Meet Nelson, the Singaporean with a Unique Career as a Harbour Pilot

harbour pilot

Like most Singaporeans this month, you’re probably back to office after working from home for the longesttt time. While it’s nice to get back to the pantry chats gossiping with co-workers face-to-face, you might be quite sian of being stuck to your office chair for most of your workday? A more exciting job seems tempting by now huh… Now, how does a career as a Harbour Pilot sound? If you’re like me, you will probably go, “Hmm, airline pilot I know, but what’s a Harbour Pilot? Like… ship captains?”

The Role of A Harbour Pilot

Not your run-of-the-mill, conventional career.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Mr Nelson Tan, a Harbour Pilot with PSA Marine. Nelson is a bright-eyed, soft-spoken gentleman. After a quick round of exchanged pleasantries, I launched straight into a string of questions about his unique career – suaku much!

So what does a Harbour Pilot do?

While captains navigate their ships in international waters, most ports have their own Harbour Pilots with local waters expertise. They offer expert assistance and guidance to coordinate safe operations and help in manoeuvring ships safely when vessels arrive at or depart a port.

Harbour Pilots use their specialised knowledge of the waterway to plot and execute the course with no hiccups. Harbour Pilots play a very important in helping vessels to navigate in unfamiliar local waters. With a ship’s monumental size, you can imagine the physical fitness and mental focus a Harbour Pilot needs to execute a prefect, intense manoeuvre.

Over the last 8 years as a Harbour Pilot, Nelson starts work at varying hours of the day depending on the shift he takes on. In the wee hours of the morning, his work may just begin. “Every day is different and a new challenge. We aim for operational excellence, and a perfect manoeuvre just adds to our job satisfaction,” he shared.

Singapore Harbour Pilot
A proud Harbour Pilot

A challenging profession

The monsoon season is particularly challenging for Harbour Pilots, even dangerous. “The timing of the embarking and disembarking of ships becomes extra risky when the weather is bad. 101% focus is necessary once we are on duty,” Nelson shared.

Shift work can be rather taxing. Attention to details requires the full concentration of a Harbour Pilot on duty.

Men at PSA
The PSA Marine Team


A group of men on a vessel
Teamwork is of utmost importance in pilotage!

Nelson takes great professional pride in his work. On a typical day, he boards 4 to 5 vessels to carry out his duty. No mean feat. The sheer physical strength one needs to transfer onto a vessel is incredible. Think of the 5-10 flights of stairs he needs to scale just to get onto the vessel. Add to that the mental focus and concentration, and willpower needed. Plus the physical exertion, timeliness, and responsibility for the safety of everyone on board and the goods.


Vessel at sea
Transferring to a vessel


Man out at sea
Nelson on duty at sea. Wouldn’t you love that “office” too?

Representing his fellow colleagues

On Nelson’s rest days, he often goes back for union work and meetings to help resolve issues and attend to feedback and / or grouses from the ground. At union meetings, the committee often discusses and debates issues affecting the welfare of his fellow colleagues.

“This is when we do our first round of debating before we bring issues to the management. Trust me, we do argue among us often! But really, at the end of the day, we have a common goal, to bring about better outcomes.”

His co-workers know any issues highlighted are not just swept under the rug as meeting notes will be shared with the members.

So what does it take to be a union leader?

A mentor, a listener, a communicator and a protector of workers’ welfare. Nelson is a Union Leader with the Port Officers’ Union. The Port Officers’ Union represents all the Professionals, Managers and Executives working in PSA International, PSA Singapore and PSA Marine. It currently has a unionisation rate of 90%. Impressive!

These union leaders are surely paid for going back on their off days for meetings, playing Aunt Agony to their fellow colleagues, and any extra duties, right?

Nope, Union Leaders are not paid for union work!

Also, one can’t simply volunteer and become a Union Leader.  I learn that there is a voting process. A union leader is voted in by his fellow workers.

And not anyone can stand for election to be a union leader. Prospective candidates must meet a set of criteria.  In Nelson’s company, he shared that a Union Leader needs a minimum of 3-4 years with the company and should possess strong background knowledge of company policies and culture.

“A Union Leader also needs to be approachable and be a trusted individual within the company,” Nelson said.

“When Covid-19 first hit, many of my co-workers were worried as we work on ships from India, Brazil and China… There is some level of interaction with the crew. PPE were issued, while we were grateful, it is rather hard to keep it on 100% of the time when we are on duty. We were drenched in perspiration in no time with all the physical exertion. The Union brought the concerns to the authorities and thankfully, we came to a compromise.”

On Upskilling for Harbour Pilots

Nelson often educates his fellow Harbour Pilots on the importance of upskilling.

“With a niche set of skills, many in the industry might think that they are holding on to iron rice bowls. Unfortunately, with increased automation in the future, who knows what will happen. We encourage staff to constantly upskill. Afterall, there is strong Government support for upskilling through SkillsFuture to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential. Union Training Assistance Programme (UTAP) can also help them defray their cost of training as well,” he shared.

This worker-oriented subsidy allows NTUC members to enjoy 50% unfunded course fee support for up to $250 each year when they sign up for courses supported under UTAP. Not bad! Members aged 40 and above can enjoy higher funding support. That’s good news for older workers!

The work of a union leader is often invisible which is why most of us have little idea what they do. These dedicated individuals volunteer their time to work together with fellow colleagues and management alike to raise productivity, protect jobs in bad times, and improve workers’ wages and benefits. They bridge the differences between employees of the company and management.

But Unions have got no power in Singapore?

“Well, unions don’t always need to ‘bang table’ to create a positive outcome for workers!” Nelson laughed.

As a Harbour Pilot himself, he is able to represent his fellow workers and understands the concerns on the ground.

When employees can come to a compromise through union leaders who can bridge the gap, the outcomes can be more sustainable and beneficial for all. It’s better than a confrontation leading to hostility and distrust!

This is not to say that there are no heated arguments or disagreements. According to Nelson, as a union leader, he does gets into heated arguments within the committee and with the management at times. But nothing a coffee can’t fix. Afterall, it’s mutual respect and beneficial outcomes that everyone values!

“While I help my fellow Harbour Pilots voice out their concerns, fight for what they deserve, I hope that I can help them to see the bigger picture and understand certain business decisions. So far, the management has been very reasonable when we bring ground issues to them. The culture of mutual respect and a common vision is strong here.”

Indeed, no one wins unless everyone wins. Each party’s individual interest can coincide with the common vision of the company, and cooperation is possible even when all parties have their own interests to prioritise.

Now, no banging of tables needed – Union, workers and employers can, and do work towards a common goal for a win-win outcome!

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