The perilous life of a smuggler’s runner

AFFENDI Ah Hong is a taciturn 32-year-old Indonesian Chinese, who for the last two years has been smuggling Indonesians to Singapore and Malaysia.

He is a runner for a syndicate leader or taikong, who lures jobless men with the promise of finding them work – and a better life – in Malaysia and Singapore.

I met him at a coffee house on the outskirts of Batam island. It took a full day to track him down, as taikongs are on the move constantly to avoid detection.

These days, no one acknowledges openly he is a taikong or in the employ of one. In fact, taikong has become a taboo word in Batam and nearby islands, which hundreds of Indonesians use as launch sites to neighbouring countries.

“I live in fear now,” said Ah Hong. “I’m afraid there are people who want to kill me and my boss, because the deal did not work out. The police are also after us.”

Living in Bintan with his wife and two children, he goes to Batam twice a week to keep watch on safe houses – mostly attap structures or stucco-plastered houses in remote parts of the island – for the immigrants.

His command of Chinese dialects, like Hokkien and Teochew, has proved useful in links with other syndicate members from Malaysia and Singapore. But life as a runner was perilous, he said.

“We are at the mercy of Indonesians and even the taikong. who might just kill us so that he does not have to share the profits.”

He once witnessed a syndicate leader killing his runner while ferrying a boatload of immigrants to Malaysia.

“The taikong just pushed him into the water and sped off,” he said.

As a middleman, he makes three million rupiah a month, 10 times more than what he got as a clerk in a construction firm.

He travels to Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi to round up desperate Indonesians looking for a job in Singapore and Malaysia.

Ah Hong said that each worker paid about 150,000 rupiah for the trip. But some syndicate leaders had raised the price to 1 million rupiah, to make up for the rupiah’s devaluation and rising costs. Worse, some just take the money and disappear.

“The actions of some taikongs give us a bad name and put all our businesses and lives at risk,” he said.

He refused to be photographed for fear of retaliation from the Indonesians who had been left in the lurch.

“I would be committing suicide,” he said.

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