By Truston YU
Image: Merdeka Palace Changing Guard by Gunawan Kartapranata
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently announced plans to relocate Indonesia’s capital city to outside Java. Following Myanmar’s move from Yangon to Naypyidaw, Indonesia will be the second country in modern Southeast Asia to relocate its capital city. There are good reasons for such a decision, but there are also many implications which are worth noting.
Since the Dutch East Indies colonial period, the settlement of Batavia has been the de facto capital city. Over the generations, it has gradually evolved into the modern Jakarta as we know it. With the number of inhabitants equivalent to the next three largest cities combined, Jakarta is the primate city of Indonesia. Together with the neighboring towns and regencies including Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi, the Greater Jakarta megalopolis, known as “Jabodetabek,” boasts a population of some 28 million, comprising ten percent of Indonesia’s total population.
Rapid urban development is not without its side effects. The living standard is deteriorating, so is the environment. The congested streets, along with the heavy air pollution caused by the traffic, are a nightmare for commuting workers and students alike.
Jakarta has long been prone to flooding. Most recently, it has been pointed out that the city is rapidly sinking, and 25% of its land area may be submerged within a decade. Clearly, the massive population is taking its toll on the city’s very foundations.
Then-Governor Basuki had put in efforts to mitigate the floods by clearing the waterways; Incumbent Governor Anies Baswedan also pointed that the Jakarta government “had focused on expanding infiltration wells to help the soil better absorb rainwater.” Whether such policies are enough to turn the tides, is questionable.
Java dominates every aspect of the country, leading to the dissatisfaction of other islands. While it is undeniable that Java is the most populated island and is situated at the center of the country, Indonesia has a much greater diversity which seems to have been overshadowed by the focus on Java. The incumbent government has put in efforts in channeling investment to other islands such as Papua, and the economic corridors of North Kalimantan, North Sulawesi, North Sumatra, and Bali. A capital city outside of Java would be a symbolic acknowledgment of the non-Java communities, a further manifestation of the principle “Unity in Diversity.”
There is a dilemma regarding the relocation of offices away from Jakarta. If there are too few jobs that would be moved to the new capital, the commuter congestion problem would hardly be alleviated at all. On the other hand, if there is a large number of jobs that would be relocated to the new capital, the Greater Jakarta region risks structural unemployment.
The business sector has raised their concerns too. Since some of the businesses would need frequent visits to government offices for lobbying and matters pertaining to regulations, it would be inconvenient if the government agencies are located far away from the business headquarters. Corporate and government are, after all, closely related. However, in any case, Indonesia would not be the first – precedents of New York City, Toronto, and Shanghai have shown how the hub of business activities do not have to be the capital cities.
Moving the capital also entails moving the embassies. Indonesia plays a significant role in the global arena and Jakarta is home to some one hundred ambassadors from countries which share diplomatic ties with Indonesia. Though it may be troublesome for the diplomatic missions currently based in Jakarta, a constructed capital city could allow for a better arrangement for the foreign offices – a designated district could be drawn out for all the embassies, bringing convenience and allowing for a more centralized security measure. The current embassies in Jakarta would most likely remain consulates-general given the economic importance of the city and size of the expatriate community.
The fate of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat would be an interesting point as well. It is likely that the ASEAN Secretariat will remain in its location on Jl. Sisingamangaraja. After all, there is no compelling reason whatsoever for a regional intergovernmental organization to have to relocate together with a member state’s capital.
The implication of this is that while Jakarta may no longer be the capital of Indonesia, it remains the seat of ASEAN and could arguably be called the capital of “Southeast Asia.”
This project is not and should not be seen as the abandonment of Southeast Asia’s greatest megalopolis. Moving the capital is not the end for Jakarta or Jabodetabek – it will still be the place where most economic activities take place. Jakarta has to continue developing, improving its public transport infrastructure, and tackling its environmental challenges.
A new chapter for Jakarta will begin soon – retaining its primacy as the center of Southeast Asia’s largest megalopolis but tasked with challenges to raise the living standards of its citizens and prevent itself from sinking into the muds.
Truston is self-proclaimed Southeast Asianist, politics sophomore and research assistant on Southeast Asia at the University of Hong Kong. Born in Singapore but calls the West Java town of Cirebon home, Truston considers Southeast Asia as an integral part of their identity. Outside Southeast Asian Studies, Truston’s research interests also include Public International Law and Sustainability.
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