The Eastern Navigation Story
This is the story of Eastern Navigation, and Mr. Tan Keng Hong, the man who founded the company – A story that not only illustrates the company’s longstanding heritage, but also how this spirit continues to steer the company forward today.
With Mr Tan’s firm belief – “Your word was your bond” – the innate entrepreneur and loving father was able to ensure that he imparted values of integrity, credibility and diligence for generations to follow. This contributed to the success of Eastern Navigation, which was built on these very principles.
Over a century ago in 1912, Mr Tan Keng Hong was born in Fujian, China. He was the third of six children, and was raised in a family of village headmen and landowners. It was a tumultuous era, owing to the chaos that ensued after the Sun Yat Sen revolution and the withdrawal of the Qing.
When Mr Tan turned 19 in 1931, he decided to seek out a better life in Melaka. After arriving, he toiled laboriously as a coolie to survive, growing in prudence, diligence and integrity – values that would eventually guide Eastern Navigation’s business philosophy.
In 1948, Mr Tan’s first son, Mr Tan Ser Giam, the current Chairman of Eastern Navigation, was born. This was followed by the birth of Mr Tan Ee Beng and Mr Tan Ser Thong, where all three brothers form the foundation of the second generation of the business today.
While Mr Tan Keng Hong was always on the lookout for opportunities, which started with a textile-trading business, it was his second business venture that triggered the eventual emergence of Eastern Navigation.
Back in the day, many Southeast Asian ports were undeveloped, and relied on small ships and sailing tongkangs (barges) to transport cargoes. Singapore was a transhipment port, where cargoes from Indonesia, Malaysia and IndoChina were transported to the Western part of the world. Sailing tongkangs were then the essential components for transporting these cargoes to and from shore.
In 1948, Mr Tan founded Eastern Lighterage Co, along with his good friend Mr Teh Siong Teck, to provide such lighterage services to ships calling at the Singapore port. Their business served the likes of KPM (now Nedllyod), Boustead Shipping and McAlistar.
Mr Tan named his company Eastern – to signify the growth and progress he aspired for his business – just as the Sun rises from the East. The word ‘East’ is also symbolic as it represents his birth heritage. Red, believed to be an auspicious colour, was chosen to signify good fortune for the company.
While building the lighterage business, the two co-founders complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a remarkable way. Mr Tan was experienced in ship design, building, and chartering operations, while Mr Teh’s expertise was in administration, management, and marketing. As friends and business partners, they encouraged and inspired each other.
Eventually, Eastern Navigation ventured into larger vessels – steel pontoons and international sailing tugboats. Mr Tan purchased two small 140 foot steel flat-top pontoons, which he named the Eastern Sun and the Eastern Light. It was tough during the early days. With two second-hand tugs, one wooden hull Tong Leong of 180 HP with an old, two-stroke Nigata engine, and another Tong Seng of 200 HP, he collected freight from the transportation of construction stones and sand from Indonesia to Malaysia and Singapore.
Life was not smooth-sailing; challenges soon emerged.
The Indonesian Confrontation of the 1960s prevented the lighterage business from operating normally to and from Indonesia, and eventually, the business teetered on the verge of collapse.
But Mr Tan never lost faith.
Undaunted, he started a mining company in Batu Pahat in 1963, using tugs and barges to deliver his goods to Dumai, Indonesia. In 1972, after the passing of Mr. Teh, Mr Tan acquired the company from Mr Teh’s son. This meant full ownership of the business – making it a truly family-owned business for the first time.
There was also a timber boom in 1973. By then, Mr Tan owned 20 tongkangs and chartered over 30 of them. With this advantage, he deployed the same vessels to transport logs from Indonesia to Singapore. This was the turning point of the business; the company started to prosper.
In 1977, Mr Tan changed the company name to Eastern Navigation Pte Ltd, and in 1978, the Company formed a subsidiary, Pandan Shipyard Pte Ltd to lease a piece of land from JTC in Singapore to build and repair ships. In 1983, the first utility vessel built for Eastern Navigation, the ENA Supply 1, was launched at the yard.
In the early 1980s, the Indonesian government began phasing a ban on raw timber exports, of which the export of unprocessed timber was entirely banned by 1985. But Mr Tan was unfazed, as Mr Tan had the foresight in earlier years to supply tugs and barges for the profitable offshore Oil & Gas industry.
In 1990, the office moved into the shipyard and the two companies merged to form a single company – what Eastern Navigation is today.
Mr Tan Keng Hong passed away in 1993. Eastern Navigation was then handed down to three of his sons who has continued his legacy.
In 1994, the Company formed another Indonesian subsidiary, Pandan Bahari Shipyard, to acquire a piece of land in Tg Uncang Batam Island, in order to construct vessels and to moor and maintain its growing fleet of ships.
“Keep the family together,” was Mr Tan’s final wish.
He had started the business with just one simple dream: to create a livelihood for his entire family. Before he passed on, all he wanted was family unity, for his son to run the business and provide for the family’s future. Even on his deathbed, he asked his son about the family finances, concerned about their wellbeing. He was a great man who loved and cared for his family.
Irrefutably, Mr Tan had a significant impact on Singapore’s shipping landscape. He was amongst the pioneers in the marine industry in Singapore, which is reputed as a core location for providing tugs and barges from China/Japan to Australia, and to the Suez Canal/South Africa. His leadership prowess was passed on to his son, Mr Tan Ser Giam, who served as council member of the Singapore National Shipping Association from 1985 to 1992, and Vice President from 1995 to 1996.
After Mr Tan Keng Hong’s passing, the second generation took charge and grew the business to what it is today. This includes the four companies within the group: Eastern Navigation, Pandan Shipyard, Pandan Bahari Shipyard, and ENA Property Investment.
With over 50 years of experience, the efforts and persistence of the visionary founder Mr Tan has solidified the foundation for the Company’s continued growth. Moving forward, Eastern Navigation will continue to uphold its founder’s legacy and beliefs, to achieve the heights of its vision.