By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence
March 12 & April 13, 2022
Image source: PSA Singapore
We had the privilege of engaging with the processes and infrastructure of the hyper-efficient Singapore port system in two ways—first on an intimate, personal scale, and then on a sprawling, international scale. First, we had an informal chat with S., a Prime Mover (PM) driver, during one of our March rehearsals; then a few of the creative team had the rare opportunity to take a brief tour of PSA Singapore’s Pasir Panjang Terminal in April.
I. The PM driver
S. has been a PM driver with PSA Singapore for several months. His official job title is “container handling specialist”, which means he drives a prime mover for an entire 12-hour shift, doing four days of intense shift work followed by three days off. On a typical day, he wakes up at 5.30am, arrives at the Pasir Panjang Terminal by 7.30am, then drives back and forth between the incoming ships and the port yard for twelve hours straight (with a lunch break and toilet breaks in-between).
It is a repetitive but dangerous job, which makes for a strange tension between boredom and fear. He describes the weight of the containers and goods he transports with a mix of trepidation and awe. “Carrying 3 tonnes is like carrying nothing, like an empty container. But some days, you’ll get a container that weighs 60 tonnes. Imagine you are suffocating under 60 tonnes...” he shakes his head, “Your truck is like a 60-year-old auntie carrying 60 tonnes.” Because the terminal area is not always paved with tarmac, driving in bad weather conditions can often feel precarious and slippery. He’s still nervous about parking, and often feels disoriented when reverse or parallel parking a vehicle with such a “long tail”, which can take a painful 15 minutes of panicked guesstimating, twisting and turning. His least favourite containers to transport? Dangerous goods containers, and containers filled with liquid. The speed limit within the port area may be a 40km/h amble, but he describes the sensation of braking only to feel the enormous truck rolling forward from the sheer force of the liquid loaded onto its chassis.
S. does this loading and unloading in complete isolation—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—where each one-way trip takes about 20 minutes. Well, not in complete isolation. Every prime mover is equipped with an ADD, or anti-drowsiness device. Drivers are under constant surveillance by computer systems to make sure they don’t fall asleep at the wheel—in the name of safety. The team is troubled by the overt surveillance, but S. takes this very seriously: “Safety is our main priority, to be honest. There are a lot of cases where you can lose your life, and knowing that every one of those stories is true is really scary. Imagine that one person, that one life you kill... it will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
But the ADD isn’t always accurate. S. loves having solo karaoke sessions in his prime mover, which he calls his favourite part of the job. “But sometimes, when I’m singing, they think I’m yawning!” he exclaims. Even the slightest yawn will trigger the ADD, which will immediately inform the operations team that the driver is tired—even if he’s actually jamming out to jiwang tunes. S. laughs: “You tend to get angry at it: don’t be stupid, it’s just a small yawn! But yeah, you talk to the sensor because you don’t have anyone else to talk to.” S. is deeply affectionate with the objects around him, and has conjured up his own constellation of relationships with them: “In the end, this PM is my friend. We’ll have a good time, you and me,” he grins. “My other friend is—my speakers!” he adds, having invested in a small radio and bluetooth speakers after realising he would have nothing else to do in his tiny single-seat vehicle.
S. is still on his six-month probationary period, but he’s already thinking long-term because PSA Singapore’s three city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani will be relocating to the massive Tuas port by 2027. The Pasir Panjang Terminals—where he currently works—will also be consolidated there by the 2040s (source: PSA Singapore). “That’s where I’m hoping to go,” he says, “The new megastructure at Tuas. This is still my learning stage. I want to be at Tuas because you don’t need to drive! Everything is all robotics, you just programme stuff—it’ll be like a game. It’s safer, and it makes so much sense and there’s no time-wasting.” He pauses. “But the bad part is that people will lose jobs, and I will have to upgrade myself. Waiting for them to upgrade me is like waiting for a seed to grow into a tree.”
In some senses, S. has already translated his daily routine into a combat minigame, with enemies and frontliners and other soldiers in the trenches closing ranks. “Parking is one of your worst enemies in the world,” he shakes his head. He describes the berthing crews and seamen as having the highest “risk factors”, and that it can be difficult to spot forklift operators, particularly on the night shift. “To me, it’s like being in the army,” he says. “These people on the frontlines are like people in the infantry. The truck drivers are like the logistics people. And those people on the cranes, they’re like the guarders and tankers.” While his shifts may be underscored by music, there’s also the competing soundscape of other staff interrupting with where are you, can you hurry up, please look behind you. He recalls a near-miss with some reticence. Another great fear is “jackknifing”, where reckless driving can lead to a prime mover or trailer truck bending itself into an acute angle. These accidents can be serious, even fatal. It isn’t much of a surprise then, when S. says that he craves the liberating thrill of getting on his motorcycle after a long day at work.
