Batam losing its sex appeal

Night Life: Dancers entertaining the crowd in a discotheque located within Pacific Palace Hotel.

Mention Batam and chances are Singaporeans will think of men in search of cheap sex.

Others may tell you that is where men visit their mistresses on weekends.

This perception has long been fuelled by news reports of retirees blowing their CPF money on the Indonesian island, which is just 45 minutes from Singapore.

A survey by a Batam non-governmental organisation in 2003 showed that about 600 Singaporean men visit Batam for sex every Saturday.

Is this still so today? You will be surprised.

Now, it seems the island's reputation as a seedy getaway is fading. Reasons: Singapore getting two integrated resorts with casinos and a change in CPF rules.

When The New Paper On Sunday team stayed in Batam last weekend, locals said there are still pockets of sleaze in some bars and massage parlours, which are mostly located in the city centre of Nagoya.

But, as one taxi driver tells us, he now sees fewer Singaporeans "on the lookout for fun".

Adds the taxi driver, who wants to be known only as Irwan: "I used to see a lot more Singaporeans a few years ago, and I would bring them to the different nightspots in Nagoya.

"But these days, I don't see many Singaporeans looking for naughty nightspots, especially after the casinos here closed several years ago."

Activities on Batam have returned to the spotlight recently following the death of a Singaporean in a hotel room there on Sept 16.

Mr Lee Chin Chuan, 50, reportedly arrived on the island that weekend and rented a room at the Newton Hotel and Spa in Nagoya. He died of a heart attack after downing two cans of beer. Earlier that night, Mr Lee was said to have met a woman at a nightspot in the area.

In the past, it was not uncommon for Singaporean men to frequent the entertainment districts of Batam - some looking for a quick tryst, others betting in the casinos. Yet the casinos - located at Nongsa Beach in Nagoya - were shut after a series of raids in February 2005.

The Straits Times reported in 2005 that before the crackdown, the Batam authorities had issued entertainment licences that allowed jackpot machines.

Some of these "gaming houses" had apparently breached regulations by offering games like blackjack, baccarat and roulette. No official reason was given to explain why these mini-casinos have since been shut down.

While the number of ferry services between Waterfront City pier - 1km from one of the casinos - and Singapore were halved, the closures of the gaming houses did not affect the ferry services to the other arrival points on the Indonesian island, which cater mainly to mainstream tourists.

There are four ferry arrival points on the island - Batam Centre, Sekupang, Waterfront City and Nongsapura. Taxi drivers like Irwan, who normally wait for visitors outside the ferry terminals, say they see more Singaporean families flocking to the island for food, spa treatments and shopping.

This view is shared by Singaporean businessman Denny Poh , managing director of Den Industries, who co-founded the Batam Singapore Club in 1996. The club was formed to promote links between Indonesian and Singaporean businesses.

Mr Poh, 52, says: "The Batam we see now is a far different place from the island I first visited 28 years ago. Things now are far more family-friendly."

But there is no denying that some visitors still visit Batam for its seedier attractions, and there are places which cater to these men.

Newton Hotel and Spa, located just along a dusty road in Nagoya, is one such attraction.

The modern-looking building has a nightspot known as Pub Double 2 and a massage parlour. A KTV club, staffed by provocatively-dressed women, is located next door to the pub.

The spa is on the second storey of the building. TNPS also visited another nightclub inside the massive ship-like structure that houses Pacific Palace Hotel at Jalan Duyung.

Like Newton Hotel, Pacific Palace has a KTV lounge and a health centre.

While we did not spot any Singaporeans during the visit, sources tell TNPS that such outlets are a hit with people on the prowl for sex and drugs.

One Singaporean, who wants to be identified only as Razak, says that he has been to Batam several times and these "one-stop centres are ideal because it's like a supermarket - everything you want is under one roof."

He adds: "Not many Singaporeans I know would want to venture to the sex farms located outside the city. They are controlled by criminals which make them unsafe.

"But at these clubs, you get entertainment, sex and even drugs, if you are so inclined."

He is not wrong. During our visit to the Pacific Palace night club, we were approached twice by a dealer offering to sell us ecstasy pills.

The price - 250,000 rupiah each (S$32). One club employee, who does not want to be named, says the club does not sell drugs to patrons. But as long as people want it, there will be groups coming in to sell, he adds.

In the end, locals admit that the sex and drugs scene on the island will continue.

But things may be improving, says a local lawyer.

Mr Bernat Kerris, 40, an Indonesian criminal lawyer who lives on the island, says: "I still believe the reputation of Batam as a sex haven is thoroughly undeserved.

"I think it is safe to say that much of the sleazy elements are gone, more so after the casinos were closed.

"You even have vice in Singapore, so it's safe to say these things are not unique to Batam."

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