Singapore’s Food Supply from Riau Archipelago

Singapore’s Food Supply from Riau Archipelago

Published: 2021.05.26
Accepted: 2020.05.26
9
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

Cooperation between Singapore and Indonesia has extended to the agricultural sector, beyond just industrial park collaboration between the two countries. One of these schemes is the Riau Vegetable Project importing green vegetables from Indonesia (including the nearest Indonesian territory of Riau to Singapore). The pilot project started with a 2001 Singapore-Indonesia Governmental Initiative with a vegetable farm in Pekan Baru (which is traditionally a leafy vegetable-producing region in the Riau Archipelago) for growing crops to meet Singaporean consumption needs. A natural comparative advantage in the bilateral cooperation is that both Singapore and the Riau Archipelago are located within the same region and have similar hot and humid tropical climates that facilitates cooperation. Further complementarity is enhanced by the fact that the archipelago has a much bigger land space than Singapore, a crowded, urbanized land-scarce metropolitan city state. To formalize arrangements, the two countries signed an MoU to establish two showcase farms (one hectare in area) to help the Riau farming sector to import best practices and knowhow in growing exportable vegetables from Singapore’s AVA officers, including seeding, nutrient replenishment and safe pesticide techniques. Singapore’s sharing also extends to post-harvest production processes and technologies like cold chain storage, chilled shipping, aqua culture and other advanced technologies. Singapore’s pioneering agricultural efforts in Riau is opening up future possibilities for other countries to tap into Riau’s potential, with Japanese firms like Obayashi Corporation going into Joint Development Agreement with Indonesia’s PT. Persada Hijau Cemerlang (under the umbrella of Gallant Venture Ltd.) to produce cherry tomatoes and leafy vegetables in technologically-advanced hydroponics greenhouses on Bintan suited to tropical weather systems and efficient delivery systems. These third party collaboration can also benefit Singapore as ultimately Singapore is one of the major consumer markets for these products. In this sense, Singapore can be a jumping-off platform to test the markets in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Keywords: Riau, Indonesia, Singapore, innovation, Batam, Bintan

INTRODUCTION

Developing the food export potential of the Riau archipelago

The Indonesian Antara News Agency reported that the Indonesian government intends to develop the Riau archipelago as the major provider of farm goods to the world-class cosmopolitan city of Singapore as early as 2021 with the then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono articulating: “Singapore needs thousands of tons of vegetables, fruits and other farm products. Why don’t we supply (the commodities) from here which is only 45 minutes (from Singapore)?” (Bernama, 2011). In order to achieve this goal, then Indonesian President Yudhoyono ordered researchers from the Institute of Agriculture (IPB) in Bogor to conduct research on the genres of cultivable agricultural products in the climate and local conditions of the Riau archipelago in a specially zoned farmland to grow these selected agricultural products (Bernama, 2011). Then President Yudhoyono reiterated to all stakeholders of the requirement to focus on ecological preservation when boosting intra-regional growth: “Look at Singapore where buildings are flourishing. Here we still have many green areas with tourist sites” (Bernama, 2011). The enlightened former Indonesian President foresaw the potential of farm properties and tourism sites as well as resorts in the Riau archipelago benefitting from sprouting agricultural farms, creating a green environment that can attract regional tourism (Bernama, 2011).

General makeup of the Riau archipelago

The Riau archipelago is an island chain southwest of Singapore at the junction between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea with the two main islands (Bintan 47 × 50 km in size and Batam 23 × 30 km in land area) countenancing the Singapore Strait that is below 20 km in width (FAO, undated). The weather pattern of the archipelago is evenly tropical with average temperatures of 27°C from October to March and 28°C from April to September with stronger rainfall in the north monsoon season September-March and some volumes of rain for the remainder of the year but, fortunately, winds are only moderately intense in the monsoon while tropical typhoons are absent in this region (FAO, undated). The Riau islands are moderate in elevation of 200 m to almost 400 m surrounded by large mangrove swamps at sea level with mineralized thin topsoil that is able to cultivate rubber trees, coconut palms and fruit plants like bananas, pineapple, rambutans (a red sweet succulent fruits with a split-table hard skin and protruding tendrils) but its channels and bays are protected from strong winds (FAO, undated).

