Experiential learning in action: Sailing from Batam to Bangka

A 14-day voyage through Indonesia’s Riau Islands Province to the island of Bangka in December took a group of NUS students on an adventure to get a glimpse of life in remote communities, learn about the region’s economic industries, and explore environmental conservation initiatives up close – all while mastering the art of seafaring.

As part of the Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative (SFI), offered by NUS residential units to improve students' understanding of Singapore's neighbours in Southeast Asia, the SFI2014-Introducing Indonesia course was run in Semester 1 of Academic Year 2023/2024 as an introduction to Indonesian culture and politics via a six-week crash course in Bahasa Indonesia.

To complement the course, King Edward VII Hall (KEVII) organised the voyage in collaboration with Tembusu College. This experiential learning component focused on three crucial economic sectors of this region: mining, fisheries, and tourism. Maximising the students' exposure to remote communities and maritime resources, the voyage explored the industries’ complex relationships with each other and how they impact the region's communities through the perspective of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The team drew on the logistical experience from 19 previous voyages aboard sailing ships conducted by the NUS Seafarers since 2017. 12 KEVII students and six Tembusu students set sail from Batam, the most populous island of the Riau Islands Province, on 10 December 2023, accompanied by KEVII Residential Fellows Associate Professor Martin Henz and Dr Wu Jinlu, Tembusu College Residential Fellow Mr Shamraz Anver, Ms Sarah Chong of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and NUS Seafarer alumnus Li Xi Yuan (Class of 2024, Computer Engineering).

The two sailing ships, the Four Friends and the Rona, made stops along the way to the islands of Buluh, Bintan, Benan, Sebangka, Benoh, Gojong, Singkep, Pekacang, and Cebia, before arriving at Bangka, the largest island of the province Bangka and Belitung, on 21 December.

Benefitting from extensive collaborations established on previous NUS Seafarers voyages in this region, the team invited Mr Fazham Fadlil, fondly known as Pak Sam, aboard the 1998-built schooner Four Friends, where he introduced the students to the unique culture of his native island of Buluh, situated a stone's throw west of Batam. Pak Sam also led an onshore excursion to the site of a refugee camp from the Vietnam War era on the island of Galang, south of Batam, where students were immersed in the rich history of the location that has withstood the test of time.

The voyagers were also joined by students and staff from Universitas Maritim Raja Ali Haji (UMRAH), a university in Tanjung Pinang, who organised a visit to a fish farm near Pengujan on Bintan island where the group learnt about the economic and cultural importance of fishing as a means of livelihood in the region.

On the east coast of Bintan in Kawal, they also heard from two UMRAH students, Sintana Tri Yuniar and Dedi Kurniawan, about their university’s mangrove restoration efforts in the area. Sandy runoff from a large bauxite mine situated in the immediate vicinity of these extensive mangrove forests, kelp forests and coral reefs have endangered these vulnerable ecosystems, explained Mr Elyas Purwanto, a manager at the LooLa Adventure Resort. The resort is one of two eco-resorts coexisting with the mine and the local fishing communities near Kawal.

Sailing downwind from Buluh and Bintan, the two vessels reunited near the fishing and resort island of Benan. There, the students were taught to snorkel by Captain Warren Blake, owner of the Four Friends, and participated in a tour of the Benan Island Resort where they learned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local tourism businesses and the efforts by the resort to reach out to new customers.

On the next stop, at Pulau Sebangka, the team explored a mangrove estuary by kayak, toured an artisanal charcoal factory, and visited a fishing community.

Sailing onwards, the voyagers got the opportunity for a homestay on Pulau Benoh, which specialises in offering recreational fishing to domestic and international tourists, as well as more coastal kayaking and snorkelling activities on Gojong island, located east of Pulau Benoh.

A visit to Dabo, a market town on Singkep in the southern Riau Islands, also gave the students a striking impression of the Chinese diaspora of the region and provided opportunities to recover from the physical demands of sailing at two popular local attractions in the Singkep hillsides: the cool waterfall of Batu Ampar and the hot springs of Wisata Pemandian.

After 12 hours of sailing downwind from Dabo in the strengthening North monsoon, the ships reached Pulau Cebia, the only inhabited island of the Tujuh islands. The village on Cebia, with a population of 535, is one of the region’s remotest communities. The elected village leader gave the team a tour of the island, introduced them to his family and explained the challenges of living on such an isolated archipelago. The team learned of the necessity of largely self-sustained life in such remote locations and the opportunities and challenges the community is facing in their attempts to attract tourism.

The visit to their final destination, Bangka, saw students explore a local industry dominated by mining activities. The team started with a visit to a tin museum, where Mr Suwito Wu, their guide and a leader of the Mentok Chinese diaspora, introduced them to the owner of a vast open-pit tin mine. As they toured through the grounds of the mine where the owner lives with his family, the students learnt about the mining process, which uses large amounts of rainwater to separate the tin ore from the reddish sand.

On the final day of the academic programme, the team crossed northern Bangka in vans to reach the coastal town of Sungailiat in the northeast. Their host, Mr Sandy Pratama from Universitas Bangka Belitung (UBB), led them on a tour of an area in which extensive offshore industrial mining, as well as artisanal tin mining, coexist alongside commercial and subsistence fishing and international and domestic tourism. The visit to UBB at Pangkalpinang, the capital of the Bangka and Belitung province, complemented the students’ understanding of the complex interactions and competing demands of these economic sectors.

The KEVII and Tembusu team returned to Singapore on 23 Dec 2023 with their memories, notebooks and cameras filled with impressions, photos and video footage, rich resources for the post-trip thematic reports, travelogues, and videos that constitute the academic deliverables of the experiential learning component of the SFI course.

Watch the voyagers’ experiential learning adventures here.

By Assoc Prof Martin Henz, NUS School of Computing and Resident Fellow at NUS King Edward VII Hall