The Strait of Malacca is a narrow strait of water that divides the Indonesian island of Sumatra from Malaysia and Singapore. Narrow but more than 900 kilometers (550 miles) long, it is a strategic waterway and vital shipping lane, carrying more ships everyday than the Panama and Suez Canals combined. It doesn’t lie in international waters but is located in the territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore and these countries are responsible for patrolling it.

More than 60,000 ships — equal to half the world’s merchant fleet — carrying half the world’s oil and 40 percent of its commerce pass through the Malacca Strait. The ship range from mammoth supertankers as large as city skyscrapers to tugs and barges. Lots of tankers going between the Persian Gulf and East Asia pass through the strait. As parts of the strait are only one kilometer wide ships have to sail at low speed.

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: For centuries, this sliver of ocean has captivated seamen, offering the most direct route between India and China, along with a bounty of resources, including spices, rubber, mahogany, and tin. But it is a watery kingdom unto itself, harboring hundreds of rivers that feed into the channel, miles of swampy shoreline, and a vast constellation of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals. Its early inhabitants learned to lead amphibian lives, building their villages over water and devising specialized boats for fishing, trading, and warfare. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

Patrick Winn wrote in Global Post, “The Strait of Malacca is a natural paradise for seafaring bandits. Imagine an aquatic highway flowing between two marshy coasts. One shoreline belongs to Malaysia, the other to Indonesia. Each offers a maze of jungly hideaways: inlets and coves that favor pirates’ stealth vessels over slow, hulking ships. It’s a narrow route running 550 miles, roughly the distance between Miami and Jamaica. This bottleneck is plied by one-third of the world’s shipping trade. That’s 50,000 ships per year — ferrying everything from iPads to Reeboks to half the planet’s oil exports. Avoiding pirates by traveling fast is “practically impossible in the Strait of Malacca. The channel is simply too crowded and too shallow. Gigantic vessels are instead forced to churn through at slow speeds that invite pirates in fast-moving skiffs. (To save fuel, today’s cargo ships often travel at about 14 miles per hour. That’s slower than 19th-century sail boats.) [Source: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, March 27, 2014]

Strait of Malacca: Piracy Hotspot and Terrorist Threat

The Strait of Malacca is known as one of the world's piracy hotspots. Between 2001 and 2007, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has recorded 258 pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, including more than 200 sailors held hostage and 8 killed. More than $1 million in ransom was paid in 2005 by owners of ships transiting the passageway, statistics show. According to the International Maritime Bureau, of 325 pirate attacks that took place in 2004, 37 were in the Malacca Strait. Indonesia was a victim of the largest number of pirate attacks, with 93 occurring in its territorial waters. Because ships travel at low speeds they are easy targets for pirates.

By 2005, pirate attacks in the Straits were happening almost weekly and Lloyds of London began classifying the waters as a war zone. In 2005, the insurer Lloyds of London included the Malacca Strait on the list of the world’s 20 most dangerous waterways. It also raised its rates for insuring ships that traveled through the strait, and said that piracy attacks will be classifdied as a war risk rather than a maritime risk, citing its "war, strikes, terrorism and related perils." The advisory was lifted this year after Singapore and Indonesia began coordinated air and sea patrols. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “The strait’s geography makes it nearly unsecurable. It passes between Malaysia and Indonesia, known for thorny relations, further complicating the security picture. Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide at its northern mouth, the strait funnels down to about ten miles (16 kilometers) across near its southern end and is dotted with hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands, offering endless hideouts to all manner of criminals. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

Reuters reported: “The strait is only 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point, which creates a natural bottleneck and makes it vulnerable to terrorist attack. Middle East crude accounts for 90 percent of Japan's imports, while up to 80 percent of China's oil imports and 30 percent of its iron ore imports pass through the Strait of Malacca.

History of Strait of Malacca Piracy

The Malacca Strait has a long history of piracy. Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “Armadas of these skilled sea raiders in light, maneuverable craft regularly plundered passing ships and retreated upriver to fortified villages. Their raids yielded troves of gold, gems, gunpowder, opium, and slaves, which they used to build powerful sultanates that dominated much of the Sumatran and Malaysian coastlines. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“Sailors chronicled the horrors they faced in the strait and nearby waters. One 19th-century episode involved the capture of British Captain James Ross. Believing his ship held a stash of silver coins, lanun forced him to watch as his young son was lashed to an anchor and drowned. Then they cut off Ross’s fingers joint by joint.

