Indonesia

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Here’s a short intro to the island of Batam, Indonesia, where I currently am living and working. It’s taken (and edited) from  a 2009 report on smilinghillbatam.com, the resort where I live.

Batam is two thirds the size of Singapore and the principal center (though not the capital) of the new Riau Islands Province. Its proximity to Singapore is the key to Batam’s explosive economic growth, its potential and to its attractiveness as a place to live.

Singapore’s success is spilling over to neighboring Batam. Investors are pouring money into Batam’s new commercial, retail, residential and industrial development – many of them clearly view the future Batam as “Singapore East”.

Only about 35 years ago, Batam was still a mass of raw uninhabited jungle with a mere 6,000 to 8,000 residents living in traditional fishing villages scattered around the coastline. Today the island has become a modern center of industry and trade with around a million people and 17 industrial estates housing acres of heavy fabrication yards and modern factories manufacturing electronic components and consumer goods for export. Batam has become a base for low-cost ship building and repairs, heavy steel fabrication and services to the oil industry. The transformation has made Batam the richest and fastest growing region in Indonesia.

Indonesia entered into an understanding with the governments of Singapore and Malaysia to create the SIJORI Growth Triangle, with the professed aim of combining the competitive strengths of Singapore, Johor (in Malaysia) and the Riau Islands to make the sub-region more attractive to regional and international investors.

What it was really about was linking the infrastructure, capital, and expertise of Singapore with the abundance of land and low-cost labor resources of Johor and Riau (especially Batam and the nearby island of Bintan).

As a further incentive, the Indonesian government formally decreed Batam and the nearby Riau islands of Bintan and Karimun as Free Trade Zones (FTZs), which brought the abolition of customs duties, value-added taxes, luxury goods taxes and excise duties.

Batam is only about 120 kilometers north of the Equator and therefore is warm all year round. But, surprisingly, being a small island surrounded by sea means that usually it is neither oppressively humid nor hot. Average daily temperatures range from a minimum of 25 degrees to a maximum of 34 degrees Celsius (77 to 95 Fahrenheit) and humidity ranges from around 65% to 96%. The days are hot in the months of May/June. Being near the equator also means that Batam is NOT subject to tropical cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons and that the “wet” and “dry” seasons are not as well defined as in other regions. The annual average rainfall is 2,600 mm (about 105 inches).

By Indonesian standards, the utilities and services infrastructure in Batam (water, electricity, communications, health, education, transport services etc) generally is well developed and efficient. The completion of an undersea natural gas pipeline from Jambi in Sumatra to provide cheap energy for electricity generation and the recent commissioning of a new gas-fired power station seem to have all but eliminated the power cuts of previous years.

New pumping and water-treatment stations and a progressive upgrading of aging and inadequate mains are bringing greater reliability to water supplies. The water quality is good and the supply authorities claim it exceeds World Health Organization standards. However, prudent householders are still installing storage tanks as an insurance against supply failures. Most householders, restaurants and hotels purchase bulk bottled water for drinking.

International dial-up telephone connections are available in established areas but continuing and rapid population growth means there are waiting lists for new installations in many districts, while in some newly developed outer suburbs no landlines are available at all. Several telephone providers have introduced CDMA wireless phone in an effort to overcome the landline infrastructure strains. These systems also link with the more widely established GSM networks and provide for sms and data-transmission services.

There is wide and generally efficient cell phone coverage. Internet services have improved greatly with higher-speed ADSL and wireless connections progressively taking over from basic dial-up systems. The services are generally adequate but still fall well short of the high-speed broadband access available in nearby Singapore or in most major Western countries. Wireless Internet access at higher speeds is gradually becoming available.

Satellite television services provide access to English-language international channels and are inexpensive. Most parts of the island also have good signals from around 15 free-to-air channels originating from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia with several transmitting English-language programming.

No English language newspaper is published in Batam but The Jakarta Post is available in Batam daily.

