A descriptive method for analysing the Kra Canal decision on maritime business patterns in Malaysia
© The Author(s) 2016
Received: 13 August 2016
Accepted: 18 October 2016
Published: 21 November 2016
The Kra Canal issue has widely been discussed by maritime players, such as policy makers, regulators, and shipping and port operators. It seems that the idea of developing the Kra Canal is most welcome due to the great savings in costs, higher levels of safety and shortened distance compared to the journey via the Strait of Malacca. This phenomenon will most likely challenge the current maritime business activities in Malaysia because the total foreign going ships that call at the main ports are expected to be reduced. Therefore, the objective of this paper is to study the possible implications of the Kra Canal decision on the changes in maritime business patterns in Malaysia by focussing on the geographical aspects and logistics distribution. A descriptive analysis method will be used together with the PESTLES analysis in addressing the research objective. Finally, the positive and negative implications of the issue discussed are highlighted. Also, future maritime business strategies are proposed after taking into consideration the reshaping of the economies because of the accessibility of this new maritime route.
This new development will certainly change the landscape of maritime transportation in the region, if not the world. The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said, “It was Thailand’s right to build the canal since it is within its territories, and we just have to make adjustment. There will be reshaping of economies because of the new accessibility, then we just have to find a way how to benefit from it” (Business 2002a). Therefore, the intention of this paper is to study the possible implications of the Kra Canal decision on the changing pattern of maritime business in Malaysia by focussing on the geographical aspects and logistics distribution.
The history of proposing the Kra Canal or Kra Isthmus Canal has been widely discussed by researchers (Khalid 2006; Kinder 2007; Cathcart 2008; Sulong 2012; Thongsin 2002; Chulikpongse 1985). The idea of developing a canal through the narrow southern end of Thailand was proposed over 200 years ago (late 19th century) by Siamese King Narai (Min 2015). However, due to uncertain reasons (e.g., economic, political, investment or capital), the proposed project was rejected and any further discussion or action terminated. However, China and Thailand now plan to continue this project for practical reasons (e.g., economic, safety, and trade) (Su 2015; Sulong 2012; Liang and Li 2015; Thongsin 2002).
The canal will provide an alternative route in lieu of the congested Strait of Malacca.
Voyage distances can be reduced by 1,200 km and voyage time by 2 to 5 days, thus allowing for higher vessel utilisation.
The estimated bunker savings for a 100,000 dwt oil tanker is $350,000 per trip.
Bulk shipments (e.g., oil tankers) that are chartered for direct shore to shore voyages will benefit the most.
Large container ships that must make frequent stops many not benefit as much - vessel capacity may not be sufficiently utilised when skipping ports in Southeast Asia.
Thailand may greatly benefit from the canal toll fees, port facility charges and development in the surrounding area.
Eighty percent of China’s oil goes through the Strait of Malacca; the Kra Canal may reduce shipping costs and reliance on the strait, and also minimise the threat of the blockade of the strait.
Singapore’s status as a maritime transhipment hub may be negatively affected with vessels bypassing the Malacca Strait all together.
The ports in Hong Kong and China stand to gain from the traffic diverted from Singapore.
The cost of using the canal will be a key factor.
However, the Business Times (2002a, b) reported that any effect on Malaysia will not be felt for 15 years after the completion of the canal. This argument is strongly supported with the report written by Thalang (2015) which depicted that the Kra Canal dream is still far from reality. It seems that the proposed project can still be subjected to objections with different reasons from various parties, including national and international bodies. For instance, Sulong (2012) indicated that the development of the canal will physically divide the country of Thailand and pose a security risk. Furthermore, demand for transit will not meet the expectations of the shipping companies due to the lack of facilities and market. Also, there are concerns from the environmentalists around the dredging and development activities in the surrounding area of the canal (Kra Canal International Forum 2014).
Nevertheless, the main concern for the shipping players is the capacity of the Strait of Malacca in that it is unable to accommodate more than 122,600 vessels per year (Thalang 2015). It is predicted to exceed that capacity within the next 10–15 years starting from 2015. Another alternative shipping option would be to use the Sunda Strait, which is located between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, or even the Lombok Strait, which connects the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean. However, an additional six to seven days will be added to the journey in doing so (Thalang 2015). Therefore, the proposed development of the Kra Canal is timely to overcome the congestion problem at the Malacca Strait, while shipping companies will enjoy high cost savings (in terms of fuel, and operating and voyage costs).
