Tonne-in-cheek claims to supremacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 2001, 12:00am

It is a Saturday and that is as good a day as any for a column on silly games, on this occasion the ongoing rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore as to which has the bigger port.

You can blame Singapore for bringing the topic to your correspondent's mind as this week it once again made its boast of being the world's biggest port in terms of tonnage after posting a record 910.1 million gross tonnes last year, up 3.8 per cent from the previous year.

In case you wonder, this is not the figure for the tonnage of cargo handled in Singapore. That figure is only about as third as large. The 910 million actually represents the gross registered tonnage of all ships that called at Singapore whether they had anything in their holds or not. Nice try, fellas.

But we shall give it to Singapore anyway. In the 12 months up to September last year it handled 327 million tonnes of sea cargo. The equivalent figure for Hong Kong was only 174 million.

It should not be surprising. We may think of Hong Kong as being an entrepot economy but Singapore is much more of one with its geographical position on a crossroads of world trade and it has a much longer history in the role.

You do not need to read that here or in a history book. Just look out to sea again on your next visit to Singapore and the armadas of ships out there make it obvious. Hong Kong's cargo mostly comes from and goes to China by road. Singapore's comes and goes by sea for hundreds of miles in all directions and Singapore is an ideal place to consolidate it or de-consolidate it.

But when we talk of our port we do not generally mean the smaller ships in harbour dropping goods off by lighter. We mean the Kwai Chung container port and the containers it handles.

Here, as the first chart shows, we are slightly ahead of Singapore at the moment after having dropped behind in 1998 and 1999.

But let us get some definitions straight. Container cargo is measured not primarily in tonnage but in boxes, teu (20-foot equivalent units). Small boxes generally carry the heavier goods so that they do not snap in half when picked up and Singapore probably uses proportionately more of them for things such as canned food.

In other words, there may be slightly more weight per teu in Singapore.

Also left undefined is how many of the boxes handled are empty.

For Hong Kong it is about 21 per cent but as for Singapore your correspondent does not know - his data base has no Singapore empty figures later than May 1998. However, at that time it was less than Hong Kong.

So let us call it a neck-and-neck race on container ports.

In air cargo, Hong Kong is clearly ahead as the second chart shows with about 32 per cent more tonnage than Singapore handles.

That is the Santa Claus industry across the border meeting its December 25 deadline every year.

And that is also about as far as we can go in clarifying where things stand in this rivalry, silly because it probably does not affect you one way or the other.

Graphic: mon03gbz