“European colonizers and their navies brought the sultanates under control in the late 1800s, but the lanun were never eradicated. The 21st-century inheritors of their tradition continue to hunt these waters, mainly in three incarnations: gangs that board vessels to rob the crews; multinational syndicates that steal entire ships; and guerrilla groups that kidnap seamen for ransom.

Pirate Fixer

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “Jhonny Batam. I’d been given his name — one of his names — by someone he trusted. He was described as a gentleman of opportunity. A ship captain by trade, he had piloted vessels for both legitimate companies and less scrupulous entities. He was said to know every ship in port and every coffee shop deal in Batam. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“At first, contacting him was like chasing one of Jodoh’s phantom swiftlets. Calls to his cell phone went unanswered until finally one morning he phoned to say he was stranded on Bangka Island, south of the Malacca Strait. Some “business” had gone badly, and he was broke. I agreed to wire him $80 for a plane ticket back to Batam. As agreed, Jhonny Batam appeared the next day on a backstreet near a row of butcher shops. Animal blood ran in the gutters beneath the stifling odors of fresh meat. Jhonny, a handsome, bearish man in his 50s, wore an immaculate white sports shirt and pressed slacks, his wavy black hair perfectly coiffed. A fake gold Rolex dangled around his wrist, and he might have passed as a golf pro if not for the tattoos inscribed on his knuckles.

“In a nearby restaurant, he said he knew John Palembang, whom he called a low-level seaman. The coffee shop grapevine had laughed at news of the Nepline Delima fiasco. “Amateurs,” Jhonny scoffed. He began to describe his own career, how he had piloted tugboats and a ferry before taking the helm of a small cargo vessel. In time, he built a network of friends among sailors and harbor workers. Along the way he took side jobs, smuggling untaxed garlic, cigarettes, electronics, and drugs. In the 1980s, he relocated to Hong Kong to work for Chinese crime syndicates. There his repertoire broadened to include making large cargoes “disappear.”

Over two weeks, I interviewed several of Jhonny’s former crewmen spread among the Riau Archipelago and a captain who knew him in Hong Kong. All corroborated what Jhonny told me. One sailor said he trusted Jhonny because “he never lies. He always pays what he says he will pay. Sometimes the legal ships don’t do that.”

Malacca Strait Pirate Schemes

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: Jhonny Batam “estimated that 75 percent of heisted cargoes were inside jobs involving the ship’s crew, often the captain. “That’s why most are not reported,” he said, explaining that shipping companies often write off these losses rather than suffer bad press and risk losing their insurance. It works like this, he said. A ship broker would call him and say there’s a customer who needs diesel fuel. “I know a crewman on a tanker,” Jhonny says. “I call his hand phone and ask him if he is happy. If he says yes, no problem. But if he says no, I tell him I make him happy, and then we make a plan.” But the crewman won’t work legitimately again, I said. He laughed. “Seamen have lots of names. Some have three or four passports. No problem.” [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

In my hotel room, we laid a map of the Malacca Strait on the bed. Jhonny’s thick fingers traced the coastlines with practiced familiarity. He pointed to places with obscured shoals and noted currents and unmapped islands. “This area,” he drew his finger around Batam and Singapore, “too many patrols now.” He moved his finger to a spot south of the strait, “now the best place for shopping is here.”

“Shopping,” Batam argot for the lowest level of piracy, is roughly equivalent to robbing a liquor store. Even the smallest cargo ships and tankers carry sizable amounts of cash, used to buy supplies in port and to pay the crew. Often these ships are older and have less security than newer, larger ships. Sometimes, Jhonny says, the captains are running their own scams, conserving fuel by going slow, then selling the excess to passing ships and pocketing the cash. He explained that shopping trips are carried out by teams of “jumping squirrels,” pirates who use wooden boats called pancungs, rigged with powerful engines, to stalk the ships at night and climb up the sides and rob the crew. I tell him I would like to meet a jumping squirrel. “It’s possible,” he said, and dialed a number.