Another concern is the issue of security (piracy) at the Strait of Malacca. It has been reported by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) (2013) (formally known as International Chamber of Commerce(ICC)) that the problem of piracy has been increasingly growing, with about 42 pirate attacks on vessels in 2009, 63 in 2010, 74 in 2011, 101 in 2012, and 125 in 2013. In 2013, the IMB reported a higher rate of piracy in the Malacca Straits, increasing the likelihood of insurance costs and some of the insurance companies may not be even willing to accept the risk (Nadaraj 2013). As a result, freight costs will increase and, by extension, the cargo or products shipped.
Comparison between Strait of Malacca and Kra Canal
Strait of Malacca
1,200 km longer
1,200 km shorter
Up to five days longer
Journey reduced by two to five days
High rate of piracy
Possibility of Thailand separatist attacks
Less savings on cost
Substantial savings on cost, up to US$350,000.
Alternative route to avoid congestion in Malacca Strait
Not open to foreign direct investment
Open to foreign direct investment
Vessel Accident and Collision
High number of vessel accidents
(60 ship accidents in 2015, increased by 25 % from the previous year) (International Shipping News 2016)
Alternative route to reduce vessel accidents in Malacca Straits
805 km long, 65 – 250 km wide, and 37 m deep (south)/200 m deep (northwest)
The canal will be 2 way, 102 km in length, 400 m wide and 25 m deep.
Higher levels of marine and air pollutions
Creates environmental problems due to dredging and development activities (marine ecosystem)
Potentially reduces global warming (air pollution)
Control and Monitoring System
Share with three countries (Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore).
Difficulties in making decisions on some issues.
Entirely under Thailand’s sovereignty in setting up canal policy without involving other countries.
Up to Malaccamax size
Up to Ultra Large Crude Carrier (ULCC) size
reduces transportation costs,
reduces oil consumption which leads to reduce global warming,
reduces vessel accidents in the Malacca Strait,
acts as an alternative route, in case the Malacca Strait is closed or has heavy traffic, and
new attraction pole for world direct investment that would benefit South East Asia.
In examining Table 1 and in light of the limited literature surveys, this research should be considered as a pioneer study in discussing the possible changes on maritime business patterns in Malaysia due to the proposed Kra Canal, and will focus on geographical aspects and logistics distribution.
Background on study method
A generic method
Step 1: Identification of the issues
A discussion with selected experts was carried out in this study to establish the basis of the issues based on the current situation faced by most shipping companies on concerns around maritime shipping routes. Due to the uncertainty of global business situations, for instance, 1) the instability of the global economy, 2) the unpredictability of bunker fuel prices, and 3) the imbalance between market supply and demand, most shipping companies have suffered a loss of international trade. As a result, all of the players in the shipping industry are seeking for a new means on how to solve this particular problem.
Step 2: Data collection process
Industrial experts’ information
Years of experience
Chief Operations Officer
More than 10 years
More than 10 years
Senior General Manager, Fleet Management Services
More than 10 years
Logistics Operations Manager
More than 10 years
Fleet Management Manager
More than 10 years
More than 10 years
Step 3: Possible implications
Two possible changes due to the Kra Canal decision will be discussed in this part, which are: 1) geographical aspects, and 2) logistics distribution. These two aspects are important factors in contributing to the economics element on the maritime industry in Malaysia. Therefore, a question then follows, which is to ask how the Kra Canal decision will affect maritime business patterns in Malaysia.
PESTLE theory and “safety and security” analysis
PESTLE was developed by Aguilar (1967) as a tool and technique for ‘scanning the business environment’. After that, small improvements to this analysis method were made by Arnold Brown for the Institute of Life Insurance (in the US) as a way to organise the results of his environmental scanning. According to Kralj (2009), several other authors in the 1980s, such as Fahey and Narayanan (1986), Morrison and Mecca (1989), and Porter (1985), included variations of the taxonomy classifications in a variety of orders: PEST, PESTLE, STEEPLE, etc. There is no implied order or priority in any of the formats.
Political - What are the political factors that are likely to affect the business?
Economic - What are the economic factors that will affect the business?
Sociological - What cultural aspects are likely to affect the business?
Technological - What technological changes may affect the business?
Legal - What current and impending legislation will affect the business?
Environmental- What are the environmental considerations that may affect the business?
work system failures,
unexpected safety and security problems.
Finally, this study will consider seven elements in analysing the possible implications of the Kra Canal decision on maritime business patterns in Malaysia by using PESTLES analysis. The standard six elements are Political, Economic, Socio-culture, Technology, Legal and Environment, and the seventh element is Safety and Security.
