Shaping up the shipping sector: Q&A with K Murali Pany

What are some matters that JTJB has advised on?

We have continued to act in the usual spectrum of disputes such as charterparty and cargo disputes, but the bigger ticket matters that we have seen more of recently are the insolvency-related cases. Flowing from that, we have also been busier advising on transactional cases involving the sale of ships owned by distressed companies.

A good example is the Hin Leong case. Two of our partners, Danny Chua and John Sze, are heavily involved in this matter, which involves shipping and insolvency-related aspects as well as the selling of vessels.

Has there been an increase in shipping disputes over the past two years due to the pandemic?

Shipping disputes didn’t drastically increase during the pandemic because parties were too busy trying to cope with the impacts and effects of the pandemic. But now that the immediate urgency has died down, the world has, to an extent, shifted to an acceptance of working with COVID-19, more claims are going to come and many of them will have arisen out of the pandemic due to delays in the delivery of cargo, vessels and contractual non-performance.

What are some of the key challenges facing the shipping sector in the short to medium term?

There are two huge commercial challenges the shipping sector faces immediately – digitalisation and decarbonisation.

Shipping companies certainly have not embraced digitalisation as much as other industries. In a way, that means that they are not exposed to the level of risk perhaps that other sectors are. Having not adopted digitalisation at a pervasive level may create an illusion of safety from cybersecurity threats. But the uptick in technology is inevitable and if shipping companies are using old systems, they are still highly vulnerable to cybercrime or, at a more basic level, major disruptions due to system failures. Standing still certainly also means that shipping companies are missing out on the benefits of digitalisation.

Decarbonisation is the next biggest environmental issue after the IMO 2020 sulphur cap. The key questions really are, what is going to be the future fuel and what is going to be the reliability in terms of the quality and supply of that future fuel?

What are some first steps the shipping industry should consider toward decarbonisation?

The Sulphur Cap, while challenging, still involved a traditional type of technology and fuel. Future fuel is all about new technology to use – for example, ammonia or hydrogen – for propulsion is a whole different ball game.

We need to learn from the lessons of IMO 2020 and at an industry level have an open dialogue among all the relevant industry players as opposed to sectoral discussions.

Only then can the risk, consequences and cost of adopting any future fuel across the industry be properly examined.