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Location: Singapore, Singapore

A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Aug 29, 2014

From Entrepot Biz to Global Trade Hub

The archived photos of Kheng Seng Chan in the 1960s and other black and white photos with "For online reference viewing only" watermark are curated from the National Archives of Singapore with thanks and acknowledgement.  Colored photos, courtesy of Google Map, to juxtapose against the sets of location of Kheng Seng Chan then and now.

In between that period at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore for the transformation in the area, the row of shophouses were demolished.

10-year-old Thimbuktu with his father in 1958
My father was working as a book-keeper at Kheng Seng Chan for about 25 years until he passed on in 1977.

Kheng Seng Chan was located at 58, Telok Ayer Street among a row of old two-storey or three-storey shophouses.  The business was dealing in import and export of various products such as spices, rice, dried chillie, beans, maize and other commodities as commission agents.  The suppliers are mainly from Indonesia and these products were imported in sacks shipped by bumboats or "twakow" to Boat Quay at the Singapore River.  The company had two lorries and three or four regular "coolies" to deliver to shops in Singapore and Malaya.

When my family and I were living at Bukit Ho Swee, my father would bring me with him to Kheng Seng Chan to work in the morning and return home in the evening during the school holidays in 1954 and 1955. While he was working, I would be given some colored pencils, paper and sat at his table. I liked to play with the wooden stamps and stamp-pads to chop on the paper.  I was not allowed to disturb the uncles while they were busy when working.  Unfortunately, there were no childcare centres in the neighborhood for me during my childhood days in Bukit Ho Swee.

The shop-front was used for storage space and the gunny sacks were stacked up to the ceiling.  Everyone was busy when the goods arrived from the boats and transported in lorries to the shop.

A giant daching (handheld manual weighing device) was used.  My father's job was to record the weight of each bag and the quantity received and stored in the shop.  He would also issue delivery orders to customers at various places to transport by lorries.

I then learned that Kheng Seng Chan would earn the commission as a middle-man in the entrepot business.

As a book-keeper, my father would have to prepare the final accounting books at the end of the year.

The Profit and Loss Accounts and Balance Sheet were handwritten in Chinese.  The calculation for accounting purposes was done with the traditional Chinese abacus, not electronic calculators in the early days.


At the end of the Profit and Loss Accounts and Balance Sheet, the last page would indicate "天地和合" meaning the "sky and earth agree and balance".  As a book-keeper, my father was the busiest at year-end and he would often have to bring the accounting books home to work late at night.  After the bulb light was switched off, he would have to use the small oil lamp.  I would use this during school exams to burn the midnight oil.

Those were the early days of the entrepot business in Singapore's economy.

[ 九八 ]  refers to the Commission Agent in Chinese colloquial

Singapore's first 40 years were filled with all the magic of an oriental trading port. Chinese coolie laborers came to Singapore in droves to escape economic hardship at home. Most were from one of four major dialect groups: Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka, all from southern China. Living in crowded bunks in the buildings that sprang up behind the go-downs, or warehouses, these immigrants formed secret societies, social and political organizations made up of residents who shared similar ancestry or Chinese hometowns. These clan groups helped new arrivals get settled and find work, and carried money and messages back to workers' families in China. But it was the secret societies' other contribution - to gambling, street crime, and violence -- that helped fuel Singapore's image as a lawless boomtown, filled with all the excitement and danger of a frontier town in America's Wild West. Surrounded by boundless opportunity, many Chinese immigrants found great success, building fortunes as businessmen and traders.

Despite early successes, Singapore was almost entirely dependent on entrepôt trade, which was literally at the whim of the winds. Dutch trading power still threatened its economic health, and the opening of Chinese trading ports to Western ships placed Singapore in a precarious position. The soil on the island barely supported a small sago palm industry, and with the lack of natural resources, Singapore had to constantly look to trade for survival. True economic stability wouldn't arrive until the 1860s.

Entrepôt trade is the term given when imported commodities are processed, graded and repackaged, and then exported at a markup. For a resource-scarce city like Singapore, entrepôt trade has been a lifeline: In the late 19th century, Singapore was the world's largest tin-smelting center. Today Singapore is the third-largest petroleum refiner, importing oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fifty years ago, the city-state of Singapore was an undeveloped country with a GDP per capita of less than US $320. Today, it is one of the world's fastest growing economies.

During colonial times, Singapore's economy was centered on entrepôt trade. But this economic activity offered little prospect for job expansion in the post-colonial period. The withdrawal of the British further aggravated the unemployment situation.

The most feasible solution to Sinagpore's economic and unemployment woes was to embark on a comprehensive program of industrialization, with a focus on labor-intensive industries. Unfortunately, Singapore had no industrial tradition. The majority of its working population was in trade and services. Therefore, they had no expertise or easily adaptable traits in the area. Moreover, without a hinterland and neighbors who would trade with it, Singapore was forced to look for opportunities well beyond its borders to spearhead its industrial development.

Pressured to find work for their people, the leaders of Singapore began to experiment with globalization.

The then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues knew they had to connect with the developed world and to convince their multinational corporations to manufacture in Singapore.

In order to attract investors, Singapore had to create an environment that was safe, corruption- free, low in taxation, and unimpeded by unions.

By 1972, just seven years since independence, one-quarter of Singapore's manufacturing firms were either foreign-owned or joint-venture companies, and both the U.S. and Japan were major investors. As a result of Singapore's steady climate, favorable investment conditions and the rapid expansion of the world economy from 1965 to 1972, the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) experienced annual double-digit growth.

