In the late 13th century, a settlement known as Singapore was established on the north bank of the Singapore River around what was called the Old Harbour. It was the only port in the southern part of the Strait of Malacca and serviced ships and traders in the region, competing with other ports along the coast of the Malacca Strait such as Jambi, Kota Cina, Lambri, Semudra, Palembang, South Kedah and Tamiang. The port had two functions. First, it made available products that were in demand by international markets; these included top-quality hornbill casques, lakawood and cotton. Although these goods were also available from other Southeast Asian ports, those from Singapore were unique in terms of their quality. Secondly, Singapore acted as a gateway into the regional and international economic system for its immediate region. South Johor and the Riau Archipelago supplied products to Singapore for export elsewhere, while Singapore was the main source of foreign products to the region.
By the 15th century, Singapore had declined as an international trading port due to the ascendance of the Malacca Sultanate, such trade continued on the island. A map of Singapore by Portuguese mathematician Manuel Godinho d’Eredia showed the location of the office of a shabandar, the Malay official responsible for international trade, and shards of 15th-century Siam ceramics and late 16th – or early 17th-century Chinese blue and white porcelain have been found at the Singapore and Kallang Rivers. Singapore also provided other regional ports with local products demanded by international markets.
In the early 17th century, Singapore’s main settlement and its port were destroyed by a punitive force from Aceh. After this, there was no significant settlement or port at Singapore until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, excited by the deep and sheltered waters in Keppel Harbour, established for Britain a new settlement and international port on the island.
Keen to attract Asian and European traders to the new port, Raffles directed that land along the banks of the Singapore River, particularly the south bank, be reclaimed where necessary and allocated to Chinese and English country traders to encourage them to establish a stake in the port-settlement. Chinese traders, because of their frequent commercial interactions with Southeast Asian traders throughout the year, set up their trading houses along the lower reaches of the river, while English country traders, who depended on the annual arrival of trade from India, set up warehouses along the upper reaches. The port relied on three main networks of trade that existed in Southeast Asia at that time: the Chinese network, which linked Southeast Asia with the southern Chinese ports of Fujian and Guangdong; the Southeast Asian network, which linked the islands of the Indonesian archipelago; and the European and Indian Ocean network, which linked Singapore to the markets of Europe and the Indian Ocean littoral. These networks were complementary, and positioned Singapore as the transshipment point of regional and international trade. By the 1830s, Singapore had overtaken Batavia (now Jakarta) as the centre of the Chinese junk trade, and also become the centre of English country trade, in Southeast Asia. This was because Southeast Asian traders preferred the free port of Singapore to other major regional ports which had cumbersome restrictions. Singapore had also supplanted Tanjung Pinang as the export gateway for the gambier and pepper industry of the Riau–Lingga Archipelago by the 1830s, and South Johor by the 1840s. It had also become the centre of the Teochew trade in marine produce and rice.
As the volume of its maritime trade increased in the 19th century, Singapore became a key port of call for sailing and steam vessels in their passage along Asian sea routes. From the 1840s, Singapore became an important coaling station for steam shipping networks that were beginning to form. Towards the late 19th century, Singapore became a staple port servicing the geographical hinterland of the Malay Peninsula. Following the institution of the British Forward Movement, Singapore became the administrative capital of British Malaya. Roads and railways were developed to transport primary materials such as crude oil, rubber and tin from the Malay Peninsula to Singapore to be processed into staple products, and then shipped to Britain and other international markets. During the colonial period, this was the most important role of the port of Singapore.
Singapore ceased to be part of the British Empire when it merged with Malaysia in 1963. Singapore lost its hinterland and was no longer the administrative or economic capital of the Malay Peninsula. The processing in Singapore of raw materials extracted in the Peninsula was drastically reduced due to the absence of a common market between Singapore and the Peninsular states.
Since Singapore’s full independence in 1965, it has had to compete with other ports in the region to attract shipping and trade at its port. It has done so by developing an export-oriented economy based on value-added manufacturing.
By the 1980s, maritime trading activity had ceased in the vicinity of the Singapore River except in the form of passenger transport, as other terminals and harbours took over this role. Keppel Harbour is now home to three container terminals. Other terminals were built in Jurong and Pasir Panjang as well as in Sembawang in the north. Today, the port operations in Singapore are handled by two players: PSA International (formerly the Port of Singapore Authority) and Jurong Port, which collectively operate six container terminals and three general-purpose terminals around Singapore.
In the 1990s the Port became more well-known and overtook Yokohama, and eventually became the busiest port in terms of shipping tonnage
The port is the world’s busiest port in terms of shipping tonnage handled, with 1.15 billion gross tons (GT) handled in 2005. In terms of cargo tonnage, Singapore is behind Shanghai with 423 million freight tons handled. The port retains its position as the world’s busiest hub for transshipment traffic since 2005, and is also the world’s biggest bunkering hub, with 25 million tonnes sold in the same year.
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