II. The S$4.7 billion machine
The conversation with S. primed us for a visit to PSA Singapore in ways we did not quite expect. We were invited to a brief tour of the Pasir Panjang Terminal, right in front of the PSA Horizons corporate office—all shiny glass and steel and offering up a stunning panoramic view of the port that would fit perfectly into a Singapore Tourism Board video, or a Social Studies textbook. As three staff members from PSA Singapore plunged into an earnest corporate spiel from across the long meeting table, I stole glances out the floor-to-ceiling windows behind me at the unceasing, indifferent machine powering a substantial slice of our economy. The PSA Singapore staff seemed mildly curious as to why a group of artists were in their boardroom, but they made the best of it, assuring us that “we have sponsored the arts before” as part of their “corporate and social responsibility”, and citing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as one of their beneficiaries.
What ensued was a fascinating juxtaposition between the relentless profit-making, hyper-efficient, high-tech insistence of the port machinery—and our desires to scale the port down to its most human elements. I sensed a vague confusion from the PSA Singapore staff as to our interest in the port’s older histories and each unit of human labour. History wasn’t a priority for them; they wanted better technology, more upskilling, less time wasted.
PSA Singapore, as we learnt, is a part of an enormous global port group (PSA International) with tentacles and tendrils across both oceans and continents. It isn’t the regulatory board of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, as they took great pains to explain, but a commercial entity managing not just container vessels but an entire dense network of supply chains. In 2021, PSA International moved 91.5 million TEUs or twenty-foot equivalent units around the world. They have 42,000 staff, and made S$4.676 billion in revenue. PSA Singapore alone moved 37.2 million TEUs last year, almost a seventh of the entire world’s total container transshipment—where transshipment basically means unloading goods from one vessel and loading it into another for the cargo to travel to a further destination. Basically, Singapore is one of the container transit capitals of the world, where containers pass through us to be moved somewhere else as quickly as possible. We are a catch-up port, which means ships that are behind schedule or delayed know that they can arrive in our port and catch up as quickly as possible. The Singapore port is basically that over-competent, terrifyingly effective team member who parachutes in and tanks an entire project so that you can get it finished on time—no, ahead of time—when you’d have missed the deadline before. They’re fiercely proud of this. They have ambitions far beyond the labour of a single port. “We look at the entire supply chain and think about how to move things faster,” one of them tells us.
When we ask if we might be able to set foot in the port area to get a sense of the environment, the staff pause, and tell us very diplomatically that this isn’t allowed. “There are very minimal people walking around,” they say, “We automate as much as possible. The key point is not to have any congestion... The port is like a human body, and the PM drivers are the blood. A congestion would be like having a stroke.” I understand this to mean that the unruly, unpredictable human is the point of congestion, the spanner in the works, the cause of death. I think of S., his foot on the brake in the rain on the slippery tarmac, trying to get his cargo to the yard as quickly as possible without veering over the 40km/h limit. All of PSA Singapore’s future plans: the mega port at Tuas, the proprietary technology they invest in, the way they optimise everything from the beginning to the end of the supply chain—everything is about maximising efficiency for maximum profit. I ask them if there’s an end-point for these efficiencies. When is efficiency maxed out? Who are they competing with? They look at each other, and then they look back at me, almost sympathetically, and tell me they don’t do it for the competition, they do it for the customers who “expect a certain delivery level”. I could almost see the subtext in the air: We do it all for you. Everyone is complicit in and catalysing this mega monster of optimised efficiency.
We all pile into a minibus to make our way around a small section of the port. Photo-taking and video-recording isn’t allowed inside this restricted zone, so we press our faces to the window, trying to memorise the shape and the sensation of things. Each vehicle makes a different sound on the tarmac, and the rhythms of PM drivers, buses, forklifts, cranes and ships moving alongside us send a different vibrations through our minibus. Piles of containers rise out of the ground like an undulating, endless mountain range. High above us, cranes move back and forth, expanding and contracting, the rhythmic heart-lung machines of this sprawling port-body. Every human we see is contained in another vehicle or vessel. The only visible bodies (which we didn’t manage to see this time) are the berthing crews who lash the incoming ships to the bollards that line the perimeter of the port. This tying and lashing work still requires human beings, though the industry has been experimenting with powerful magnets for their potential in the berthing process.
We learn that the white-coloured containers are refrigerated ones; I think about the vaccines we’ve had to import at specific temperatures, or that we’ve transshipped to other receiving countries around us. This isn’t the only trace of the pandemic we see; the PSA Singapore staff talk about how the mental state of their workers has been affected by the isolation of the pandemic, or long hours confined to their crane cabs—and I think about Singapore’s substantial migrant worker population restricted to their dormitories for months and months even as the rest of the country began to relax its pandemic regulations. It isn’t just the solitary work that’s gruelling—port work is essentially dangerous work. “We try to keep our ‘safety numbers’ as low as possible,” the staff say, avoiding more charged but descriptive terms like “injuries” or “deaths”. They tell us a morbid story of two accidental stowaways who paused to rest in a container, then died when the ship left the port and no one was available to hear or rescue them.