Malacca Strait Pirate

Describing a Batam-Indonesian-based pirate known as Beach Boy, Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “He grinned nervously... his smile marked by the black, ragged edge of a rotted front tooth. With his bronze skin, athletic physique, and large waterproof watch, he looked the part. Just ten months out of an Indonesian prison, Beach Boy had served two years for his role in hijacking a barge carrying more than a million dollars’ worth of crude palm oil. After making off with the cargo, his gang scattered. But Beach Boy’s accomplices betrayed him to the police. Once in custody, he says he was interrogated, beaten, and shot in the leg. He rolled up his left pant leg to reveal a fist-size scar on his calf. “The bullet is still in there,” he said. Yet the most painful consequence of his prison term, he said, was the loss of his family. His wife wrote him in prison that she had left him for another man. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“I asked Beach Boy why he had become a pirate. “I can’t get work,” he said. Jhonny explained that Indonesian sailors often lacked the maritime certifications required to work on commercial ships. For years, young men like Beach Boy relied on older seamen to teach them the trade and then obtained counterfeit credentials to avoid the expensive training needed to become legally licensed seamen. But in recent years the international shipping community had clamped down on such practices, leaving many experienced Batam sailors unemployed.

“I pressed him on how his team was able to board ships undetected. “We use magic,” he said. “We cast a spell to make the crew stay asleep. We can be invisible, bulletproof.” He pointed to his head. “It’s a power that you learn.” Then how did you get shot, I asked. “They fired twice,” he said. “I resisted the first bullet but wasn’t strong enough for the second.”

Pirate Training and Practice

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “A few days later, Beach Boy, and I caught a cab to the port. Beach Boy had arranged to show me how a team of jumping squirrels boarded a ship. He said there was an uninhabited island not far from Batam where he occasionally trained. At the end of a sun-bleached jetty, two muscular young men, “Muhammad” and “Hakim,” waited for us in a wooden pancung. Beach Boy explained that these boats were ideal because their weight and shape let them cut through a ship’s wake, unlike fiberglass boats, which were much lighter and would bounce in rough water. We sat in the boat, two by two, and I ended up next to Muhammad. His round cheeks and perfect teeth gave him a boyish appearance, but weeks before he had completed a two-year prison term for his role in a shopping trip. “Are you ready to learn how to steal a ship?” he asked. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“With the sun beating on our shoulders, Hakim steered out of the harbor and made for a dense forest that appeared to be floating on top of the water, one of the strait’s innumerable mangrove islands. It seemed an impenetrable mass of gnarled roots and tangled limbs, but Hakim found a little cut and piloted the boat into the labyrinth. It was cool inside the mangroves, and we slipped in and out of deep shadows following the watery path until it opened on a cloister of stilt houses. “Assalamu alaikum,” Hakim called out. No answer. He cut the engine. Beach Boy grabbed a limb and held the boat steady as Hakim drew a parang, its curved blade glistening with oil used to keep it razor sharp. With quick, latent blows Hakim chopped out a two-foot section of a root and tossed it into the pancung.

“We navigated out of the mangroves and headed for a small island about a mile away. Once ashore, Beach Boy disappeared into its dense jungle. The rest of us remained on the beach, which had a broad view of the shipping channel. Nine vessels chugged through the strait, including a liquefied natural gas tanker that towered over the others like a skyscraper. The Singapore skyline loomed beyond. “A few years ago this was a favorite place to begin an attack. Now there are too many patrols,” said Muhammad, flashing his perfect teeth, “but there are other places.” I asked him why he’d gotten into piracy. “Partly for the money,” he said, “but it is fun, an adventure, like James Bond.”

“Beach Boy emerged from the jungle with a 20-foot-long (6 meter) bamboo stalk. He stripped the shoots off the bamboo, while Hakim used the parang to hew the mangrove root into a footlong spike. When they finished, Hakim lashed the spike at an angle to the end of the bamboo. “This is how we climb onto the ship,” Beach Boy said, motioning to a nearby tree as if it were the side of a ship. “The tekong [driver] maneuvers the pancung right up to the stern,” he said, lifting the pole and hooking the spike onto an upper branch.

“In one fluid motion he grabbed the pole with both hands and pulled himself upward, lifting his legs, then clasping the bamboo with his feet and driving his body upward inchworm fashion. In seconds he reached the top and then slid down the pole. “This is how five jumping squirrels can all board a ship in less than a minute.” He handed me the pole. “Now you try.” I kicked off my shoes and copied the technique. The bamboo’s natural joints offered a good grip, even when wet, and its stiffness made it easier to climb than a rope. To reach the decks of taller ships, Beach Boy said they would lash two or three bamboos together. I reached the top and slid down. “You could be a pirate,” Muhammad said. The others laughed. I started to put on my shoes when I felt a powerful grip on my shoulder and a cold blade of a parang on the back of my neck. “Then you grab the first sailor you see,” Muhammad barked in my ear, “tell me where the money is.” My heart skipped a beat before I realized he was just demonstrating the next step in an attack. “And the sailor will follow you like a water buffalo.”

