Terror in Batam

Visits by Singaporeans take a hit

SOC personnel from the SPF patrolling the HarbourFront Ferry Terminal as passengers board vessels.
SOC personnel from the SPF patrolling the HarbourFront Ferry Terminal as passengers board vessels. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Standing sentinel near the ferry docks at the Singapore Cruise Centre, the red-beret officers from the police's Special Operations Command (SOC) were the most visible sign that security at Singapore's borders has been stepped up in the week since Indonesian police arrested six terror suspects in Batam.

Clad in protective vests and holding MP5 submachine guns, the SOC officers scanned the Friday morning crowd of ferry passengers arriving from Batam, and were still on guard when this reporter returned to Singapore at 10pm that night.

Their presence was a reminder that just a 45-minute boat ride away in Batam, the leader of a terror cell had planned to launch a rocket from the island to Marina Bay.

 
 

Indonesian police said those arrested had ties to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter Bahrun Naim, the alleged mastermind behind January's deadly Jakarta bombings.

News of the arrests has led to many Singaporeans putting off non-essential travel to the island, a popular weekend vacation spot because of its proximity and the rupiah's favourable exchange rate.

Retiree Harry Pereira, who goes to Batam with a group of friends three times a month to play golf, noted that the ferry there was only a quarter full, when it would "normally always be packed" with day-tripping Singaporeans.

"There are usually seven of us who go up to golf, but last week when news came out of the arrests, five of them backed out as they were worried about the security situation," said the 70-year-old.

Others, like Miss Thong Wei Qi, 25, went ahead with their travel plans because they had already paid for trip packages ahead of time.

"My mum was urging me not to go, because she's worried it is less safe now," said Ms Thong, an auditor who was spending the night at a kelong with a friend in the hope of catching a meteor shower.

"If we had not already paid for our accommodation, we would probably have postponed the trip."

Retailers in Batam are already feeling the pinch from a fall in visitors from Singapore.

At Golden Prawn restaurant, whose lunchtime crowd is largely Singaporean, takings have tumbled by about 60 per cent.

Sales of snacks and local produce have also fallen by half at Rassa Cafe and Indonesian Cookies at Batam Centre, where ferries from Singapore dock.

"Most of our business is from Singaporeans who buy snacks to take on the ferry home, and this has fallen quite a bit in the last week," said Ms Citra Agustim, a cashier at Rassa Cafe. "I hope people forget about the news and come back to Batam."

But Singaporeans who work in Batam or visit it regularly say news of the terror cell has not given them the impression that the island has become more dangerous.

They include engineer Tommy Tan, 50, who has been based in Batam for the last four years.

After news of the arrests broke, his semiconductor company issued employees a security alert, but lifted it and gave the all-clear within days.

"Some of our customers - who occasionally come and visit the factory - have expressed concern, but I tell them there is nothing to worry about," he said.

Others, like offshore marine officer Adam Sahat, are unfazed by news reports. To celebrate his 50th birthday on Friday, he and his wife went for a day spa retreat on Batam.

"Singapore's security is very tight and I'm sure the Government is working closely with Batam, so I'm not worried at all," he said.

Senior officials such as Riau Islands police chief Brigadier-General Sam Budigusdian stressed to The Sunday Times that Batam remains safe to visit: The militants had been under watch for some time before they were arrested, and police patrols around the island have been ramped up following the arrests.

Riau Islands tourism office chief Guntur Sakti said that the local authorities are staying on top of the security situation: "The police have vowed to keep the Riau islands - and that includes Batam - a safe place for investment and tourism."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Visits by S'poreans take a hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe