October 23, 2023
REMPANG – For more than a month now, feisty housewives have been forming human roadblocks to screen unfamiliar vehicles and strangers entering the fishing village of Pasir Merah on Indonesia’s Rempang Island, just an hour by ferry from Singapore.
“Who are you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to meet?” they take turns to ask, as they inspect car boots and scrutinise identity cards.
“Real journalist, not a spy,” one of them yelled to more than a dozen middle-aged women clad in Muslim headscarves and faded housedresses, who were resting in a wooden shelter, as she gave this reporter a welcoming nod.
“Orang Melayu,” she added. A Malay person – warranting more trust.
The women said they have been on high alert after violent clashes between residents from the surrounding Malay villages and the local authorities over two days in September. Even the police and the military were mobilised after villagers were ordered to move out by Sept 28 to make way for a multibillion-dollar China-funded investment project.
“Without prior notice, they suddenly demanded that we abandon our houses, farms, livelihoods and land, and whatever we and our ancestors have built for hundreds of years. Who wouldn’t be shocked and stressed?” food stall owner Siti Hawa, 70, told The Straits Times.
Officials with bags of rice knocked on their doors, she said. “Do they really think they could buy us out with rice? We returned everything. But now, we are scared they would forcefully evict us, so we stand guard here every day.”
The US$11.5 billion project (S$15.8 billion), known as Rempang Eco-City, was signed off by President Joko Widodo when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in late July.
The project was designated a “National Strategic Project”, which means it falls directly under the President’s purview and is so nationally important that the authorities could seize land for its development.
The authorities’ offers of relocation and compensation have largely been rejected by the residents, whose villages are sited on 7,000ha of non-forested land that has been designated as a new special industrial zone.
The industrial site will house facilities such as a glass and solar panel factory run by the world’s largest solar panel producer, China’s Xinyi Group. Rempang’s remaining 10,000ha will be retained as natural forest for now.
Local investment and development authority BP Batam will jointly develop the project with private Indonesian company Makmur Elok Graha, a subsidiary of the Artha Graha Group owned by Indonesian tycoon Tomy Winata.
Rempang is connected by bridges to the more urban and industrialised Batam Island in the north, and remote Galang Island in the south. Together with smaller surrounding islands, they make up the Batam municipality.
‘Malays will perish’
On Sept 11, chants of “Hidup Melayu”, or “Long Live Malays”, reverberated as demonstrators protested outside the Batam Indonesia Free Zone Authority (BP Batam) on Batam Island. They hurled bottles, rocks and Molotov cocktails, and the military and police countered with tear gas.
Fisherman Rusli, 50, said it was the first protest by Rempang’s Malay community. “We are peace-loving, easy-going people who prefer to talk things out to settle problems. But the authorities have pushed us into a corner.
“We are not fighting, but simply defending our ancestral land. No amount of money will entice me to leave. My home is priceless.”
Some Rempang residents said they had received the short end of the stick, without prior consultation and proper compensation. The heavy-handed way the relocation issue was dealt with has bred mistrust and prejudice towards Chinese investors even before they set foot on the island.
“It’s bad enough that they did not build proper houses for us to move to, but it’s worse that they did not ask if we would welcome such a project,” said Mr Gerisman Ahmad, a village elder from Pantai Melayu village.
The 65-year-old also believed there was no need for the villages to be destroyed, saying: “The project is inland, and we are near the sea. How are we disturbing their operations?”
For some, such as 80-year-old housewife Halimah, it was a sign of worse things to come.
“They will pollute the air, and take away our sand (to make glass). Hundreds will come at the same time, and there are so few of us here so they may overpower us… I’m just scared.”
After the clashes, Mr Widodo said the project “was not well communicated to the people”, and promised residents they would be compensated with land and houses for relocation.
Professor Leo Suryadinata, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said the Malay population affected believes that the Chinese had collaborated with the central and local governments to carry out a project at their expense.
“The protests were not merely against the mainland Chinese and local Chinese, but also both central and local governments that consist of pribumi (native) Indonesians but who are non-Malays,” he said.
The central government has denied the allegation.
Mr Timboel Siregar, secretary-general of the Indonesian Workers Organisation (Opsi), said: “Residents who have lived there for generations were made to feel like objects that could be pushed around, while the brightest red carpet was being laid out for the foreign investor.”
Rempang residents told ST that the issue was not simply about compensation, but also about defending Malay traditions and identity.
According to the country’s 2010 census, eight million Malays live in Indonesia, and they are concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Sumatra, the coastal areas of Kalimantan, and the Riau Islands where Rempang is located. That makes them a minority in a country of 280 million people where Javanese comprise the largest ethnic group.
As natives of Rempang, also known as Putera Daerah (sons of the soil), the Malays, as well as the Orang Laut and Orang Darat tribes, are believed to have inhabited the island since the 1800s. At present, some 7,500 of them dwell in over a dozen coastal villages and make a living from fishing and growing chillies, bitter gourd and other crops. Unfortunately, they have no certificates to prove they own the land.
“When our villages are destroyed, we will be nothing but scavengers with no identity. Malays will perish,” said Madam Hawa.
Mr Gerisman said: “It will be a sad day when our grandchildren and great-grandchildren ask about their Malay identity, and all we can offer are stories, and not a real place they can visit or a house they can live in.
