BATAM, Indonesia Ismeth Abdullah fidgets in his chair as he talks about his life's work: an industrial development authority designed to attract foreign investment to this region of southeast Asia where poverty and modernity coexist in eerie contrast. Abdullah, who works 18-hour days and flies daily between here and the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, embodies the aspirations of a region largely misunderstood by the West and struggling to bring jobs and hope to its more than 240 million inhabitants.
If the Batam Industrial Trade Authority succeeds, more of the manufacturing jobs flowing to Asia could end up on this dusty island of stark contrasts. For now, Indonesia's unemployment hovers around 17 percent, Abdullah said, and average wages are $120 a month.
The island has been investing heavily in training and education, such as Politeknik Batam, a program to train the engineers and technical managers of the future. The strategy is to offer Western companies an alternative to other industrial and free-trade zones in the region, including Penang, Malaysia, and Shenzhen, China.
"Let Batam become a model that shows we can compete with other regions," said Abdullah, who also serves as acting governor of Indonesia's Riau Islands province, across the Strait of Malacca from Singapore. Frustrated by Jakarta's policies, he is campaigning to become the full-time provincial governor, running on a reform platform that includes tax exemptions for overseas investment and the extension of land titles from 30 years to 90.
The trade authority, meanwhile, has sought to diversify by creating a regional office in Japan. "We don't want to depend too heavily on Singapore-based companies," Abdullah said.
Batam has been largely untouched by recent catastrophic earthquakes in the region. But this former Dutch colony, once known for its rubber plantations, faces manmade obstacles as it woos investors. The trade authority is launching a marketing campaign to burnish Batam's image as an island immune to the instability seen elsewhere in Indonesia and firmly allied with investor-friendly Singapore, the self-styled Switzerland of Asia. Indonesia's Muslim majority, however, is an issue for some in the West.
Local officials bristle at the idea that Indonesia is a monolithic Muslim culture. "We're not a Muslim country; we are a country with a Muslim majority," said one ethnic-Chinese executive here. But at the same time, the executive warned reporters not to identify U.S. companies operating here, citing terrorism concerns.
More convincing are the ex-pats who've moved to Batam from other parts of southeast Asia. They are betting the island will emerge as a viable alternative to Singapore and China as more companies move manufacturing offshore.