Once it became obvious that Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo would win re-election last month, voters expected him to return to the pressing problems of a flagging economy and nationwide infrastructure gaps.
So when Jokowi unveiled plans to relocate the capital away from Jakarta as his first policy directive, stunned observers wondered if he had got his priorities right. Political junkies quickly ditched the guessing game of which big shots would get Cabinet seats, puzzling instead over which city Jokowi would select as Indonesia’s new capital.
Jokowi is serious about the plan. On Tuesday, he jetted off to Kalimantan on Borneo to scout prospective spots for the new capital. In a move rich with symbolism, Jokowi made his first stop at Bukit Soeharto, a forest named after the country’s former dictator, and now among sites being considered for the new capital. The location of Bukit Soeharto – between two major Kalimantan cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda, both served by airports – makes it a strong contender.
Another Nay Pyi Taw?
The plan to move the capital surprised the whole nation, since the deliberation process behind it was not made public. Neither do we know whether stakeholders were first consulted. Such a thorough decision-making process is necessary since relocating the capital will be neither easy nor cheap. Bambang Brodjonegoro, the National Development Planning Minister, estimates that building a new capital will take between five and 10 years and cost about US$33 billion (Bt1 trillion). And even if the government can muster the money to build a gleaming new capital, would the new site be worth all the effort?
Anyone who has ever visited Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw and has been impressed by the 20-lane highways and gilded monuments, will know very well that it serves little practical purpose other than to project the quasi-military regime’s strength. Government employees work in the city but many prefer to leave once the job is done, draining the life from deserted streets and office buildings.
The new capital city of Malaysia, Putrajaya, suffers the same problem. Twenty years after it first opened, people are still reluctant to live there, although it lies only 25 kilometres from the old capital Kuala Lumpur. The new capital of Brazil, Brasilia, is equally unloved. The absence of street life means that at weekends residents leave in droves to have fun in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
In most cases building a new capital has not paid off. So if President Jokowi thinks that Jakarta, and its fast-expanding urban sprawl, is no longer a viable capital, he should find solutions to deal with the city’s problems instead of giving up and looking for a replacement.
The finest capital cities in the world have to deal with classic problems like pollution, congestion and increasing crime rates. Paris has been labelled the most beautiful city in the world, but it is also notorious for its poor air quality and endless traffic jams. But despite the problems, neither President Emmanuel Macron nor his predecessors have ever thought of relocating the capital. Instead, the city’s Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo has stepped up efforts to reduce congestion and curb pollution, by banning vehicles from entering the City of Lights.
Beijing is known mostly for its smog and chronic gridlock that means even a short commute can take two hours. If you think traffic in Jakarta is bad, wait until you get stuck on one of Beijing’s perennially congested ring roads. Yet the Chinese government has opted to take measures aimed at easing traffic and pollution problems rather than entertaining the idea of relocating to a new capital city.
One argument put forward in favour of a new capital city is the fact that Jakarta is sinking at a rapid 25 centimetres per year. Some predict 95 per cent of the city will be submerged by 2050. But this same problem afflicts many coastal cities in the world. Mexico City is sinking fastest, at 30 cm per year, while Bangkok is sinking up to 2cm annually from its perch 1.5 metres above the sea. The common factor in subsidence of cities is groundwater exploitation, tough regulation of which could halt or at least dramatically slow the rate at which cities are sinking.
Jokowi’s plan to move the capital also feels jarring, especially after this year’s euphoric opening of Jakarta’s subway system, among the crucial steps toward remedying the city’s traffic madness. It certainly feels cruel to abandon Jakarta just as this vibrant city is being made more liveable.