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Batam: Portrait of a Free Trade Zone

Fifteen years ago the island of Batam was nothing but forests in an obscure part of Indonesia. Now it is a vibrant boomtown with over a million people looking for something better.

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Batam is a free trade zone, and all free trade zones are the same. They are artificial places, created through bi-lateral governmental decrees drawn up by drape jowled, be-suited old men in board rooms. They are intentionally drawn on maps, sectioned off with gates, and abstractly induced with special economic policies that instantly turn them into quasi-no man’s lands which hang somewhere between the country they’re located in and the rest of the world beyond. They are giant duty free shops — giant duty free shops that tend to only have four things in stock: factories, ports (sea or air), shopping malls, and brothels.

Batam, Indoneisa is an island in the Riao group, 20 km (12 mi) to the south of Singapore, lying in the busiest shipping lane in the world. The place was born out of a deal the created the Indonesia–Malaysia–Singapore Growth Triangle, which was first sparked to life in 1989. This name is not misleading. It is a partnership between Singapore and its nearest neighbors: Johor, Malaysia in the north and Batam, Indonesia to the south. In 2007, Batam was given status as a Free Port and Free Trade Zone for 70 years.

Basically, the deal was intended to strengthen the economic foundations of all parties by exploiting the respective resources of each. Singapore was maxing out its land resources and the cost of manual labor was getting far too high for standard manufacturing, while its immediate neighbors were virtually undeveloped backwaters. So the deal was made: Singapore provides the infrastructure, capital, know-how, and a booming consumer market and Johor and Batam provide the land and the muscle — the latter consisting mostly in the form of young women with nimble fingers. Products would be made cheap in the impoverished hinterlands surrounding Singapore and shipped into the wealthy city-state tariff free.

To put it simply, Batam is basically an industrial outpost of Singapore; 70% of the foreign investment there comes from this neighbor to the north. “Land is cheap, infrastructure is cheap, labor abundant,” is how a managing director of a marine company described Batam. The free trade zone is stocked with a vast supply of cheap labor, as a continuous stream of workers flood in from all over Sumatra and Java islands for a minimum wage that hovers around US$210 per month.

Batam Indonesia

Though this status was gained with incredible haste. In the 1990s Batam was a mostly wooded island scantly strewn with villages. Then all of a sudden, at the signing of the free trade decrees, this all changed. The forests were quickly cleared and factories began sprouting up in their place, as the island transitioned from a nowhere to a boomtown.

This rumbling of commerce resounded wide, and in a short span of time over a million people were lured into Batam, growing the population by 11% each year, making it one of the fastest growing cities in Indonesia.

Travel to Batam

ferry Batam

I stood on the top deck of the fast ferry and watched all the strange neo-urban creations of Singapore roll by. I looked out over a choppy sea at a splattering of small green islands dotting the distance. I had no idea what these places were, and I liked this. Colossal freighters cruised by at close enough range to completely blockade the view beyond them. Two Filipino guys sat on the roof of the ferry with me. They were pounding cans of beer. In an hour we were docking up to Batam.

Immigration was an easy affair. I paid $15 to have my passport robotically stamped. I walked out of the ferry port into a pit of taxi vipers. I retreated into a mall.

I was looking for a quick lunch. The mall was made up of all manner of international chain restaurants and cheap-o local apparel shops. It was packed with women in robes and hijab. Some wore burkas. I watched as they dove into bins of discounted, skimpy lingerie in temporary sales booths in the middle of an aisle. Good contrasts.

The restaurants were the worst of the American chains — the ones that apparently couldn’t make it on Singapore or anywhere else where there is at least a small degree of a standard on fast food. There wasn’t anything local anywhere. Though I highly doubt Batam food exists anyway, as the place in it’s current rendition is hardly 10 years old and is populated by temporary transplants from around the world rather than long term residents with a deep-seeded culinary tradition. I found an A&W restaurant that advertised a “Typical American dining experience.” I wondered what that was. I ordered a hamburger, a root beer float, and some curly fries. It sounded American enough. It wasn’t; it was cold, stale, and meager. That’s what I probably deserved for getting nostalgic for home my first day in a country.