Possible changes in maritime business patterns in Malaysia
Step 1: Identification of the issue
The developing of the Kra Canal is a very feasible decision for most shipping companies and operators due to the many benefits and advantages that they will enjoy in its use compared to the current maritime route located at the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, the possible implications of the Kra Canal decision on changing the maritime business patterns in Malaysia will be examined by focussing on geogra phical aspects and logistics distribution with a descriptive analysis. Moreover, to strengthen the study, the PESTLES theory will be used to examine the possible implications through seven different aspects.
Step 2: Data collection process
Types of vessels and total vessel movement reported to Klang VTS from 2010 to 2014
VLCC/DEEP DRAFT CR
Types of foreign going vessel calls at Malaysian main ports, 2010-2014
Step 3: Possible implications
The possible implications on the geographical aspects and logistics distribution will be discussed in this step. All information is obtained through interview sessions with six industry experts.
a) Geographical aspects
Europe/Middle East - Penang - Far East (and vice versa)
Europe/Middle East - Penang - Bangkok - Far East (and vice versa)
Europe/Middle East - Satun - Far East (and vice versa)
Europe/Middle East - Satun - Bangkok - Far East (and vice versa)
Europe/Middle East - Bangkok - Far East (and vice versa)
Europe/Middle East - Far East (and vice versa)
Obviously, the Bangkok and Penang Ports will experience significant benefits due to this mega project. In terms of the perspective of Malaysia, the Penang Port is still quite near to the canal and, perhaps, the effect may only be marginal. Also, Malaysia is still one of the target destinations to be called at by foreign going vessels. Although the port destination is expected to change due to the shifting of the route service but, Malaysia is still able to obtain economic benefits through the Penang Port. In current practice, most vessels prefer to call at Port Klang, Johor Port and Port of Tanjung Pelepas as hubs for the handling of import and export cargo as well as transhipment cargo compared to the Penang Port. However, after developing the Kra Canal, the geographical aspect of the Penang Port will be that it acts as the main gateway when entering Malaysia by sea. This situation will benefit the Penang Port from many perspectives, for instances, increases in 1) foreign going vessel ship calls, and 2) logistics and supply chain activities.
b) Logistics distribution
Currently, the Penang Port is the main gateway for the northern Malaysian hinterland and also serves cargo transportation to and from South Thailand. It is also connected to the North-south and the East-west highways as well as to the rail network. The port is connected by road and rail to an inland terminal located at Padang Besar near the border of Malaysia-Thailand. Padang Besar inland terminal is also connected by road and rail to South Thailand which is the location of the proposed Kra Canal. Nevertheless, if the Penang Port becomes the new shipping hub, then it is possible that the hinterland radius will also be increased.
As a new shipping hub, the free trade zone in the Penang Port means that the port will be larger and more active. Many production companies will establish their factories or warehouses in this free trade zone due to fast and efficient shipping and logistics. These will provide significant opportunities to business companies as well as expand the local economy.
Positive and negative implications
Positive and negative implications of Kra Canal on maritime business in Malaysia
Positive implications for Malaysia
Negative implications for Malaysia
1. Malaysia and Thailand will have more Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) and economic cooperation if the shipping hub is changed.
1. Trade or bilateral relation between Malaysia and other countries might change due to the movement of investment from the area that surrounds the main ports to possibly Satun or Songkhla, Thailand.
1. Cost savings for search and rescue (SAR) activity at the Strait of Malacca.
2. Save on cleaning costs due to oil spills.
3. Penang is expected to grow very fast due to its proximity to the canal.
4. The Tok Bali Port will be potentially developed to supply bunker fuel for all vessels.
5. The economy development of both the North and East coasts of Malaysia is expected to increase due to the port change.
6. Fishery activity at the Johor Strait is expected to increase because of fewer oil spills and pollution problems.
1. The Strait of Malacca will not be one of the important international venues for transporting cargo to and from Europe and the Far East.
2. Fewer foreign going vessels will call at the three main Malaysian ports.
3. Port Klang, Johor Port and Port Tanjung Pelepas are expected to experience loss in port trade revenue which directly impacts port revenue and profit.
4. Fewer ship calls mean less revenue from vessel operators, consignees and consignors due to less cargo handled by the main ports.
5. Less cargo handled means fewer import and export activities which lead to the reduction of import and export duties collected by customs.
6. Less cargo handled by the ports will affect haulage/logistics and supply chain companies which lead to less income/profit.
7. Truck surplus will follow because of low market demand.
8. Overall, there is a drop in the maritime economy and contribution to the Malaysian economy.
1. The social life patterns in both the North and East coasts of Malaysia are expected to be affected.
2. Fishing income in Johor is expected to increase in line with the growth of the fishery industry.
1. The social life patterns of the communities around the three main ports may be maintained or slightly negatively affected.