Back in the pancung, we headed for Batam, but as we approached the harbor, Hakim veered toward one of the hulking cargo ships anchored just outside. Crewmen were hanging wash on the railing. Beach Boy waved, and the sailors lazily waved back. Hakim maneuvered the pancung to the ship’s stern and drew up beside the rudder. “This is the hole,” Muhammad said, his voice echoing off the steel hull. “The crew can’t see us here.” I looked up and saw that the curving hull shielded the pancung from the deck. “When the ship is moving, the water is very rough here.” He pointed to a spot on the surface over the ship’s massive propeller. “The tekong has to hold the pancung steady while we raise the bamboo and climb up. That’s why the tekong always gets the biggest share of the money.” “But you have to board the ship, subdue the crew, find the money, and not get killed,” I said. “That’s easy,” he said. “Are you ready to try?”

Captured Indonesia Pirate

Describing a pirate held in a Malaysia prison,Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “It is hard to know what to believe of the prisoner’s claims. At times he has declared his innocence and then later confessed to being a willing criminal. He mentions he has three children, later the number is four. His passport lists his name as Johan Ariffin, but Malaysian authorities doubt that’s his real name. His age is noted as 44 (streaks of gray in his black hair make that plausible) and his residence as Batam, an Indonesian island just south of Singapore. Men like him often come from Batam, a guard says. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“Though his jailers remain unsure who he is, they know exactly what he is: lanun (pronounced la-noon). When asked for a direct English equivalent, an interpreter explains that there is none, that it is a word freighted with many layers of culture and history. The short, imperfect answer is: The prisoner is a pirate.

“He earned that epithet when Malaysia’s marine police captured him and nine accomplices after they hijacked the Nepline Delima, a tanker carrying 7,000 tons of diesel fuel worth three million dollars, in the Strait of Malacca. It was one of several attacks reported during 2005 in the 550-mile channel separating the Indonesian island of Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula, Singapore perched at its southern tip.

Ariffin is serving a seven-year prison sentence. A lawyer hired by the Indonesian consulate has been his only visitor. He stands barely five feet (one and a half meters) tall, and his open collar reveals a faded heart tattooed on his sagging chest. He looks more like a weary pickpocket than a pirate, confused that a foreigner has requested to see him.

Story of the Captured Southeast Asian Pirate

On how a handful of men could hijack a ship as large as the Nepline Delima, Ariffin told Peter Gwin of National Geographic: “The plot was hatched in a Batam coffee shop, Ariffin says, when a Malaysian shipping executive approached an Indonesian sailor named Lukman and inquired whether he could organize a crew to hijack the tanker. Ariffin, who went to sea in his teens and rose through the maritime ranks to become a mechanic, had served with Lukman on a few crews. Lately both of them had struggled to find work, and Lukman asked if he wanted in on the heist. It would be an easy job, he promised, because a member of the tanker’s crew was in on the plan. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

Gwin wrote: As a young crewman, Ariffin says he was once on a ship attacked by pirates. They waved parangs (machete-like knives), threatened to kill everyone, and took cash and food. He smiles wryly at the irony. “It is very hard for Indonesian seamen. We all need money.” He told Lukman he was in. “All we had to do was board the tanker, tie up the crew, and sail to open sea,” Ariffin says. They would meet a tanker coming from Thailand, transfer the fuel, and abandon the Nepline Delima. Lukman promised Ariffin $10,000 for manning the tanker’s engines.

“The plan began smoothly. Posing as tourists, Ariffin, Lukman, and two other seamen from Batam pretended to snap photos as they rode a ferry up the strait to the Malaysian port of Pinang. There they met six other men Lukman had recruited from Aceh, Sumatra’s northernmost province. “They weren’t seamen,” said Ariffin. “We needed their muscles.”