Batam Indonesia Mall

I walked through the mall and started to get the impression that there really wasn’t much going on there. “It’s a good place to party, it’s the place to go for girls,” was pretty much all I was told about Batam before leaving Singapore. As I had little interest in either, I found that shopping malls were pretty much the only recourse left. I met a couple of Singaporean tourists getting a coffee in a Starbucks and stupidly asked them what there is to do in Batam. They just sort of looked at me funny, as though I completely missed the punchline of a joke someone told ten minutes ago.

“We went to this mall and another, bigger one,” one of them said.

“That’s it? You didn’t go anywhere else?”

“No, we just came here to shop.”

“Can you recommend any places for me to go?”

“There are around seven malls here, so you can choose what one you want to go to.”

The power of choice in the globalized world.

I decided that I would just walk somewhere. I exited the mall and made my way towards a couple of tall minarets in the near distance. “Hello, my friend . . . My friend! My friend?” taxi drivers chirped. The sidewalk was an obstacle course of ruin and peril: gaping manholes along with wide open spaces where, for some reason, pieces of the sidewalk were either removed or never installed in the first place. There was nearly a dozen cavities spaced at even intervals, like that carnival game where you roll the ball along a table trying to get it in the right hole — only in this instance pedestrians were the ball and you didn’t get points for falling in. I looked down into a hole, black slop was seething five feet below. I suppose not many people walk here.

I walked down a road past new, thrown together modern housing complexes that appeared partially vacant. I entered some kind of urban dead zone, a place where sound dulled to a quiet buzz, where activity ceased, where movement was reserved to my own striding legs and swinging arms.

My plan was to come to Batam, talk to people, and find out what life was like in this contrived outpost of commerce, but it became clear that I was heading in the exact opposite direction. I would need to go to where the people were. I returned to the mall.

Batam Indonesia Rock Star

Inside, a concert was about to begin. A sinewy, swarthy looking guy was on stage before a microphone with a guitar dangling from his shoulder. He wore a ratty black sweatshirt that was halfway unzipped, revealing tattoos on his bare chest. His hair hung down to his shoulders in greasy, clumped together locks, Chuck Taylors were clad to his feet, his tight jeans were intentionally torn. He wore big, dark sunglasses. It was a throwback to the late 90s when looking like a self-determined loser was fashionable and heroin addicts were in. I found the nostalgia I was perhaps previously looking for.

Batam Indonesia Concert

Though this guy appeared to be some kind of Indonesian rock star or sex symbol — or else the only thing going on in Batam. Whatever the case, the poppy rock music triggered a thick crowd. A mass of young, well attired, though conservatively dressed Indonesian women rushed to the front of the stage. Most were decked out in hijab, flowing robes, and a few were fully burka’ed. They were jumping up and down with the music, flailing their fist in the air. One or two were flashing the goats. They all were screaming and reaching out towards the grungy fellow hovering over them. The women seemed to rule this show; the boyfriends, brothers, and fathers were mostly off to the side, forming an idle ring, feigning interest.

The band played a few songs and called it quits, and then it was time for the real show to begin. Mobs of young women flooded the stage and surrounded the singer. One after another they would grab hold of him, pose, and document the moment with a photo. The selfie is the new autograph. The derelict had a smile plastered on his face as he was pulled from woman to woman, rolling with the waves from one side of the stage to the other, being poked, patted, yanked like an inanimate prop as he was blitzkrieg’ed by the selfie-seekers.

Batam Indonesia Rock Star 2

On the other side of the mall there was a concert of another type. A thin women in an impossibly short red dress was sitting cross-legged on a stool next to a Casio keyboard that played karaoke background music. Over the top of the “bomb, bing, chish” she wailed, screeched, and groaned. It was deflating-ly sad, pathetic almost to the point of sympathetic embarrassment when compared to the rock star and his legion of babes.