2. High unemployment rate is expected to take place due to the possible downsizing of logistics and supply chain companies.
3. If the unemployed increase in number in the surrounding areas of the three main ports, an increase in the crime rate is very much possible.
1. The current technology at the Penang Port can be further upgraded to increase the efficiency of port operations.
1. A large amount of investment is needed to buy high technology for ship and port operations at the Penang Port.
Legal and Policy Aspects
These have been studied by Sulong (2012).
1. Emission and pollution along the strait will be reduced.
2. There is potential for recovering the marine habitat, biodiversity and ecosystem along the strait.
1. Emission and pollution are expected to increase in the north region of Malaysia (Penang, Tok Bali) due to the shipping activities in that area (oil spills can reach the Malaysian coast because of wave movement and currents).
2. There is concern about organisms/micro-organisms and their habitat on both sides of the sea (South China and Andaman Seas) because of the difference in salinity as water flows easily through the canal (which will affect Malaysian water if the canal is built near Malaysia).
Safety and Security Aspects
1. Fewer vessel collisions or accidents
2. Reductions in oil spills due to collisions.
3. Less piracy activity at the Malacca Strait.
1. Spill over of separatist movement on northern top of Malaysia.
Future strategies for maritime business
If the Kra Canal is going to be realised, Malaysia needs to find a way to benefit from the canal. Diversification of maritime business by investing in regionally strategic areas, such as Langkawi in Kedah, Padang Besar in Perlis, Penang Port, Tok Bali in Kelantan, or even in neighbouring countries, including Thailand and Myammar, appears to have the potential to increase market share despite the trade route shift. Nationally, there are three potential strategies that can be implemented in the future, which are the enhancement of the Penang Port as the hub port of Malaysia; the development of an inland depot at Padang Besar, Perlis; and the establishment of Tok Bali as a bunkering port in Kelantan.
It is anticipated that Malaysia’s ports, such as the Port Klang, Johor Port and Port of Tanjung Pelepas, will lose ship calls and traffic volume, which will lead to significant losses in port business due to the Kra Canal. On the other hand, the Penang Port has an advantage as a result of its geographical location which is close to the canal. Therefore, the Penang Port can be promoted as the hub port of Malaysia. Consequently, current facilities such as berth areas (e.g., container, break bulk, dry bulk, liquid, passenger, and bunker berths), storage (e.g., warehouses, transit sheds, covered storage, and open yards), equipment (e.g., quay cranes, pilot and tug boats, trailers, prime movers, and stackers) and information technology (e.g., Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system), need to be upgraded and significantly optimised. In addition, port efficiency also needs to be assessed and enhanced in order to provide competitive services. Collaborative research, and domestic and foreign investments should be encouraged to hasten the process.
The Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) is a programme to stimulate development in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. As part of the development, an inland container depot (ICD) at Padang Besar was strategically placed at the Malaysia-Thailand border. The ICD connects with the Penang Port via two modes of transport, which are road and rail. The current volume of trade that passes through Padang Besar constitutes of 31.2 % of the total exports from Southern Thailand (IMT-GT 2011). Recently, the Malaysian Prime Minister has approved funds from the federal government for RM850 million towards the development of an ICD in the Chuping Valley of the Perlis state (The Star 2015). With this development, the logistic connections between Malaysia and Thailand can be improved. It is anticipated that after the Kra Canal is realised, the trade pattern will change from southbound to northbound as a result of the Kra Canal advantages. Therefore, long-term planning for the development of this ICD should be carried out by considering the possibility of the Kra Canal. As a result, this ICD could adapt to future changes.
The idea of developing the Kra Canal is most welcome by shipping practitioners because of the substantial amount of cost savings, its high level of safety and security, and reduction in journey distance of vessels. Consequently, the maritime business activity at the Malacca Strait may be significantly affected and there will be the reshaping of the economies because of the new accessible sea route. Therefore, the contributions of this research are: 1) identification of the possible changes in maritime business patterns in Malaysia, and 2) determining the positive and negative implications with the use of 7 elements in a PESTLES analysis. These seven factors are aggregated to propose a future maritime business strategy in Malaysia that can generate revenue that would boost the maritime economy, for instance: 1) diversification by maritime businesses who could invest in regionally strategic areas, 2) development of the Tok Bali area as a bunker port to offer bunkering services, and 3) promotion of the Penang Port as the hub port of Malaysia. These strategies can reshape the Malaysian economy.
A huge appreciation delivered to Universiti Malaysia Terengganu for providing fund and research facilities.
All authors of this research paper have directly participated in the planning, execution, or analysis of this study. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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