of seafaring officers, and progress in the industrial relations scene. It was a shift towards co-operation rather than confrontation when negotiating with employers. A shift that builds relationships with an eventual benefit to union members and employees alike.
The 70s was a period of growth and development, as the SMOU membership grew along with union funding, and significant progress was being made in the industrial relations scene, leading to SMOU’s first foreign-going collective agreement signed in 1977 with Transocean Liners. The shift in operations in 1978 from a one-room office at Winchester House to a 1,000 square foot office at International Plaza on Anson Road was epitome of the union’s growing success and sustained efforts during the 70s with the creation of more much needed jobs for members. Subsequent expansion of SMOU’s operations led to the occupation of a 2,300 square foot space within the same office.
SMOU’s first steps towards a symbiotic tripartite alliance, a cooperation between union, management and government, was made in 1981 onboard a cruise on the MV Centaur. A seminar themed Cruising Towards A New Maritime Industrial Relations Climate was organised by the SMOU and attended by shipowners and officials from the National Maritime Board (now known as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore), Marine Department, NTUC and SMOU. The historic seminar laid the groundwork for better industrial ties and ushered in a whole new era of tripartite cooperation.
Tripartism was seen to be the beginning of the driving force behind Singapore’s economic and social development. With tripartite arrangements in place, a substantial number of ships were covered by collective agreements with SMOU in the early 80s, yielding some 2,000 new jobs for Singaporean seafaring officers, resulting in a growth within the SMOU membership ranks to some 3,000 members.
In 1982, the SMOU office was relocated to the Sports House at Farrer Park.
The 80s was a trying period for SMOU. The maritime industry was badly hit by the recession in 1985 and 1986, during which about one third of the ships covered under SMOU’s collective agreements were flagged out. As a result, many maritime officers became unemployed.
The subsequent measures to address the unemployment were painful but necessary. Heeding NTUC’s advise, SMOU persuaded its members to allow employers to cut their contribution to the employees’ Central Provident Fund (CPF), freeze their annual wage increments, reduce the seniority allowance and forgo the 1985 Annual Wage Allowance, in order to prevent job losses.
As an added measure to ensure that members remained employable, SMOU formed the Committee on Upgrading, Redeployment and Skills Enhancement (COURSE). Launched in 1986, the COURSE scheme provided members with subsidies for retraining which helped many members to secure new jobs.
During the tumultuous time, another tragedy struck. A huge fire gutted SMOU’s office at Farrer Park in 1985, destroying almost the entire building. Aware of SMOU’s plight, NTUC offered a helping hand and operations were temporary relocated to the NTUC Annexe.
In 1987, SMOU acquired a property within the Peninsula Plaza and by May the same year, the union operations moved into the new 4,600 square foot office.
On the international front, trouble brewed and Singapore’s status within the international maritime trade was uncertain. Since the 1960s, the Singapore flag was an open registry to encourage ship owning and ship operating. The Merchant Shipping Act was amended in 1978, making Singapore a closed registry. Singapore maritime officers had also been consistently proven to be highly trained, skilled and qualified to embark on seafaring assignments. In spite of it all, Singapore ships remain Flag of Convenience (FOC) Vessels.
According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a FOC ship is categorised as one that “flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership”. Certain shipowners register their vessels under FOC, so that they can recruit the cheapest labour, pay minimal wages and neglect the living standards and working conditions of their seafaring employees.
During the period between 1972 and 1987, more than 20 Singapore flagged ships were boycotted. SMOU was firm in its position that Singapore registered ships were not FOCs, in a bid to protect members’ jobs. On the international front, SG Lim Boon Heng represented Singapore and SMOU by making several presentations and lobbying before the ITF congress for Singapore’s removal from the Flag-of –Convenience list. He was successful in changing the perceptions of the ITF Congress.
On 1 January 1989, the Singapore flag was eventually declared a non Flag-of-Convenience, and is recognised internationally as a quality fleet.
The early 1990s was a challenging period with SMOU facing tragedy and euphoria. During the gulf war, several local seafarers were killed and wounded sailing near the war zone and SMOU was on hand to provide welfare and moral support to the families of the victims.