I felt a man sidle up to me from behind. He leaned in close and I felt warm puffs of air in my ear as he spoke.

“Do you think she is pretty?” he asked.

How could I respond? “Uh, kind of . . .”

“Would you like to buy her?” he queried.

Buy her? Like, get a receipt and cart her out the front door?

“Uh, no thank you. I’m just, uh, browsing.”

“Ok,” the man said as he retreated two steps.

Batam Indonesia Singer

I remembered reading a line in a tourist brochure for Batam that said, “In the evenings you can experience the local nightlife, probably different from what you are used to back home.” That’s probably true. Singapore is a global hub of sex tourism, but Batam is where Singaporeans go when they really want to party.

A moment later the whisperer was heaving warm breathes in my ear again. “You, uh, want anything else? Like maybe something to smoke or for your nose.”

“Uh, no thank you.”

He retreated again.

A moment later he was back. “Then how about a car?”

The guy was a car salesman — officially at least. He looked the part: close cropped, well greased black hair, a striped white shirt, a shady way of slinking about with his hands in his pockets. Around us in the mall were floor models of the cars he was selling. Business, apparently, wasn’t too good. The prices on his vehicles seemed rather low, but they came with a catch: you couldn’t take them off the island.

Batam is an export free trade port, which means that products cannot be manufactured there and shipped to the rest of Indonesia. “There’s a firewall between them,” a manager of a shipyard stated. “It’s a flawed protectionist strategy.”

The car salesman told me he arrived in Batam six months before, looking for fortune in the black hole of the boomtown. He sort of fell off the edge of his life and landed here. “My marriage with my wife is broken,” he admitted a little too readily. He has three kids that he seldom sees somewhere on Sumatra. In simple terms he was telling me that he fucked up his life. It seemed as if he was making a last ditch gamble to get back on top in Batam. He began talking about the rich people he sees there driving around in luxury cars.

“I don’t know how they become rich but I want to know,” he said. He then turned to me and inquired innocently, “Do you know how they do it?”

I saw no reason to tell him that it probably wasn’t by selling cars in a mall and offering to whore out the girl he hired as a singer.

Batam Indonesia 2

Walking around the mall I began looking at the styles of the clothes. It’s remarkable how stylish robes and head scarves can be made — sequin, bright colors, flowing cuts. Islamic values are no match for fashion.

I got a coffee in Starbucks and sat down. The girl next to me started a conversation. Her name was Noch, she was from Thailand. She ended up in Batam by taking a job as an engineer with an Australian company. She told me what she did twice and showed me photos, but I couldn’t draw a workable concept of it. She said she made models of oil refineries that can be shipped to Australia. She showed me a photo of her in a blue jump suit and a yellow work helmet standing in front of something that looked like a 10 story garage rack wrapped in silver pipes.

Noch is among the first generation of Southeast Asian professionals to go abroad en masse and seek work in the boomtowns of the world. She told me that her crew is made up of people from Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, and the Middle East. Nationality affects pay. “We get paid according to where we are from. So I get paid less because I’m from Thailand. The Australians make a lot more.” Though the company pays for just about everything in Batam for her — free housing, a free chauffeur, and I think she may even get a living stipend. She also gets extended leave every couple of months, which she uses to get far, far away from Batam.

Batam Indonesia Hypermart

Batam is a place without a history, that has yet to be defined, where the conceptual clay hasn’t hardened. It is a place with an ever-revolving, floating population. Factory workers, taxi drivers, fortune seekers, investors, traders, engineers, karaoke girls, bar owners, and factory operators flow in and out with the tides. It’s a place where nobody is at home. But it is also a place where everybody is in pursuit of the same thing: something better. Batam is a portrait of a free trade zone, the quintessential boomtown.

Filed under: Indonesia, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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