5.30am. My mobile phone’s alarm clock went off. It’s an extremely early morning, especially for a Saturday. But it is a long day ahead. On 10 September, a group of Yale-NUS College students enrolled in Urban Studies courses took the 6am bus to Harbourfront so as to catch a morning ferry to Batam. The itinerary included around 6-8 sites, each to tell some stories about Batam’s urban development, its economic linkages to Singapore, and the social life of Batam’s inhabitants.
We embarked on our first task to look at oil rigs and ship yards. So we boarded small boats, each holding about 15 of us. The excitement of it all. It was raining.
Our next destination: Funtasy Island, a project that has been in the plan for just 20 years. Advertisement has already started, yet nothing seems to be ready. We saw only coastal bungalows under construction and man-made beach utilised by stray dogs having fun chasing each other.
We visited government subsidised housing provided for employees and their families, each family comprised of parents and on average 3 children, living in a one room flat. And these are considered the lower-middle income group.
We observed a divided Batam city. Built and managed housing on the one hand; informal settlement on the other hand.
We obtained an ethnographic portrait of one of the families living in the informal settlement. They earn an income from subcontract, informal work performed in the house, by the women who sort out bottle caps, while the men take charge of delivering them to a (recycling?) plant to sell them off.
We spotted Batam’s children and how they play in a space that clearly does not integrate the concept of childhood leisure, as well as their shrewd ways of overcoming problems.
We explored and rested our feet inside a built shopping mall, except that the only shop was the hipster cafe we bought coffee from.
The students also visited a fishing village. But it is perhaps no more a fishing village given that we learned most of the young adult men and women are finding work elsewhere. Those who stayed behind engage in their own economy involving vegetables, fruits, and snacks market. The fishing village is also perceived as “eye sore” by the official now that a brand new hotel is built just within 1 km or so away.
We ended our evening at a waterfront development, modeled after Dubai’s “The World”. Largely aspirational, the idea was to revalue the waterfront and create a Sentosa (or MBS?) space to attract tourists. Yes, we paid ticket fees to enter.
And there was foam party that evening. They had the cosmopolitan, progressive, circuit party music. They had the foam. But the the less-than-100 crowd in the foam is not quite what I imagined foam parties to be about.