Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced yesterday that over the next five years the nation’s capital will be abandoning Jakarta and moving to the jungles of Kalimantan, which is on a completely different island and also quite far away from things that you would normally need to run a government like buildings and roads and airports. Jakarta, we have been assured, will remain the financial and business hub it has always been, and just the machinery of government will be shunted several hundred miles to the northeast. Why would anyone want to do something so insane?
Well, Jakarta is a polluted, over-populated and congested mess that is literally sinking into the ocean under the weight of its own policy failures. The conventional wisdom is that rather than try to actually fix any of these problems, the government has simply decided to cut and run which is both fairly bleak but also extremely hilarious. I myself rather like Jakarta. It is a complex, frustrating and hulking behemoth of unchecked and poorly planed urban sprawl. But I find something oddly endearing in all the chaos.
Another reason is that Jakarta becoming the nation’s commercial and political capital was not actually a choice Indonesians made. It was forced on them by the Dutch, who seized the port of Jayakarta in the 17th century, renamed it Batavia and turned it into a central hub supporting their lucrative monopoly on the spice trade. After that, it just kind of grew through the process of inertia with little input from locals; they merely flocked to the city because that’s where the work was. Eventually, thanks to the Dutch not being very good engineers, the little walled city of Old Batavia became an unlivable malarial swamp and all the well-heeled Europeans moved south, to lush landed estates where the National Monument now stands.
That started a pattern, obviously still ongoing today, of people trying to stay one step ahead of Jakarta’s expanding urban footprint. Just like the Europeans who moved to the Weltevreden, middle and upper class Indonesians who can afford it will usually buy nice houses in Bekasi or Tangerang and commute into the polluted congestion of central Jakarta to work. But I guess even that arrangement has reached the end of its useful life, with the government feeling like it needs to go one step further and move to the jungles of Kalimantan to escape the sprawl.
There is also an element of shrewd political calculation in this announcement. Indonesia is an archipelago, spread out over a chain of islands that span thousands of kilometers and include a dizzying diversity of ethnic groups and languages and cultures. But the heart of the nation’s politics, economics and society has always been the island of Java. The current president, Jokowi, is about as Javanese as you can possibly be, and all previous presidents have also been Javanese. Java is by far the most populous island in the archipelago and is responsible, by a wide margin, for the majority of national economic output and has the most influence in shaping national narratives.
Naturally, the Java-centric nature of this arrangement has left the tens of millions of people living in Sumatra and Kalimantan and Sulawesi and Papua and Ambon feeling left out. Jokowi has been investing heavily in infrastructure development in the oft-neglected provinces of eastern Indonesia, but it’s unclear if that is really bringing everyone into the fold or if they are buying into this shared narrative of national development.
So what better grand gesture could the president possibly make to show eastern Indonesia that he is serious about a more inclusive Indonesia, then by doing something crazy like moving the capital to Kalimantan, almost in the exact middle of the archipelago and placing the far-flung islands of eastern Indonesia in much closer proximity to the machinery of government. From a purely political perspective, as a president trying to juggle all the disparate parts of a nation with hardening ethnic and religious cleavages, this makes perfect sense.
As a practical matter, on the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense. First of all, anyone who has spent any time at all studying Indonesian politics and society knows that just because the government makes an announcement, it is no guarantee that anything will actually happen. This is a government that loves to announce things with great fanfare. But follow-through is another matter entirely. And the obstacles that need to be conquered in relation to this, perhaps the most ambitious and unrealistic in a long and distinguished history of unrealistic public policy proposals, are substantial.
First of all, they need to come up with tens of billions of dollars to build a brand new city. In the middle of a jungle. With no existing supporting infrastructure. And the Indonesian government is legally prohibited from running a deficit in any fiscal year in excess of 3% of GDP. That means they can only borrow $30-40 billion a year. Where are they gonna get the money to build a new capital? From SOEs raising debt on global capital markets? From private developers? I mean, maybe. But I don’t see any obvious solution to this problem, which is, and I cannot stress this enough, a very basic and fundamental problem that the government clearly does not know how to solve at this point even though they already announced this like it was a done deal.
Then there are the environmental concerns. Frankly it’s just not a great look to say you are leaving Jakarta because it’s too polluted and crowded, and then literally demolish a huge swath of jungle to make room for its replacement. But ultimately, this is just very impractical from a logistical perspective. Like it or not, Java is the economic and political heart of the country. Most of the people in Indonesia live on this little island. If you have any hope of being president, you gotta win big in East and Central Java. All the NGOs, media, businesses, infrastructure - they are already here and they have built up their networks over decades and generations. I think the government is under-estimating the dislocating effect of simply packing up shop and moving to a deeply inaccessible region of Kalimantan, which is sparely populated and mostly covered in jungle. I mean, this will be a windfall for the airlines that end up flying to wherever the new airport will be, but otherwise? It’s just hard to imagine who this benefits or that it will proceed smoothly.
So I remain deeply skeptical. But Jokowi seems quite serious about it, and if I have learned anything over the last several years it is that when this president bends the full weight of his resources and efforts tooward getting something accomplished, he has a pretty good track record. So maybe they will pull this off. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the new city is not expected to be ready to go until 2024, the year Jokowi will leave office. These kinds of projects in Indonesia are NEVER delivered on time, so we can be reasonably sure a brand new city capable of housing the machinery of national government will not be ready to go in 5 years. That means Jokowi will be able to enjoy all the political upside of being perceived as serious about moving the capital to a more neutral, central location - but he won’t have to deal with any of the actual real world challenges of trying to manage that transition as he will be out of office before its completed.
When you think about it from that perspective, it starts to make a lot more sense.