“At a nearby beach, they stole a fiberglass speedboat, painted it blue, and loaded it with gasoline, water and food, two cell phones, a GPS, and five freshly sharpened parangs. In addition, each man brought a ski mask, a change of clothes, some cash, and a passport. After midnight, they slipped into the strait. Meanwhile, the turncoat crew member was sending text messages from the tanker, updating the ship’s position, course, and speed. Most important, Ariffin said, “he told us when he would man the watch.”

“A few hours later, the pirates, wearing ski masks and wielding parangs, commanded the Nepline Delima’s bridge. The tanker’s distress signal had been disabled, and 16 of its 17 crew lay bound and blindfolded in a locked cabin, some of them bleeding. The pirates set a new course for the Thai tanker on the open sea. By the next evening the gang would be on their way back to what Batam pirates call “happy happy,” a blur of hedonism, ranging from extravagant amounts of crystal meth and ecstasy to marathon sessions with prostitutes. Or, if Ariffin is to be believed, home to his family.

“The problem was the 17th crewman. Soon after the pirates had boarded the tanker, Ariffin, guarding the speedboat, heard one of the sailors yell: “Lanun!” Bedlam erupted on the ship’s decks as the pirates tried to round up the frightened crew. Lukman and two others were on the bridge. They switched on the public address system and started beating the captain until his shouts for the crew to surrender blared over the ship’s loudspeakers. “Please, they are killing me,” he cried. Sixteen crewmen eventually gave up. Each was asked his name, then bound and blindfolded. “We had a copy of the ship’s manifest,” said Ariffin, “we knew one was missing.”

“Meanwhile, the sea had picked up. Ariffin tied the speedboat to the tanker’s railing and scrambled aboard to find the engine room. It was there, an hour later, that he got a frantic call from Lukman on the bridge. The missing crewman had escaped in their speedboat, stranding them on the tanker. Ariffin ran the Nepline Delima’s engines at full throttle trying to reach international waters, but even at top speed the tanker could make only about 12 miles an hour (19 kilometers). Within a few hours the Malaysian marine police had cut off their escape. Ariffin went up on the deck and lit a cigarette. “There was nothing to do,” he said. “Allah had his hand on that sailor.” At the end of the interview Ariffin revealed, so it seemed anyway, that his real name was John Palembang.

Story of the 17th Pirate Crewman

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “One sailor who was never charmed by a pirate was Mohamed Hamid. He was the crewman who escaped from the Nepline Delima and led the police back to rescue the crew. The experience had pushed him to abandon a promising career as a sailor at age 28. Recounting what he called the most frightening night of his life, he said he heard the captain’s pleas over the loudspeakers and was on his way to the bridge to surrender when one of the pirates suddenly put a knife to his throat. “I thought this is my death,” he said, but instinct took over and he hit the pirate with an elbow, jumped down three flights of stairs, and scurried under some pipes on the main deck. He lay there reciting Muslim prayers, trying to compose himself, when he saw the rope tied to the railing leading to the pirates’ speedboat. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“He described his escape as almost comical. He caught his foot on the railing and fell into the speedboat. Then it took several agonizing minutes to cut the thick rope with a dull pocketknife. Afterward he lay sweating in the bottom of the boat as it drifted from the tanker into total darkness. Feeling his way to the stern, he traced the wires from the motor to the ignition switch. Clouds obscured the stars that would have guided him to land; rain began to fall. In the distance he could still hear the cries of his captain over the tanker’s loudspeakers as the pirates beat him. “I prayed to Allah, “You brought me this far, please show me the way.” He cranked the engine and hoped he was headed toward help.

“Less than 24 hours later, Hamid was hailed as a hero. He had reached the Malaysian island of Langkawi and had been able to guide the marine police back to the Nepline Delima. After a tense standoff, all ten pirates surrendered. Eventually nine of them received jail sentences. One pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial. The shipping executive and the alleged conspirator on the Nepline Delima were arrested. Both say they are innocent. Their trials are pending. Hamid was stunned to learn of the charges against his fellow crewman. “It was like finding out the devil is your brother.”

