The electronics island where COPS shoot ARMY and workers are rioting

Reg man stumbles into eye of the storm in Indonesia

Welcome to Batam sign

Where your kit gets made On November 20th, I visited the Indonesian island of Batam. And about an hour after I left, a protest by local workers over the minimum wage just about turned into a riot.

The day before, I've since learned, local Police and Army units fought each other in a six-hour battle sparked by allegations Army members freelanced as fuel smugglers. The two groups don't get on as a result, a confrontation in the street became heated and 30 infantry decided it would be a good idea to march on the Police station and start shooting. Police fired back and a soldier was killed.

I would not have visited Batam if I'd known about the battle. My interest was sparked by the island's reputation as a place Singapore uses as a convenient place to operate industries it would rather not house on its soil. If a business needs cheap labour, lots of land, gentle tax laws, uncomplicated environmental regulations, or all of the above, Batam's the place to go.

I was in Singapore, had a free day, knew Batam was just an hour away by ferry and recalled that Reg readers have responded to stories like our visit to Taipei's technology malls or report on a floating mobile phone shop in Cambodia.

So off I went to see Batam for myself.

Batam's back story starts in the late 1980s when Singapore teamed with Indonesia and Malaysia to create a “growth triangle” whereby each can leverage their neighbours' resources. Indonesia's contributions include lots of people happy to work for less than Singaporeans, cheap land and a tax-free zone. Singapore brings capital, expertise and regional offices plenty of big businesses looking for places to locate factories. Malaysia appreciates Indonesian workers and Singaporean capital.

The growth triangle has worked, at least for Batam which over 30 years has grown from a sleepy island of 50,000 residents to host a population of over a million and become an outpost for some of the global technology industry's biggest names.

Super-ODM Flextronics is there. Epson assembles printers and scanners. Panasonic does something to do with optical drives. Semiconductor manufacturing kit-maker Unisem is there. Schneider Electric has a sensor plant. On the ferry I bumped into folks from Germany battery concern Varta, and GE. The latter makes oil drilling kit on the island. The former has a micro-battery facility on the island: there's a chance a button cell you've used passed through Batam, as did the printer in your office and the Blu-Ray player at home.

Seeing the conditions under which that kit is made Batam seemed worthwhile. News about Batam doesn't go far beyond the growth triangle. And as I discovered before and after I visited, it seems nobody, anywhere, wants to talk about it.




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