The Untold Tales of Batam

My girlfriend and I snucked out of Singapore to spend our New Year weekend at Telunas, which was another hour and a half away from nearby Batam.  Apart from lazing around a lot catching up on sleep and trying to fish with diced cuttlefish on a string (and failing miserably), the highlight of the trip was the side trip that we made to a village on a nearby island.

It most certainly wasn’t as alluring as the serene escapade that is Telunas, and nowhere as exotic as the Peru that I had visited while at Stanford.  It probably helped that neither of us were expecting much out of it given that we were simply looking for  an activity to occupy our third day.  In the end, we left this ‘lil village of under 3,000 inhabitants with new experiences and insights into the relationship between Singapore and Batam.

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Of white-bellied fish, cigarettes and birds’ nest

While walking down the main village street, the local guide that accompanied us from Telunas told us there were 3 sure-fire jobs that locals take on to earn a comfortable living.  With a first-world consumer country like Singapore near the Riau Islands, it wasn’t very long before the locals wised up that roadside hawking, farming and subsistence fishing were the only game in town.

Singaporeans love 白肚鱼 – directly translated to English as “white-bellied fish” or to Hokkien as “beh dorh hirr” – especially during Chinese New Year.  Many fishermen turn to netting this particular Chinese New Year delicacy, which sells for USD 12 per kg (vs. USD 2 per kg during off-peak seasons) between January to February each year.  It’s no wonder they end up deciding to work 3 months out of each year.

For the remaining 9 months, young able-bodied men with ‘nary a care switch to smuggling cigarettes into Singapore.  A single pack sells for SGD 1 in the Riau Islands, and in turn gets bought for about 50% of Singapore’s retail price, at SGD 6 to 7 per pack.  Ringleaders are known to recruit and send young men with no families on a 3-hour round-trip, earning up to SGD 1,000 per trip.  Even if they get caught, 3 years of jail and 3 strokes of the cane is still better off than life back in the Riau Islands.

Once you’ve built up your capital base, we’re told that we’d be better off investing in an empty building, obtaining a cassette tape with mating cries of swallows, and owning our very own birds’ nest farm.

There’s a certain something in the air…

We were told the stupendous stench that we sped through on our way back to the resort was apparently from a nearby ‘pig’ island.  This island rears and supplies 100% of Singapore’s live poultry, and accounts for 25% of Singapore’s pork supply.  A barge sends a regular shipment of live pigs by sea for slaughter in Singapore.

What would these locals do without us Singaporeans enjoying our fish, cigarettes and pork eh? 🙂

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.