A capital city in the jungle?

  • ASEAN+
  • Monday, 19 Aug 2019

Worrying times: A man walking on a giant sea wall to avoid a flooded road next to abandoned warehouses in northern Jakarta. Joko is planning a giant wall to keep big waves out, but global warming presents a clear danger to low-lying cities. — AFP

Jakarta: Indonesia’s president wants to spend at least US$30bil (RM125bil) to move the capital to a forest on the island of Borneo.

The proximate trigger is climate change – Jakarta is sinking into the sea.

President Joko Widodo is planning a giant wall to keep big waves out, but global warming presents a clear danger to low-lying cities.

After analysing 393 cyclone-vulnerable coastal cities in 31 countries, World Bank economists have concluded that 40% of the damage from storm-surge catastrophes would fall on three Asian cities – Jakarta, Manila and Karachi, Pakistan.

The Philippines is shifting government offices from coastal Manila to higher ground: the old American air base of Clark City.

No wonder Joko wants to move to the province of Kalimantan in Borneo, an island Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei.

The private sector and financial centre will remain in metropolitan Jakarta, a megalopolis teeming with 30 million people.

Yet in practice, the relocation will be a big prize for the private sector, with everything from real-estate development, urban gas supply, hospital management and many others up for grabs. The move is planned to start around 2024.

What kind of capital will the nation of 267 million people get?

A Naypyidaw, the nearly empty new city in central Myanmar conceived by a military junta?

Or something more like Brasilia, which Brazil carved out of the Amazon in the 1960s to lessen the over-arching role that Rio de Janeiro had played since Portuguese colonial times?

Joko will be hoping for a Brasilia and to shake up the primacy of Java. The move could also tilt the economic growth model away from state-owned enterprises, which are playing a bigger role since the president came to office in 2014 and pledged to develop infrastructure in far-flung parts of the country.

Indonesia has a historic mistrust of private enterprise.

The resource-rich archipelago was plundered by foreign concessionaires and their cronies under former President Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship, which collapsed in the 1998 Asian crisis.

Since then, Indonesia has been maturing as a democracy and stars like the ride-hailing app Gojek are the face of a youthful new private sector.

A US$30bil new city project can be a playground for creativity – or a den of corruption. Indonesia has to choose wisely.

A similar choice exists for the environment.

The annual haze that engulfs Singapore and Malaysia emanates in part from forest fires in Kalimantan as farmers clear land for plantations.

Will having the president in the neighbourhood improve the policing of oil palm estates?

If the foul air quality in the Indian capital of New Delhi because of padi stubble burning in Punjab is any guide, the answer isn’t obvious.

But if Joko does succeed, it will be a PR coup – European ambassadors’ children living in Kalimantan could persuade their home countries to stop objecting to the use of Indonesian palm oil in biofuel.

The history of planned, new capital cities is mixed.

The broad boulevards of Naypyidaw still await that one ingredient without which no city is complete: people. But there are successes.

Why shouldn’t moving the seat of political power give Indonesia its own Canberra?

The century-old, low-profile Australian capital is home to 400, 000 residents.

How hard can it be to fill a new urban agglomeration with 1.5 million inhabitants, asks Bambang Brodjonegoro, the minister of national development planning.

Just as post-colonial Brazil felt the need to weaken Rio’s centrality, Joko has tasked Bambang to reduce the political role of Java, the most-populous island and a 59% contributor to the country’s annual gross domestic product.

But Indonesia is meant to be more than Java. If the idea is to reduce the entrenched homogeneity of majority Malay-Muslim Javanese power and diversify across the ethnic, cultural and religious mix that makes up “Indonesian flavour”, as Bambang describes it, then the effort is praiseworthy.

There’s no escaping the prevailing global zeitgeist of majoritarianism.

By today’s standards, just wanting to lean against it makes Joko a very different kind of leader. — Bloomberg

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