As we exit the port, I spot two idle pick-up trucks bearing cheery slogans: “Alongside – Together as One”, and “Always Ahead – Integrate, Innovate, Inspire”. Then a PM driver rumbles past and the platitudinal reminders are gone: alongside for a moment, then always already ahead, always already in the future, always already forgetting.
III. On hyper-efficiency, degrowth, and the end of progress
At the end of our little 15-minute circumambulation of the Pasir Panjang terminal, I feel strangely worn out. Something is coalescing here, around the labour obscured from our view, the isolated bodies scattered around the port, allergic to the throng of congestion; around the smooth, accelerated efficiencies of the automated port and the deficiencies of our small, soft bodies, prone to mental despair and emotional exhaustion, prone to death and other brokennesses. I think about how the port staff were confused by our interest in bodies, reminding us that the “coolies” of the past no longer existed, and that digitalisation now underscores everything that they do. But I suppose the labour of these coolies still exists, just contained in a different form.
A friend of mine, researcher and arts practitioner Elizabeth Chan, recently introduced me to the concept of “degrowth” and its implications for a planet already facing the irreversible consequences of the climate crisis. I’m still figuring my way through and within this idea, so I invite you to sit with me in this slow struggle. Degrowth, from the French “décroissance”, is a radical (but increasingly logical) alternative to the doomsday path the globe is currently taking towards climate devastation. Translated into English, the term becomes clumsy, semantically flawed—“degrowth” is often assumed to be the opposite of “growth”, particularly the growth of an economy or GDP, prompting a reactionary panic that proponents of degrowth must therefore be advocating, irrationally, for a reduction in GDP and therefore widespread economic stagnation and recession. They are not. Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel explains it this way:
Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being (Kallis, 2018; Latouche, 2009). It is important to clarify that degrowth is not about reducing GDP, but rather about reducing throughput. From an ecological perspective, that is what matters. Of course, it is important to accept that reducing throughput is likely to lead to a reduction in the rate of GDP growth, or even a decline in GDP itself, and we have to be prepared to manage that outcome in a safe and just way. This is what degrowth sets out to do. (Hickel 2021, 1106)
Hickel, a prolific scholar of degrowth, also argues that the crisis we are engaging with can be traced back to the hypercapitalist economic system that degrowth is attempting to undo, “a system that is predicated on perpetual expansion, disproportionately to the benefit of a small minority of rich people” (Hickel 2021, 1105). S. the PM driver may be in the perpetually-expanding S$4.7 billion machine, but he does not partake of its riches while partaking, daily, of its danger and tedium. Many large corporations will make the case for pursuing “sustainability” and “green practices” alongside (heh) the work that they do, with perpetual growth as the endpoint—or lack of an endpoint, since it is in perpetuity. Hickel argues against this, stating that “there is no historical evidence of long-term absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use [...] and all extant models project that it cannot be achieved even under optimistic conditions” (2021, 1105). I interpret this as needing to decouple our taken-for-granted notions of “progress” and “modernity” from the eternally-expanding, all-consuming monster of relentless scalability: scaling up, scaling across, scaling in advance (Tsing 2012). To survive as a species, we will all need to slow down, and scale down.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its sixth assessment report. It’s 3,675 pages long, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve only read summaries and excerpts of it. But degrowth and other models of economic and ecological flourishing are clearly cited in the report, urging all of us to move away from our obsession with better metrics and to imagine and work towards broad and sweeping systemic change (Chapter 18, p. 21). The report calls for rich, developed Global North countries to take responsibility for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and in particular to “protect the interests” of the developing Global South. While Singapore may be located geographically in the Global South, it is very much an affluent member of the Global North, its revenue and profit predicated on the ruthless extraction of resources from other countries. What has been left in the wake of our manic preoccupation with a certain kind of growth at all costs? Who are the bodies on the bottom rungs picking up the slack from the speed and scale of this pursuit of growth? What is progress, if progress only benefits an elite few, or one small country at the expense of its neighbours? And how can a small-scale performance—just four performers and their bodies—respond to and embody not just the weight of the cargo we move, but the weight of our collective conscience?
References and further reading
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2012) “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales”, Common Knowledge, 18(3), Fall 2012, pp. 505-524.
Giorgos Kallis, Christian Kerschner and Joan Martinez-Alier (2012) “The economics of degrowth”, Ecological Economics, Vol. 84, pp. 172-180.
Global Witness (2010) “Shifting Sand: how Singapore’s demand for Cambodian sand threatens ecosystems and undermines good governance”, a report by Global Witness, retrieved from https://cdn.globalwitness.org/archive/files/pdfs/shifting_sand_final.pdf
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2022) Sixth Assessment Report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
Jason Hickel (2021) “What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification”, Globalizations, 18(7), pp. 1105-1111, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2020.1812222.