The failure of Jakarta’s Kota Tua to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site comes as no surprise. The original site of Batavia, a port area that became a major trading hub of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the 17th and 18th centuries, has been left to decay after years of policy uncertainty and a lack of funding, despite an initial ambitious revitalization plan.
The world’s first multinational company created Batavia as a regional trading hub where it gathered and stocked coffee, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon from Java and other islands before sending them to other continents.
The capital’s old town along with Malacca, Penang and Singapore, became influential in Asian trade during the era, shaping the history of trading and cultural exchanges between the East and the West for centuries.
But unlike Malacca and Penang’s George Town, which have earned the coveted World Heritage status, Kota Tua, which had been proposed as a heritage site together with four outlying islands in Thousand Islands, namely Onrust, Kelor, Cipir and Bidadari, was not regarded as eligible by the United Nations body, forcing the Indonesian government to drop the proposal.
After surveying the old town area and the outlying islands, UNESCO’s advisory board, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, stated that the area should not be inscribed on the World Heritage list because of poor management and the absence of some of the buildings cited in the proposal.
The Jakarta administration has issued Gubernatorial Decree No. 26/2014 on the master plan for the old town of Jakarta but has yet to provide the specific details of the project.
Owners are prohibited from selling or changing the shape or structure of the buildings, while restoring old buildings costs a lot of money, meaning many are simply left to rot and fall apart.
The lack of a comprehensive plan and funding to revive the old town has made it just another tourism area instead of an elaborate historical site. Restoration has been limited, involving only a few parts of the area.
A consortium of private companies, the Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation, has tried to help restore several buildings, but this is not enough as many places in the area need urgent restoration.
The Jakarta administration recently opened the redesigned Kali Besar, the old town’s river. But the river, having been designed to resemble Cheonggyecheon, the restored river in the heart of Seoul, has been altered into a reservoir, instead of keeping its original function.
International recognition is a good motivation to restore the area. But the very essence of the problem is the city administration’s commitment to preserving the city’s history.
If it is too expensive to revive the area at once, perhaps the administration should forget the proposal. What should be maintained is the commitment to keep records and archives about the area and constant efforts to preserve it. At the very least, the majority of domestic visitors must stop littering.
What is worse for a nation than to lose its own history?