Getting around on Batam can be challenging, interesting, frustrating, educational, frightening, and a lot of fun – often all at the same time. It is very inexpensive compared with transportation costs in developed Western countries but more expensive than some other Indonesian cities, including Jakarta.

There is no fully developed public transport system. The main modes of travel are taxis (“official” and “unofficial”), ojeks (motorcycle taxis), privately operated minibuses and a few government operated buses. There are no becaks or bemos, so common in many older Indonesian towns and cities.

A few taxi and minibus drivers and ojek operators speak reasonable to good English and some others have very basic English-language skills. But most of them speak very little or no English at all.

You will never have trouble finding a taxi in the main business districts – they are everywhere! Step out your hotel door, exit any shop or walk down any street and you will be offered taxis, taxis and more taxis. Wait on any curb to cross the street and you will have a car glide up, perhaps beeping the horn and flashing its lights with the driver asking where you would like to go. And, as you alight from a taxi at your destination and begin to walk inside, there is every chance you will be offered yet another taxi!

While it can become irksome, this intense competition means that prices remain relatively competitive. Fares are by negotiation – there are no meters. There usually is a difference between the price offered to Indonesian locals and the visiting Bule (Westerner).

Stand by any major street or road and within a couple of minutes a private minibus will roll up beeping the horn or flashing its lights. Signal and they will pick you up. You need to determine if the bus is going where you want to go (sometimes not easy if you speak no Indonesian) and settle on the fare. Many minibuses have no indication on the outside of the vehicle as to their destination. Drivers are generally courteous and helpful (though they may drive like lunatics and very few speak much English). Fares are likely to be in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 rupiah (about 55 cents).

The proximity to Singapore’s Changi airport and its access to the region’s many budget airlines makes Batam a cost-effective base from which to explore other countries of South East and North Asia. Batam has its own modern and well-appointed Hang Nadim airport, with some 60 aircraft movements a day to domestic destinations throughout Indonesia. These services use modern jet aircraft, and apart from holiday peaks, fares are usually very affordable.

The Batam water supply is operated by a British-based contracting company with sophisticated collection, treatment and distribution systems. Tests show the supply exceeds World Health Organization standards and we know executives of the supply company who routinely drink water direct from the tap.

However, it probably is prudent to not drink tap water, even in 5-star hotels, unless you know that it has been boiled for at least 5 minutes. Safe, good quality bottled water is cheaply and readily available in shops, restaurants, bars and at roadside stalls, and is used by most locals as well as visitors.

Food offered in most restaurants and from food market vendors usually is properly prepared and generally quite safe. You would be most unlucky to contract a case of “Delhi belly”. The risk is probably about the same as eating out in your home country. However, be a little careful of offerings from street vendors. They usually are OK and operators do take the best care they can in preparation.

Batam has health facilities superior to most regional areas of Indonesia with medical clinics, capable general practice doctors, diagnostic laboratories and state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment for those who have the means to pay. In the event of a truly serious medical problem, there is also the assurance that all the facilities of modern Singapore are just an hour or so across the water.

The range of hospital and associated specialist medical services available on Batam took a quantum leap in 2003 with the opening of a modern new private hospital, the Rumah Sakit Awahl Bros to serve the well-off members of the local community and the well-paid ex-pats who previously had gone to Singapore for medical attention.

A first class semi-private ensuite hospital room (2 beds) equipped with TV etc can be available for Permanent Residents or Work Permit holders for as little as 300,000 rupiah a day ($60). For 500,000 rupiah you will have your own VIP ensuite room with a sofa bed so your visitors can stay by your side. Charges will be higher for Tourist or Business Visitors.

The hospital operates an ambulance service for trauma and medical emergency transportation and there is a helicopter pad for emergency evacuations to Singapore for specialist attention. A full range of modern diagnostic equipment is available to the panel of specialist and general practice doctors who work out of the hospital.

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