Around the same time, increasing fears of job replacement by foreigners were being felt. In 1994, members working onboard harbour crafts had their say in a forum organised by SMOU. They voiced their concerns to the relevant authorities and subsequent representation was made. After months of lobbying by SMOU, a foreign worker levy was imposed on foreigners working onboard harbour crafts.
The 1990s also saw the General Secretary of SMOU, Mr Thomas Tay, being elected as a member of the NTUC Central Committee. He was also elected into the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Executive Board, and in 1998, was the first Asian elected as a Vice-Chairman of the ITF Seafarers’ Section. In October 1999, SMOU appointed Ms Mary Liew, as the first woman to be its Executive Secretary.
In the 1990s, the Singapore Maritime Employers’ Federation (SMEF) also reached an accord on the new Total Crew Cost (TCC) Collective Bargaining Agreement with ITF, SMOU and Seamen Organisation of Singapore (SOS).
A critical mission of SMOU during this stage was to safeguard and enhance the employability of its members. The way in which this could be achieved was to offer educational schemes to give our members a competitive edge by improving their proficiency in relevant skills. One such scheme is the Alternative Career Scheme officially launched on 22 April 1997 which provides subsidies to members who sign up for approved upgrading courses. Another scheme, the SMOU Cadet Scholarship Scheme, was developed to nurture young talents. Inaugurated in 1998, cadets can apply to SMOU for part sponsorship of their studies and are assessed by merit of academic and curriculum achievements.
The SMOU mission statement conceived during the union’s 40th anniversary in 1991 of “Towards a more Professional, Productive and Progressive Organisation”, encapsulated the vision of SMOU in the 90s and beyond.
SMOU moved into the spanking new Wavelink Building on Jellicoe Road in January 2003. With its One Stop Service Centre located on the 2nd storey of the 5-storey building, SMOU is poised to better serve its membership base of more than 14,000.
In line with membership growth, SMOU also offered many additional welfare benefits to the union’s multinational membership. The range of benefits include insurance coverage whilst sailing, protection, as well as a range of social, recreational and lifestyle benefits.
In 2001, SMOU initiated the Seafarers' Provident Fund (SPF), to enhance the well-being of members working onboard SMOU CA vessels. Functioning similarly to a social security / provident fund scheme, and more than a savings scheme for members’ retirement; the SPF also provides assistance to members in times of crisis including death, disability, health and extreme circumstances. It is the umbrella for members and their families for a rainy day.
With globalisation and a highly competitive global economic environment, SMOU continues to encourage seafarers to acquire new skills through participation in the many training, retraining and further development programmes. Some of these programmes are developed exclusively for SMOU by Wavelink Academy. In conjunction with the SMOU initiated Singapore Maritime Training Fund (SMTF) which was launched in 2003, the union aims to ensure members remain employable throughout their active years armed with skills valued in the new economy and that more quality seafaring officers are serving onboard SMOU CBA vessels.
Another exciting milestone for the union was the formation of the SMOU youth chapter, now known as the Young SMOU. The Young SMOU has organised and participated in tripartite events involving the shipping employers, the maritime authorities and union members. The Young SMOU is also active in community service projects and it is heart-warming to see the Young SMOU involving themselves in social causes. The qualities of the Young SMOU certainly reflect well, the future of the union.
Besides protecting the interests and promoting the welfare of its members and associates, SMOU is also active in charity movements. It believes in helping those who are less fortunate and being an organisation guided by the principles of Care, Commitment, Teamwork and not least, Innovation and Creativity. It has adopted the Henderson’s Senior Citizens’ Home since 1991 and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.
SMOU is a progressive union constantly looking after the welfare of its members with an eye on the future. Working towards 30,000 memberships in 2016, SMOU is also trying to develop regional training in Asia with its social partners to ensure quality SMOU members work onboard Singapore ships.
With Professional, Productive and Progressive members, the union, together with the companies, the government and the maritime community will work towards future progress together in tripartite fashion, towards greater achievements at the international forefront in the global maritime industry.
Working with a renewed vigour towards championing seafarers’ interest and adding value to the maritime community, SMOU aims to be a professional global tripartite maritime union.