New bills leave Batam Authority's future in doubt

Fadli, The Jakarta Post, Batam

Set up under former president Soeharto back in the 1970s to help speed up the development of industrial complexes on Batam Island in Riau Islands province, the Batam Authority body is now at a crossroads.

The body is facing a doubtful future. The House of Representatives recently approved the issuance of a government regulation to replace the 2007 Law on Free Ports and Trade Areas in Indonesia.

The government also released a new regulation on free ports and trade areas in Batam this year. Under the regulation, the Batam Authority will be in charge of managing the free trade area.

Previously, the authority had power over a wide range of elements, from running the city's park to overseeing clean water, roads and community issues. Soon, it will only focus on investment, raising fears that the body's 2,000 workers might soon lose their jobs.

The body's sole competitor, the Batam city administration, is preparing to step into its shoes.

Riau Islands Governor Ismeth Abdullah told The Jakarta Post that the administration is currently working to set up a council to supervise the region after the House approves the issuance of the 2007 government regulation and the government releases another regulation on free ports and trade areas in Batam, Bintan and Karimun Islands.

The free ports and trade areas in Riau Islands, better known as Indonesia's Special Economic Zones, will serve as a model for implementing similar policy in other parts of the country.

"The future of the Batam Authority is in the hands of the central government. But we hope the body is maintained since it has the experience and a vast network with investors.

"But it's up to the central government, we will just wait," said Ismeth, who was also former head of the Batam Authority, replacing Fanny Habibie in 1998.

The Batam Authority is known for its extraordinary authority. Even at the time when Batam was still part of Riau province, the province's governor had little authority in Batam.

The body's chief was appointed by the President and had three deputies. One of the deputies was usually a high-ranking military officer.

Since Batam was first opened up, the body has been working to provide clean water infrastructure, electricity, roads, schools and hospitals.

The body has produced alumni who have served in many prominent positions across Riau Islands.

Apart from Ismeth, the body's alumni included Batam Mayor Ahmad Dahlan, who was the body's former head of public relations and Natuna Deputy Regent Raja Amirullah, who was a top official at the body's hospital.

The body's influence started to fade away with the issuance of the 1999 Law on the Formation of Batam City Administration, opening up battle of words over managing the island.

Batam Mayor Ahmad Dahlan said the body has provided plenty of assistance and benefited the city.

The body, he said, still handles maintenance works on roads and clean water in the city and the city administration does not have enough money to take over the work.

"I don't want to be a person who forgets his background because I came from the body. I think this body should be maintained.

"The body's huge budget will benefit Batam. Batam is the way it is now due to the presence of the two institutions (the Batam Authority and the city administration)," Ahmad said.

A similar reaction came from the body's current head, Mustofa Wijaya. He said there is currently no plan for the government to disperse the body and hopes the central government will not change its name.

"The Batam Authority's name is like a brand for investors. It makes us easier to sell Batam to them. Calculation or analysis saying that the body should be dispersed by a certain year is no longer relevant," Mustofa said.
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