Sun, 11 Aug 2002

Jungle magically transformed into modern city

For hundreds of years Batam has been highly regarded due to its strategic location in the Malacca Strait. One historical event can prove this, when Admiral Hang Nadim chose Batam for his defense base during the war waged by the Melayu kingdom against the Portuguese invaders between the years 1511 and 1528.

However, after the end of Dutch colonization, for some time the 415 sq kilometer island was completely forgotten.

Its close proximity to neighboring countries, Malaysia and Singapore, is certainly one of Batam's plus factors. Only 20 kilometers away or a 45-minute ride by ferry from Singapore is another of the island's geographical blessings.

The previous impression of Batam as being isolated is immediately erased when one realizes its ideal location facing the Lion city-state.

Batam, previously a forest, is now second to Bali as a popular resort for foreign tourists. The latest data indicates the total number of foreign tourists visiting Batam is 1.2 million for 2001. This number is really fantastic when one considers that the development of the island is only 31-years old.

Stories about the condition of Batam before it was developed into an industrial area through Presidential Decree no. 41/1973 on Batam Island as Industrial Area are hard to believe.

As recalled by Mak Iyah, a 70-year old senior resident, who has spent her entire life on the island resembling the shape of a scorpion, Batam in the 1970s was not much different from a jungle. The population at that time was about 6,000 and thinly spread on the island.

"One shouldn't compare today's conditions with those in the old days. Batam was very much like a jungle. No shops were available ... one had to wait for the traveling Chinese traders for most goods required," Mak Iyah said.

Spurred by the central government's wish to further develop the island, Batam then became less isolated. Investments grew rapidly and public infrastructure were also provided.

Today, as part of the spectacular infrastructure, six sophisticated bridges link seven islands expanding the area into 715 square kilometers, which is popularly known as Barelang, short for Batam-Rempang-Galang.

The bridges, built in 1992 and completed in 1998, connect the islands of Batam, Tonton, Nipah, Setoko, Rempang, Galang and Galang Baru. The bridges also give easy transportation access to the islands' residents. The Vietnamese refugees' camp - a tourist attraction on Galang island - is also now easy to reach.

Life has certainly changed in Batam. Shops and supermarkets have sprung up replacing the traveling Chinese traders of days gone by. The traditional boats as a means of transportation - locally called bot pancung - are now replaced by luxury cars, though some of them are second hand cars imported from Singapore.

A modern lifestyle has also set in the islands. The face of Batam - formerly an almost uninhabited island - is now adorned with skyscrapers and fine avenues.