Head of Network & Connectivity, Corporate Development
Periodically we spotlight our mentors at PortXL, who will share an industry challenge.
Currently the Head of Network & Connectivity and Corporate Development at YCH Group, Jeffrey Tan is a business and technology expert in driving logistics innovation globally.
With more than 15 years of international experience across maritime industry sectors, he has a proven track record of leveraging technology to drive business innovation in organisations like PSA Corporation, IDA International, Ascendas-Singbride, CrimsonLogic and Y3 Technologies.
Jeffrey has spearheaded major projects in smart ports, smart cities, supply chain management, and logistics across China, Asia Africa, Middle East and Latin America. He is also currently the President of the Supply Chain Management Chapter at the Singapore Computer Society.
In this interview, he highlights the challenge of connectivity between the entire value chain from logistics, supply chain, customs to port operations.
How did you start your career in maritime and shipping?
When I started my career at PSA back in 2002 after completing my degree in computing, I didn’t know what to expect.
The maritime and shipping industry in the early 2000s faced major challenges as the world economy was recovering from the dot.com crash and battling the global economic crisis. Even PSA underwent a major retrenchment and restructuring exercise in 2003 and 2004.
I never dreamt of joining this sector, but after I started my career at PSA, I fell in love with this industry.
It has been a constant learning experience in value chain, even after spending 10 years of my career at PSA and various other organisations, including government agencies.
After PSA where did you embark next?
Having spent a decade in PSA, I was inspired to see the world and different business models in the value chain.
In 2009, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore started an international arm called IDA International, which serves as the execution arm for all socio-economic collaborations on public service infocomm between Singapore and countries around the world.
This includes assistance in the areas of port and logistics which Singapore has earned its reputation over the years.
So in 2012, I moved from a local role in PSA into a more international role in IDA, helping governments in other countries elevate their logistics hub standards and streamline port operations.
My new role gave me exposure to markets beyond Singapore, to ASEAN, China and even Africa and the Middle East. This gave me more insights into how global trade is run, where inefficiencies and pain points lie, and how Singapore’s expertise can come in to help.
If you look at the entire value chain of the logistics and supply chain industry, it’s very broad.
The ecosystem is made up of stakeholders like port operators, customs, shippers, shipping lines, logistics companies, trucking companies, et cetera, and all these people have to find a way to work together to create a value proposition for a city to grow as a logistics hub and smart port.
With your global experience in non-Asian markets like Africa and the Middle East, did you observe common pain points across the board?
It’s all very different. Singapore’s ports are very efficient. In a way, we are pampered, because this is the way we expect things to work.
But when you put yourself into a different country or context, like Africa or the Middle East, things aren’t as rosy. These regions struggle with basic infrastructure, like roads, ports, equipment. Even technology-wise they lag behind.
The main reasons are the unstable political situation, and a breakdown in communication and collaboration between government agencies.
During my work on the ground – which I believe gives the best sense of how the ecosystem functions – I observed how stakeholders work together and there are many gaps.
You’ve also spent a big part of your career in China. Compared to Singapore, how different is the logistics ecosystem there?
I’ve spent much of my career studying the value chain in Chinese cities, and was involved in a consultation program to create a masterplan for the city of Zhuhai (in South China) to grow into a smart port by 2020.
The first tier cities in China can be as advanced as Singapore when it comes to ports and logistics operations.
However, second and third tier cities lag far behind, simply because they don’t have the budget to modernise their infrastructure. China is a huge country, so logistics communities in second and third tier cities might not get the same kind of focus that their first tier counterparts are given.
The Chinese government is now trying to implement a standardised B2B platform to engage the entire community, and build a smoother B2G framework for processes such as documentation.
But the current lack of connectivity is a big gap. Individual stakeholders are good at what they do, but there is no monolithic system that integrates the entire ecosystem for better operational efficiency.
For example, trucking companies deploy their own GPS locations, linked to a standalone system that is not connected to the port. In comparison, Singapore’s ports has rolled out Mobile Data Terminal (MDT), keypad, GPS Tracker and antenna on container trucks that are linked to the Containerised Traffic System (CTS) which informs truck drivers which part of the yard their shipment is arriving at.
The top-down government approach has worked well for Singapore, which is a small country. In your opinion, does this also work for China?
Generally, a top-down approach helps streamline the ecosystem, in the sense that government policies and frameworks are enacted to set the standard for all stakeholders.
But it’s also a fact that China is much bigger than Singapore in terms of capacity, population, and land size.
Therefore change needs to happen from bottom-up too, where the main players are city governments and private entities. Each city government has to get the city ready for the bigger picture by working together with stakeholders in the local value chain.
This engagement is lacking in China. Often, there is disconnect between the city governments and private entities, which operate in silos.
Private companies are very entrepreneurial and driven to make an impact without waiting for government policies. We’ve been wowed by technologies created by ecommerce companies like Alibaba and JD.com. In this aspect China is actually stronger than Singapore and any other ASEAN countries. When it comes to ecommerce and retail technology, I would even rank China higher than the United States.
The technological advancements in China has advanced in leaps and bounds. So how innovation between private companies and state-owned enterprises can converge together is a big challenge in the years to come.