Batam Island: Malacca Strait Pirate Haven

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “If Singapore, just seven miles (11 kilometers) to the north with its glittering skyline and robust economy, is Southeast Asia’s Cinderella, Batam is her dark sister. The two are located across from each other where the Malacca Strait feeds into the smaller Singapore Strait, and a ceaseless parade of ships, more than a thousand a week, passes between them. Most do business in Singapore, home to one of the world’s preeminent free ports and expanding financial and technology sectors. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

In the 1980s Indonesia tried to mimic Singapore’s success and began to transform Batam, one of the Riau islands off Sumatra’s eastern coast, from a malaria-ridden fishing outpost into a tariff-free zone for entrepreneurs. Developers carved golf courses out of jungles and built casinos to lure tourists from Malaysia and Singapore. Investors backed factories and strip malls, office parks and apartment blocks. Indonesians flocked to boomtown Batam to find work. The island became a hub for maritime brokers, who hired sailors for shipping companies.

Batam, however, lacked Singapore’s strict rule of law. Patronage and corruption took hold, and the island quickly became a haven for an exotic assortment of gangsters, smugglers, prostitutes, and pirates. Illegally harvested timber, embezzled diesel fuel, stolen cars, drugs, weapons, and poached animals moved through its ports. Droves of Singaporean men ferried over on weekends to visit the growing number of brothels filled with impoverished girls. Meanwhile, some of the maritime brokers quietly engaged in their own side business: recruiting pirates for Asian crime syndicates. In 1997 the boom went bust when the Asian financial crisis hit. The investment money evaporated from Batam, leaving the island littered with abandoned construction sites. Unemployment rose, driving more people to the black economy. Though in the past couple of years investors had begun returning, the island still harbored a large class of residents who could only be described as desperate.

“I asked the cab driver about the coffee shop behind the Harmoni Hotel. It’s in Jodoh, he said, referring to Nagoya’s seediest precinct. “Many murders there. Better you call me and I bring girls to you.” “coffee shop,” a euphemism for the gambling dens where seamen meet brokers, trade gossip, drink beer, and bet a numbers game. When I arrived at the coffee shop behind the Harmoni, its windows were blacked and the front door was chained.

Karaoke Night out with Some Indonesian Pirates

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “In Batam, Jhonny and Beach Boy offered to show me where pirates would go to get “happy happy.” Jhonny and others told me that after major heists pirates would often jet off to luxury hotels in Jakarta and blow big wads of cash on unimaginable indulgences, including a strip club where you could eat sushi off the bellies of the dancers. But after a shopping trip, Batam pirates might celebrate at one of the local karaoke bars. “We will go to Die Nasty,” said Jhonny. Beach Boy nodded. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, October 2007]

“Late that night, the three of us walked through Jodoh’s dark streets, where beckoning young women in low-cut blouses vamped under lighted signs advertising karaoke. We arrived at our destination, which turned out to be a club called Dynasty. The dank room smelled of clove cigarettes and was dimly lit with orange bulbs that cast a lurid glow. A waitress escorted us to a table and brought over beers. Beach Boy scanned the menu of songs that customers could request to sing. Along the far wall, a row of young women sat beneath a line of spotlights. Each wore a round badge with a number. They giggled coquettishly, competing to make eye contact with us. “Karaoke hostesses,” Jhonny explained. He went over to the women and made his way down the line, smiling and chatting. Finally he returned with a young woman who settled between Jhonny and me. “What your name?” the woman asked in heavily accented English, patting my thigh. I told her and mentioned that I was here just for the karaoke. “Yes,” she said, “everyone come to Die Nasty for karaoke.”

“Beach Boy selected his songs, and the waitress came over with the microphone. The music began and the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” were projected onto a large screen. “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” Sitting in the dark, holding the microphone close to his mouth, Beach Boy seemed transformed. He closed his eyes and crooned in a pleasing tenor. “Ooh, it makes me wonder.” The girl next to me leaned close. I could smell her perfume mingled with the alcohol on her breath. “Please can you help me? I am ugliest girl at Die Nasty. I have no customer in two week.” She said she had to pay the owner of the club each month for room and board and to reimburse the cost of her travel to Batam from her village in eastern Java. I slipped her a little cash.

“Jhonny finally took the microphone. By this time there were a few empty bottles in front of him, and his mood was effervescent, joking with the karaoke hostesses, teasing the waitress, buying drinks. He sang an old Rod Stewart song, “Sailing,” but halfway through I noticed he wasn’t following the English lyrics. He seemed to be singing in Indonesian and making up the words as he went. Everyone was laughing until the chorus came back, and he returned to the lyrics on the screen. He waved his arms, motioning us all to join in, and soon everyone at the Die Nasty was in Jhonny Batam’s thrall.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2013

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