The sheltered coastal waters is advantageous for aqua culture. The big tracts of shallow water, 1–5 m at low tide is useful for fish traps and aqua farming (especially for pens or mollusc farming utilizing off-bottom methods) while sheltered channels 5 to 15 m in depth can rear fishes in suspended net pens (cages) or mollusc rearing from floating rafts (kelong in traditional Malay language) (FAO, undated). Robust tidal currents in narrow channels of high tidal range (e.g. 1.7 m at Bintan) provides sufficiently dissolved oxygen for aqua farming and water temperatures from 26 to 30°C are suitable for tropical oysters, clams, green mussels, penaeid shrimps, freshwater prawns and marine fishes while salinity ranged from 26 to 32 ppt (useful for most aqua culture for oysters, clams and mussels) (FAO, undated).

World-class cosmopolitan city of Singapore and the SIJORI (Singapore-Johore-Riau growth triangle)

In 1990, the unfurling of SIJORI (Singapore-Johore-Riau growth triangle) is brought about by the heavy investments of Singapore firms in the Batam free trade zone, with the proliferation of hotels and resorts on Pulau Bintan and regular ferry services between the Riau islands and Singapore’s Harbourfront World Trade Centre (WTC) and the Tanah Merah ferry terminal (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007) and this has made the Riau archipelago a significant source of agricultural products for the bustling world-class cosmopolitan city of Singapore and its burgeoning high income population. The large high income middle class in Singapore is demonstrating ever greater appetite for imported food and agricultural products.

Eleven years after SIJORI, cooperation between Singapore and Jakarta extended to the agricultural sector. The Riau Vegetable Project is based on the concept of importing greens from Indonesia (including Riau) and originated from a 2001 Singapore-Indonesia Governmental Initiative with a vegetable farm in Pekan Baru (selected based on its central nodal status in Riau’s customary agricultural lands for harvesting leafy vegetables), Riau Province, Indonesia cultivating and exporting Xiao Bai Cai, Bai Cai, Chinese Cabbage and Cai Xin to Singapore (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). Riau has wider space compared to Singapore, appropriate for agriculture with 7.2% of the overall surface area in Indonesia zoned out for permanent agriculture, and its tropical hot and humid weather conditions facilitates the cultivation process (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007).

On 22 Oct 2001, the then Governor of Riau Province, Saleh Djasit, and then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), Dr. Ngiam Tong Tau, inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the transfer of agriculture technology and cultivation techniques from Singapore authorities to the Indonesians to produce exportable green leafy vegetables with the Riau Province Agricultural Services, Dinas Pertanian Tanaman Pangan (DPTP) and Singapore’s AVA giving technical assistance to Riau farmers in the areas of good agronomic practices, protected cultivation and postharvest technologies (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007).

The signed MoU founded two showcase farms (one hectare in area) to help the Riau farming sector to copy best practices and increase their output of exportable vegetables with Singapore’s AVA officers dispensing management advisories to Riau farmers on seed choices, nutrient utilization and pest management knowhow (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). This extends further down the production chain to handle extracted vegetables in an Agri-Processing Centre that comes with a 20-ton cold-storage depository designed for keeping vegetables fresh, then moving further down the production to supply chain, a tailored-designed ship was built with chillers to transport ten tons of vegetables in cold chain from Indonesia to Singapore within a day (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007).

The Agri-Processing Centre in Pekan Baru has post-vegetable extraction equipment like a cold room for vegetable sorting and packaging into consumer packs, refrigerated reefer trucks which can help preserve the freshness of green leafy vegetables to augment the incomes of Riau agriculturalists and provide Singapore with a constant supply of vegetables (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). The effective and efficient logistical system in the Pekan Baru initiative may not be a global large-scale project but it was an important platform to kick-start agricultural and technical assistance cooperation between Singapore's Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) and Riau Province Agricultural Services, even leading to the inauguration of a consulate and a trade office in Pekan Baru (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). The accent on this bilateral cooperation is on ecologically-protective cultivation, postharvest logistics and distribution, transfer of expertise, enhanced agricultural productivity, innovative farming methods for the preparation of exportation of vegetables beyond Singapore to other parts of the world as well (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007).

