Local ports still expect growth in volume


MALAYSIA’S major ports should be able to withstand the onslaught of the global economic crisis, at least for this year.

In fact, many are still projecting growth in volume although business may not be as robust as in previous years.

There are about seven major container ports in the country – Northport and Westports in Port Klang; Penang Port; Port of Tanjung Pelepas and Johor Port in Johor; Bintulu Port in Sarawak; and Sapangar Bay Container Port in Sabah.

The harsh impact of the global economic crisis has resulted in declining world trade. However, healthy intra-Asian trade and higher local public spending growth is expected to spur more imported goods and raw materials.

OSK Research, which has lowered the country’s gross domestic product forecast for this year to 1.1% from 2.7%, says the RM7bil economic stimulus plan by the Government should be able to support high public spending this year.

Most analysts say the ports’ stellar performance in past years has boosted their resilience to sail through the choppy waters.

Moreover, they are somewhat “protected” from the economic storm due to their location, particularly those along the Straits of Malacca, the main maritime trade route in Asia.

Ports in east Malaysia are also strategically placed in the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines-East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA).

It helps, too, that the ports have a mixed portfolio of handling transhipment as well as exports and imports. Most of the Malaysian ports managed to meet volume targets last year although by the fourth quarter, early signs of a trade decline were evident.

Northport (M) Bhd and Westports Malaysia Sdn Bhd, the two terminal operators at the country’s maritime gateway Port Klang, are confident of maintaining volumes this year.

Northport posted slightly more than three million 20ft equivalent units (TEUs) last year, up 5% from 2007. It also expects to continue its RM585mil expansion plan which will be funded with internal funds.

On the other hand, Westports recorded around 16% volume growth in 2008 to slightly under five million TEUs. The positive forecast this year is supported by Westports’ biggest customer, CMA-CGM. Similarly, the global slowdown has not thrown a spanner in the works for Westports’ RM800mil expansion. The port’s container terminal five has been completed, adding a capacity of 1.2 million TEUs to a total of 7.2 million TEUs.

Its executive director Ruben Emir Gnanalingam, in his New Year’s message to the staff of Westports, says the company will embark on plans to consolidate its business in terms of processes, staff skills and initiatives given the relatively quieter period.

“Our manpower strength is currently at 3,650, which is sufficient to see us through the expected volume.

“Our next batch of recruits would probably come in during the second quarter of next year,” he said.

The country’s main transhipment port, Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP), expects to break even this year at 5.6 million TEUs.

“The current situation is unprecedented,” says chief executive officer Capt Ismail Hashim, adding that the best and worst-case scenario would see a 15% rise or 10% drop in cargo volume for the year.

Noteworthy is that PTP has experienced a 6% contraction in cargo volume in the final quarter of 2008 against the corresponding period a year earlier.

“But we are keeping our hopes up as our main-line operators, such as Maersk and Evergreen, are anticipating marginal growth this year,” he says. “The non-decline forecast is largely based on our exposure to the still healthy intra-Asian trade.”

Penang Port, according to its chief operating officer Mohd Niana Merican Abd Kadir Merican, expects a flat growth this year given the uncertainties going forward while Sapangar Bay Container Port (SBCP), managed by Sabah Port Sdn Bhd (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Suria Capital Holdings Bhd), is not expecting volumes to fall.

Sabah Port also manages seven other ports in Sabah. Suria Capital group managing director Datuk Abu Bakar Abas is optimistic of the outlook for this year due to the Government’s stimulus package to boost economic activity in the country.

By SHARIDAN M. ALI

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