As foreign investment poured in, Singapore began focusing on developing its human resources, in addition to its infrastructure. The country set up many technical schools and paid international corporations to train their unskilled workers in information technology, petrochemicals, and electronics. For those who could not get industrial jobs, the government enrolled them in labor intensive un-tradable services, such as tourism and transportation. The strategy of having multinationals educate their workforce paid great dividends for the country. In the 1970s, Singapore was primarily exporting textiles, garments, and basic electronics. By the 1990s, they were engaging in wafer fabrication, logistics, biotech research, pharmaceuticals, integrated circuit design, and aerospace engineering.

Today, Singapore is an ultra industrialized society and entrepôt trade continues to play a central role in its economy. The Port of Singapore is now the world's busiest transshipment port , surpassing Hong Kong and Rotterdam. In terms of total cargo tonnage handled, it has become the world's second busiest, behind only the Port of Shanghai. 

Source:  NewspaperSG, National Library Board

Excerpt from The Straits Times, 6 November 1971

Singapore's entrepot and re-export trade must be transformed and directed towards the promotion of her own exports and distribution of technologically advanced industrial products.

The Finance Ministry's Trade Division, which stressed this in its 1970 annual report released today, says this is because of the further expected drop in the Republic's future entrepot trade.

... The existing trend in declining primary commodities prices, if continued may also contribute to a further drop in the value of our entrepot trade.

Singapore traders would be wise, however, to take note of the likely trend of our entrepot trade.

The 150 years of entrepot trade in primary commodities is moving towards a different pattern, as more and more South-east Asian countries learn to handle their own exports and transact directly with overseas purchasers.

The outlook and attitudes of the trade now largely directed towards entrepot and re-export trade must be transformed.

The Straits Times, 19 December, 1966

The Finance Minister, Mr Lim Kim San, today urged Singapore consumers to make suitable adjustments in their thinking and buying habits.

One of these adjustments, he stressed, was to become local-brand-conscious.

He continued: "Indeed we should also instil this local-brand-consciousness in our children.

Industries must be given every support in their infancy so that they can grow and compete internationally.

Mr Lim was speaking at the opening of yet another Jurong industry - Fullmark Industries Ltd.

He declared:  "Today we are gathered here to witness the official opening of a factory that produce stationery, including pencils, ballpens, ink, carbon paper, stencils, typewriter ribbons and stamping pads.

It is part of a very important process.  Forty years ago our entrepot trade was fast developing and could support the smaller population.  All that we needed we could buy from abroad with the earnings of entrepot trade.

Circumstances today are completely different.  We have great numbers of job-seekers to look after as a result of a rapid population expansion during the immediate post-war years.

Our entrepot trade is capable of growth, but it alone cannot provide jobs for all.

We  must, therefore industrialise.  Factories have to be established to keep our citizens employed.

Factories have to produce some of the goods that we require so that the need not spend too much importing from other countries.

In the long run, we must produce not only for home consumption but for export as well.

In this way, we can create more jobs ourselves for our growing population.


The "Recommendations by the Services Sub Committe - WORKING GROUP ON TRADING, Sept 2002 released here .


The paper evaluates our development as a trade hub and the potential of developing Singapore into a Global Trade Hub.  It highlights existing impediments and proposes recommendations to propel Singapore going forward.

Singapore's competitive advantages make it well placed to become a global trade hub:

-   Attractive Trade Infrastructure

Singapore's top rated infrastructure in air, sea, land, telecommunications, finance, trade facilitation and documentation is particularly attractive to global traders.

Good Business & Physical Connectivity

Our geographical location positions us well to complete the 24-hour trading cycle, complementing key trade hubs such as London and New York.

Reputation as Oil Trading Hub

Singapore in the world's 3rd largest oil refining and trading centre in the region, Singapore also has an active over-the-counter (OTC) oil market.

Credibility and Reputation of Singapore Inc.

Singapore's strong brand name as a reputable business hub allows traders here to enjoy high credibility as counter-parties in transactions.

Cosmopolitan Open and Safe Social Environment

In addition to our high quality of life, Singapore also offers a cosmopolitan, open and safe environment for global traders to work and live in.  Our ethnic mix helps create understanding and openness that is critical for face to face dealings in international trade and commerce.

Stable Political and Pro-Business Environment

Our stable political and pro-business environment is well regarded by global traders.

I have very little knowledge and understanding about the Global Trade Hub.  Thus I must mention that the material derived from an outline of the resources in the course of  research on the Internet and various sources are not intended for academic or systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

With apologies to the experts and professional economists at the Economic Development Board in Singapore, Trade Departments and the relevant faculties in the local and foreign universities that no attempt is made to deliberate further on this academic subject shared on my personal blog to express.

Please note that the Global Trade Hub papers quoted on this blog is outdated and many things have changed over a decade ago. The papers was released in September, 2002 based on the prevailing circumstances and the economy of Singapore have advanced and developed our nation by leaps and bounds over the years.  Our international trade policies have done successfully to complete the planning for the global trade hub for the future.

The purpose of this blog is to show the ways of Singapore as an entrepot trade to be transformed into an economy miracle for banking hub, financial hub and international investors' haven in Singapore over the decades.  Kind comments and corrections are much appreciated.  Thank you.



Blogger dashing hongeng said...

Well researched and well documented article. Something for the present generation to think about how we came to be as it is. Congratulations!

August 30, 2014 at 12:02 AM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thank you dashing hongeng. This is an era of the past which the founding fathers and pioneer generations of Singapore and everyone helped to build.

August 30, 2014 at 12:59 AM  

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