Next to the Singapore River, right about where the waterway expands to form an auspicious “carp’s belly”, is Market Street. The building at 55 Market Street is now simply named after its street address. Before it was sold to new owners in 2004 and refurbished, however, it was known as the Sinsov Building, home to the Singapore Soviet Shipping Company (or Sosiac), the first joint venture between the newly-independent island-state and the Soviet Union.
Singapore’s independence in 1965 was accompanied by existential fears over the island’s economic future, especially since British military withdrawal would mean the loss of 20% of GDP and tens of thousands of jobs. These insecurities triggered a willingness to tiptoe beyond Cold War boundaries for assistance. Trade agreements had been signed between Singapore and the Soviet Union as early as 1966 and full diplomatic recognition followed in 1968. However, according to Lee Kuan Yew, who was then Prime Minister, this did not result in significant economic exchange:
Contacts were minimal. They had nothing we wanted to buy except the catch of their fishing fleet that trawled the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They formed a joint venture with one of our companies to can their fish [i.e. seafood processing firm Marissco, founded in 1975 – ed.], and also repaired their vessels in our dockyards and took on provisions.
(From Third World to First, the Singapore Story: 1965-2000, p. 490.)
Yet the history of the Singapore Soviet Shipping Company belies this. The Company began operations in 1967 after prolonged negotiations in Moscow and was formally incorporated as a 50-50 joint venture in February 1968. Rubber magnate Ng Quee Lam served as joint chairman. His eagerness for the venture was likely inspired by the fact that more than 500 Soviet ships had called at Singapore in 1967, taking 20,000 tonnes of rubber a month from Singapore to Odessa.
The Company seems to have done fairly well from the beginning. On the occasion of its fifth anniversary in 1973, it took out a full-page supplement in The Straits Times detailing its achievements and thanking the Singapore government for its support. The lines it offered now plied routes between Nakhodka in the Russian Far East, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Europe. In separate press interviews, Ng said that the tonnage carried by the Company had increased tenfold since 1968, focusing on local commodities and Soviet textiles and machinery. Russian joint chairman V.V. Makarov told journalists that the Company’s staff had also increased from four to 35 “to attend to Soviet cargo, fishing and research vessels calling at Singapore”.
Originally located in the Far Eastern Bank Building at 156 Cecil Street, the Company moved into the Sinsov Building on its tenth anniversary in 1978. The year before, it had handled more than one million tonnes of cargo from 1,297 Soviet ships, which had 50,000 crew members.
Russian journalist Iurii Borisovich Savenkov described the Company’s activities in the 1970s:
Somewhere there, in the area around the port at Cecil Street, where endless banks, insurance companies and trading houses creep up on one another, stands the Far Eastern Bank building. If one goes up to the fifth floor, you will see a clear inscription under crossed flags: ‘Soviet-Singapore Company, general agent for all Soviet ships’.
Here, in the skipper’s cabin, news is exchanged, routes are discussed, communications are made via telex with their shipping companies, technical details are clarified with the company directors. However, contact with representatives of the Company begins also on arrival at port. After the captain takes the ship to the quarantine anchorage, and following the immigration authorities, a representative of the Soviet-Singapore Company comes on board. Are there any sick? Please stay at the western roadstead… A group of stevedores is ready for the unloading… A bus will wait for you at the pier: a tour of the city… Water, fuel, fruit… The company has many concerns. From Nakhodka, our ships sail across Japan to India, with stops along the way to neighbouring countries. The line extends from Southeast Asia to Europe, the Atlantic Coast and the Mediterranean.
The Company’s fortunes dipped in the late 1970s due to a general downturn in the industry and the combined clout of the Far Eastern Freight Conference, but bounced back in the 1980s. In 1984, it recorded an after-tax profit of more than S$386,000; in 1988, its performance was “creditable“, handling 1,220 ships; and in 1989, its new chartering arm hit its US$3 million sales target ahead of schedule. As late as 1990, the Company was described as “thriving” and plans were made for a public listing.
The end came, however, with the fall of the Soviet Union. Ng left the company in 1986, selling his 50% stake to United Industrial Corporation. According to the UIC, the Company lost its monopoly position as sole agent for Russian ships after the fall. It struggled to recover thereafter: The proposed public listing was shelved, a venture into shipowning failed, and it finally ceased operations in 2001. The Sinsov Building itself went on sale in 2000; the Company entered voluntary liquidation and was eventually dissolved in 2008.
Throughout its forty-year history, the Company could not escape some degree of suspicion as a front for Soviet political interests. Danny Loong, one of the Singaporean trade representatives who helped broker the venture, said that his delegation was subsequently “interviewed” by the Special Branch. The Company was still battling such rumours ten years later, especially since state subsidies allowed Soviet lines to undercut competitors. And in 1987, the US Commerce Department blocked a sale of IBM 9370 minicomputers to the Company, which it had wanted in order to computerise its accounts and freight documentation. Most bizarre was a 1985 claim by self-professed Danish double agent Olav Steinmetz, who said that Company director Boris Nesterov was his KGB contact in Singapore from 1973 to 1976. Interestingly enough, the Soviet embassy disclaimed all knowledge of this Boris Nesterov, but a B.A. Nesterov appeared prominently in a list of Company leaders in 1973. Steinmetz seems to have disappeared from the record thereafter – a fantasist, perhaps, drawn by the Company’s aura of intrigue.