Singapore benefits from this bilateral exchange as well. The country is land-scarce and has virtually no large-scale farming although important and significant headway has been made recently with high-tech farming in Kranji. Singapore’s AVA is interested to diversify food sources and provide more selections of food for Singaporean needs and build up its neighbouring countries’ agricultural capabilities (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). Singapore is well-known to not have a beggar-thy-neighbour policy and hopes to co-prosper with its neighbors with an eye on regionalism as well as fostering intra-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) exchanges. One of Singapore’s major purchaser of Riau vegetables is the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) FairPrice, a large supermarket chain under the umbrella of Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress (NTUC, an umbrella organization of trade unions affiliated with the state authorities in a tripartite arrangement), which guarantees a large customer base for tons of vegetables from the Pekan Baru project (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007).

NTUC itself has a long link with Indonesian vegetable dealers traceable back to the 1970s with Sumatran suppliers while food safety concerns is further enhanced by the strict conditions adopted by AVA to ensure that Riau’s produce is quality checked to placate any consumer concerns in Singapore (Menkhoff, Loh, Chua and Evers, 2007). Riau has plentiful land spaces, affordable labor, organized logistical support, and a bright future for its vegetable farming sector. The other sector that Singaporean stakeholders can look at is the aqua culture potential of the Riau Islands detailed below.

Oyster farming and aqua culture – fish breeding

In Tanjung Pinang harbor, oysters have thick creamy glycogen enriched by local wastes that contained nutrients and Crassostrea (Saccostrea) iredalei (a big-sized rapidly growing oyster species found only in Tanjung Pinang harbour) can be sold when they grow to 5–6 cm in 6–8 months and reaching a premium price range size of 8–9 cm in just 365 days (FAO, undated). They may be a legacy of oysters adapted from the Philippines in the early 1960s in a state-funded oyster culture project while the native Crassostrea (Saccostrea) glomerata found commonly in this island attached to buttress roots of mangroves, fish traps, piers and rocks are the same genre as the mangrove rock oyster of New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Palau and other Pacific Islands (FAO, undated). Singapore is a possible market for such oysters. Crassostrea (Saccostrea) malabonensis located only in Tanjung Pinang harbour can grow to 7.8 and 8.5 cm in length may also be part of the early 1960s state-funded oyster culture programme at Tanjung Pinang but its smaller sizes may fetch lower prices than the larger `` (FAO, undated). Serranids groupers of the genera Epinephelus and Plectropomus (kerapu) are trawled by fishermen and retailed in Tanjung Pinang or Singapore fetching good prices and four particular species (E. tauvina, E. malabaricus, P. maculatus and P. leopardus) reach greater length than other serranids with an average daily weight increase of approximately 4 g from a seed base size of 125 g and they can tolerate cage crowding to the extent of 10 kg/m3 (FAO, undated).

Policy recommendation/policy analysis

Collaboration between Singapore and Indonesia will likely grow into the near future. This is because in December 2015, the 10 ASEAN countries have quietly formed the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and one of its main tenets is to increase intra-ASEAN regional trade. One feature of this intra-regional trade enhancement can be in the agricultural sector and the Singapore-Riau collaboration can be a centrepiece and showcase of best practices for such purposes. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic situation has proven the greater urgency for such integration as the pandemic has disrupted food supply for many countries. Singapore is especially vulnerable in this aspect due to its land-scarcity and dependence on food imports. So, in the interest of food security, such collaborations are likely to increase tremendously in any post-pandemic scenarios.

In addition, ASEAN countries’ performance in the pandemic has proven to be highly impressive. Vietnam and Singapore count amongst the world’s top performances in mitigating the pandemic. The ASEAN bloc also did not show a beggar-thy-neighbour attitude, cooperating with each other throughout the global ordeal and even cooperating with major powers in the world like the US, Japan, European Union, Russia and China to battle the pandemic. Thus, this resilience provides an ideal environment for further intra-regional cooperation in the agricultural sector, which can also benefit from this cooperative atmosphere, given that there were no incidents of scrambling for disrupted resources at the height of the pandemic. Singapore will continue its role as the ‘brain’ and ‘test-bed’ for advanced technologies from the major powers, including those in the agricultural sector and, through its world-class management system, visionary governance, wise/able leadership and diplomacy with the hallmarks of integrity, Singapore can import, test, evaluate, or even manufacture those technologies for implementation in Riau.  