“How am I supposed to answer if they ask, ‘Grandpa, when people were taking away our land, did you just stay quiet and do nothing?’”
Preferential treatment for Chinese workers
The Rempang case has cast a spotlight on Chinese investments in Indonesia, surfacing some longstanding complaints – from local communities’ interests being elbowed aside, to industrial issues such as poor working conditions and unequal treatment of Indonesian workers, say workers’ rights groups.
Rempang residents are also concerned about an influx of Chinese workers landing in the area.
Opsi’s Mr Timboel said locals in other parts of Indonesia have complained that Chinese workers receive higher salaries and better lodging. Chinese workers are also perceived to be taking jobs away from locals, as Chinese firms fly in hundreds of low-skilled manpower to work in projects including in nickel mines in Sulawesi at the centre of the archipelago of Indonesia.
“These are not workers with special expertise, so those jobs could well be done by Indonesians too. The Chinese workers are also less keen to assimilate to local culture like learning to speak the Indonesian language. All the discontent has led to jealousy and deadly protests,” he said.
It is not known how much worse the situation at Chinese companies is, compared with other foreign firms. But they have attracted more attention due to the disproportionate share of foreign investments that the Chinese account for.
A high-profile case took place on Jan 14 this year, when a clash between Indonesian and Chinese labourers left a worker dead from each side at a nickel smelter run by Gunbuster Nickel Industry Smelter Company. The fight at the factory in Morowali, in Central Sulawesi, was purportedly over working conditions and salary.
After the protest, Indonesian Cabinet ministers vowed to take all necessary measures to prevent such incidents from happening again.
A Feb 17 report by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute said the Morowali incident brought into focus the issues of unconducive working environments and poor treatment of local workers in some Chinese-invested projects in Indonesia.
“Three factors underlie the escalation of labour discontent into violent conflict: Ethnic and cultural differences, poor governance in labour relations, and the role of external actors in using the situation to undermine the government’s policy,” it said.
The report also urged the Indonesian authorities to carefully manage the issue of migrant workers and balance national policy goals with local communities’ interests, and to pay attention to some cultural and political factors that have complicated industrial relations in some Chinese-managed companies in Indonesia.
Anger among locals was also stirred in June 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Indonesian government allowed 156 Chinese workers to fly to Indonesia to work for a Chinese nickel firm in south-east Sulawesi, when many Indonesians had lost jobs due to the lockdown.
China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second-largest investor, with US$3.2 billion of investments and trade volume reaching US$124.3 billion in 2022. Official figures put the number of Chinese workers in Indonesia in 2022 at more than 42,000, or around 44 per cent of all foreign workers.
Mr Timboel acknowledged that Chinese investments are valuable and not all Chinese companies are bad, but said the government must enforce labour regulations to review the salaries of locals to reduce future industrial conflicts.
An editorial in The Jakarta Post on Jan 18 said the rise of Chinese investors, especially in labour-intensive projects, has often triggered suspicion and even protests from the public because some investment agreements preclude locals from filling the jobs generated.
It urged Chinese companies to provide training and knowledge about Indonesian culture and employment systems to their workers, including a basic Indonesian language course. It also called on the government and Indonesian business partners to help local workers learn more about Chinese companies, including their corporate culture.
“The lack of knowledge and willingness to understand the host better happened in the past, when labour-intensive manufacturers from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan arrived here decades ago. Initially, resistance from local people and administrations was rife, but was solved after mutual understanding and trust were reached,” said the report.
There are fears of a spillover effect in Indonesia, where there has been a history of ethnic tensions, but Rempang residents and human rights groups say there is no cause for worry.
As far as the Rempang case is concerned, the anger is directed at the parties managing the Chinese project, not Chinese Indonesians.
“Chinese Indonesians are part of Indonesia, part of us. We have been living together for many years. They have nothing to do with Eco-City,” said Madam Halimah.
Mr Hendardi, chairman of rights group Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, also noted that the Chinese Indonesian community in Rempang is relatively small, and has lived there for many generations.
“The government will unlikely cancel the project, so what’s pressing is transparency on how the land will be used,” he said.
A new date for relocation has yet to be set, but the Indonesian government has agreed on a gentler approach to resolve the conflict.
Mr Widodo has sent several ministers to Batam to conduct a dialogue with the Malays and reach an agreement. They include Minister of Investment Bahlil Lahadalia, who is also head of the Investment Coordinating Board, Home Minister Tito Karnavian, and Agrarian and Spatial Planning Minister Hadi Tjahjanto.
“Handling the Rempang (project) must be done in a kinder, softer way that also respects the locals who have lived there for generations,” Mr Bahlil said.
Mr Gerisman, who was involved in the dialogue, said the government is offering each resident compensation for a house valued at 120 million rupiah (S$10,400) and 500 sq m of land.
The government will also exempt residents from home rental costs during the construction of their new houses, as well as financial support.
Only a handful of Rempang residents have accepted the offer.
“It’s too late to try and negotiate with us now, nasi sudah menjadi bubur,” said Madam Hawa, panning the situation as beyond remedy as “the rice has turned to porridge”.
“We are deeply hurt and we shall not leave.”