The Straits Steamship Co.
(Est. 1890)

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The Straits Steamship Company was formed as The Straits Navigation Company in Singapore on 20 January 1890. It was the brainchild of Theodore Cornelius Bogaardt, a Dutchman who was one of the company's seven directors. Before the establishment of Straits Steamship, European companies trading in Singapore were served by European shipping companies which included English, German, French, Italian and Dutch shipping lines. Mansfield & Company directors (A. P. Adams, D. J. Mathens and J. Burkinshaw) teamed up with wealthy tycoons such as Tan Jiak Kim, Tan Keong Saik and Lee Cheng Yan to form the first joint Singapore-European shipping enterprise in 1890. This was the Straits Steamship Company. World events such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping across Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, boosted trade relations between Europe and Asia. Singapore's status as a port-of-call grew in importance as a result. The partnership of sorts, of old and new, East and West, colonial and local has caused the company to emerge as a vital player in the future of Singapore maritime. It was later incorporated as part of Keppel Corporation, as Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation Shipping division.

The company began with a nominal capital of $10 million. All of its shareholders were locals. There were initially five ships to the company's name. The company operated mainly on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially at Melaka, Penang and some small river ports. In the first twenty-five years, the company transported mainly tin ores. Other cargoes were coffee, pepper, rice, rubber and tobacco. Besides goods, the ships ferried passengers, who were mostly Chinese labourers from China who came to work on rubber estates and tin mines in the region. By 1914, the Straits Steamship had acquired seventeen vessels. Despite going through two world wars, the company thrived and continued to make acquisitions. It went through diversifications.

During the First World War (1918-1919), Singapore international and regional trade remained buoyant. With the exception of the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Line (NDL) which had disappeared, other local businesses and foreign companies operating out of Singapore did well. The Straits Steamship Company was no exception. Straits Steamship together with Blue Funnel, were able to fill in the service gaps in Thailand and Borneo, apart from existing services to Singapore. However, during the war, the government requisitioned the company's vessels as the company suffered a drop in profits. After the war, as law and order returned, trading conditions improved and European purchases of Asian goods rose steadily. The rubber industry also expanded and the company saw the need to expand its fleet. By the beginning of 1922, the Straits Steamship Fleet stood at twenty-four vessels with a combined tonnage of 25 446. Its worth was estimated to be $5.5 million.

Under the stewardship of Somerville, the company made a series of acquisitions over the next 12 years other than adding new ships to the fleet. The port of Singapore changed to accommodate the expansion. The passage for ships was more navigable as swamps were infilled. Railway terminals, docks and warehouses had been built. As fast as expansion took place, so did the Great Depression and its effects which began to set in the region in the 1930s. By mid-1930s, profits had fallen, services were curtailed, tonnage was laid up or scrapped. Despite salary cuts, none of the staff was laid off. The company recovered from depression as profits began to rise from 1937. In the same year, Straits Steamship was party to agreement to form Malayan Airways in 1937. It gave up management of the airline in 1957. This airline became known as Singapore International Airlines since then (SIA). By the end of the 1930s, its subsidiaries and associates were flourishing as well. The prosperity that was beginning to ensue was short-lived however, as the Second World War broke out.

At the outbreak of war, the Straits Steamships Fleet stood at 51 vessels with a combined tonnage of 38 860 gross. It was able to sustain itself despite suffering heavy losses during the period. In that year, the company was shifted briefly to United Kingdom where it was registered as Singapore Straits Steamship Company. (There was already a Straits Steamship Company which operated in Menai Straits.) The impact of the invasion of the Japanese was immediate. Under heavy bombings, crew, passengers, ships and all records of the company were lost. As between 1941-1945, 33 ships were lost. Ports of call had been destroyed; navigational aids in Sumatra, wharves, godowns in Malaya and jetties were either in short supply or non-existent. To commemorate the loss of lives and sufferings of its members, a ceremony was held at the Cathedral of the Port of Singapore on 22 May 1946 by the British Coastal Shipping Community of the Colony. The Straits Steamship was able to commence its trading activities while rebuilding its fleet a month before the service.

Birth of Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines:

The company recovered as much as it could from the loss and damage of war in the 1950s. After recovery, it began its path of expansion again and started to diversify. In 1946, it revived its interest in aviation. In partnership with Alfred Holt's Ocean Steamship Company and Imperial Airways, the Straits Steamship Company incorporated Malayan Airways Limited on the 12th October 1947. The airline's first flight was a chartered flight from the British Straits Settlement of Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on the 2nd April 1947.  Regular weekly scheduled flights quickly followed from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang soon commenced. The airline continued to expand during the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, as other British Commonwealth airlines (such as BOAC and Qantas Empire Airways) provided technical assistance, as well as assistance in joining IATA.

When Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak gained their independence and formed the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the airline's name was changed, from "Malayan Airways" to "Malaysian Airlines" (though still abbreviated to MAS). MAS also took over Borneo Airways. In 1966, following Singapore's separation from the federation, the airline's name was changed again, to Malaysia - Singapore Airlines (MSA).

MSA ceased operations in 1972, when political disagreements between Singapore and Malaysia resulted in the formation of two entities: Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines System.

Singapore Airlines retained all the international routes out of Singapore and the existing corporate headquarters in Singapore. Female flight attendants continued to wear the famous "sarong kebaya" uniform, which had been first introduced in 1968. These eventually became an icon for the airline in marketing campaigns and became known as the "Singapore Girls".

Singapore Airlines has grown from a regional airline into one of the world's leading carriers. They have a young, efficient fleet, an educated staff attuned to quality, and a top-ranked travel gateway, Singapore's Changi Airport, at the centre of their extensive route network. Their history, their country, and their customers all contribute to their success and their future.

From a single plane to an internationally respected brand, more than 60 years of innovation and service has propelled the growth of Singapore Airlines to become one of the world's leading carriers with an advanced fleet. They began with three flights per week, and today their route network spans 103 destinations in 41 countries. Years ago, Singapore Airlines was the first to offer free drinks and complimentary headsets. More recently, they have pioneered inflight telecommunications services and unparalleled inflight luxury. In 2007, Singapore Airlines celebrated its 60th Anniversary and they are the first to put the world’s largest plane (the Airbus A380) into service.

Singapore Airlines has evolved into one of the most respected travel brands around the world. They have one of the world's youngest fleet in the air, a network spanning five continents, and the Singapore Girl as their renowned symbol of quality customer care and service. Customers, investors, partners, and staff — everyone expects excellence of the airline. And so, in their lounges, their conferences, working relationships, and in the smallest details of flight, they rise to each occasion and deliver the Singapore Airlines experience.

Meanwhile Malaysian Airline System, on the other hand, took all domestic routes within Malaysia and international routes out of the country. It began flights on the 1st October 1972. Soon after that, Malaysian Airline System rapidly expanded its services, including introducing long-haul flights from Kuala Lumpur to London. In the same year, MAS operated flights to more than 34 regional destinations and six international services. In 1976, MAS scheduled flights reached Europe. An economic boom in Malaysia during the 1980s helped spur growth at Malaysia Airlines. By the end of the decade, MAS was flying to 47 overseas destinations, including eight European destinations, seven Oceania destinations, and the USA. In 1993, Malaysia Airlines reached South America. When Malaysia Airlines introduced its service from Kuala Lumpur to South America, MAS became the first and only airline in South East Asia to serve South America. Services were eventually extended to Central America in the 1980s, however this route was terminated in the 1990s. However in the 1990s and early 21st century the airline experience financial difficulties. Today, Malaysia Airlines flies nearly 50,000 passengers daily to some 100 destinations worldwide.

Diversification of the Straits Steamship Company:

In 1947, the Straits Steamship Company was re-registered in Singapore under its original name. Straits Steamship then entered the tug and lightirage business in the same year but faced difficulties trading with other emerging new nations especially Indonesia, particularly in the early 1960s. The Straits Company diversified into other ventures such as property, leisure, warehousing and distribution in 1970s.

Integration into the Keppel Corporation:

In 1983, Keppel Corporation Ltd (KCL) of Singapore bought Alfred Holt's Ocean Transport and Trading Group's majority share holding in the Straits Steamship Company (58%) and Straits Steamship then became a subsidiary of KLC and the Keppel's Group property arm. In 1989, when property became the company's core business, Straits Steamship Company changed its name to Straits Steamship Land. The ship owning part of Straits Steamship Company was split off and named Steamers Maritime Holdings Ltd and was listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore. In 1997, Straits Steamship Land became Keppel Land and Steamers Maritime Holdings Ltd became Keppel Telecommunications and Transportation (Keppel T&T). In the same year, together with Singapore Press Holdings, Britain's Cable & Wireless and Hongkong's Pacific Century CyberWorks, Keppel T&T launched M1, Singapore's second cellular operator.

Thus the Straits Steamship Company, which had started off back in 1890, and was one of the British Empire's great shipping lines, disappeared due to mergers and consolidation in the shipping industry and globalisation. It is truly the end of a glorious era.

Keppel Corporation

Keppel Land (formerly Straits Steamship Land)

Keppel Telecommunications & Transportation (formerly Steamers Maritime Holdings Ltd)

Temasek Holdings

Singapore Airlines

Silk Air

Tiger Airways

Virgin Atlantic


SIA Engineering Company

Singapore Aero Engine Services

Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS)

SIA Cargo

Malaysia Airlines:

Penerbangan Malaysia Berhad

Malaysia Airlines



Malaysia Airlines Cargo

        (c) The AJN Transport Britain Collection 2008                                                                                                                                                                                 A Edward Elliott