CONCLUSION: OTHER FOREIGN INVESTMENTS AND TECHNOLOGIES

With bigger players coming in 2020, Riau is priming for even greater agricultural exports to Singapore, as reported in the local media in Singapore. The Gallant Obayashi Green Agritech Park (Japanese-funded Indonesian partnership that is listed on the Singapore stock exchange) located on northern part of Bintan Island in Riau is gearing up to supply restaurants and individual consumers in Singapore (and other markets eventually) in 2021 with 100 tons of green vegetables every harvest (Lee, 2020). There are new opportunities on the horizon as well. The Tanjung Pinang Agricultural Quarantine Office in Riau revealed that pig export firms in Riau Islands like PT Indotirta Suaka has seen its live pig exports to Singapore doubled in 2020 to 1,600 live pigs daily from 700 to 900 pigs before the pandemic (Jakarta Post, 2020). All these paint a rosy picture of more meat products and increased volumes of vegetable products heading to Singapore’s consumers.

Singapore is not the only East Asian state eyeing the potentially lucrative agricultural sector in the Riau archipelago. Perhaps, what was started by Singapore has blazed a way for other bigger players to come into the Riau farming industry. In 2020, Japan’s Obayashi Corporation inked a Joint Development Agreement with Indonesia’s PT. Persada Hijau Cemerlang (under the umbrella of Gallant Venture Ltd.) to carry out massive cultivation of cherry tomatoes and leafy vegetables in technologically-advanced greenhouses suited to tropical weather systems coupled with a distribution and retail network for agricultural output (Obayashi Corporation, 2020). The project will construct a one-hectare big-sized hydroponic cultivation test facility on Bintan Island in Indonesia based on Obayashi Group's Oak Katori Farm (opened in November 2014) in Katori City Chiba and begin retailing the products to its domestic market and Singapore and eventually Southeast Asia as a region (Obayashi Corporation, 2020).

Obayashi’s knowhow is integrated with its proprietary technologies like temperature control through air conditioning, advanced environmental control in the greenhouse for outputting a good volume and consistent supply of agricultural products with high standards (Obayashi Corporation, 2020). In Southeast Asia, economic development and the rise of an economic middle class has experienced increasing incomes, emphases on health to stimulate interest in high standards of food safety and quality products that can eventually tap into Obayashi hydroponics greenhouse and its retail, marketing (especially to the middle class consumers), expand consumer markets and distribution conduits (Obayashi Corporation, 2020). This holding firm is listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange while investments continue to be made in Indonesia (Obayashi Corporation, 2020).

REFERENCES

Bernama. Indonesia plans to develop Riau Islands as farm project supplier to Singapore. Eco-Business, 27 February 2011. Retrieved from https://www.eco-business.com/news/indonesia-plans-develop-riau-islands-farm-project/ (link is external) (1 January 2021)

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Environmental Suitability of Areas Surveyed. FAO, undated. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/ab757e/AB757E02.htm (link is external) (1 April 2021)

Jakarta Post. Riau Islands company sees live pig exports to Singapore double after Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown - Business - The Jakarta Post. Jakarta Post, 1 April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/03/31/riau-islands-company-sees...

Lee, Mandy. Public-listed firm, Japanese partner to grow vegetables in Bintan for fresh picking by visitors, export to Singapore. Todayonline, 14 January 2020. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/singapore-listed-firm-japanese-par... (link is external) (14 January 2020)

Menkhoff, Thomas, Patrick H. M. Loh, Sin Bin Chua and Hans-Dieter Evers. Riau Vegetables for Singapore Consumers: A Collaborative Knowledge-Transfer Project across the Straits of Malacca. Singapore Management University Institutional Knowledge at Singapore Management University Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School of Business Lee Kong Chian School of Business, June 2007. (link is external) (June 2007)

Obayashi Corporation. Large-Scale Hydroponic Cultivation Experiments by Advanced Greenhouses Start on Indonesia's Bintan Island Toward a Large and Stable Supply of High-Quality Crops in Southeast Asia. Obayashi website, 28 August 2020. Retrieved from https://www.obayashi.co.jp/en/news/detail/news20200824_1_en.html (link is external) (28 August 2020)

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