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Jakarta Post

Who needs new capital in 21st century?

  • M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, May 9, 2019   /   09:17 am
Who needs new capital in 21st century? President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (third left), along with other officials, look into the map when he visited Bukit Soeharto in Kutai Kartanegara regency, East Kalimantan on May 7. Bukit Soeharto, is one of several areas that had been nominated as a new capital city. (Antara/Agus Salim)

When it became obvious that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo would win reelection in late April, it was only natural that we expected him to focus on the pressing problems at hand, like shoring up the flagging economy or ramping up the nationwide infrastructure project that has been the signature policy of his first term.

After all, those are the kind of meat-and-potatoes issues that a second-term president is supposed to take on. Soon after his reelection in 2012, then-United States president Barack Obama made it clear that he would focus on striking a deal with Republicans on cutting the deficit and getting tough on immigration, two pressing problems affecting most Americans that year. In Germany, after winning her fourth straight term, Chancellor Angela Merkel made efforts to walk back on her policy of allowing in more immigrants by putting a cap on how many refugees could settle in the country.

So when President Jokowi unveiled his plan to relocate the capital as his first policy directive, many scratched their heads and wondered if he had got his priorities right. Political junkies used to start their guessing game on which political big shots would get Cabinet seats after a presidential election. But now we play the guessing game on which cities Jokowi will consider as Indonesia’s new capital.

And President Jokowi is serious about the plan. On Tuesday, he jetted off to Kalimantan to scout some spots for the new capital. In a move that is rich with symbolism, during the visit Jokowi made the first stop at Bukit Soeharto, named after the country’s former dictator, one of sites considered for the new capital. The proximity between Bukit Soeharto and airports in Balikpapan and Samarinda, two major cities in Kalimantan, made the location one of the strong contenders.

The plan to move the capital threw everyone off, simply because we have not been made aware of the thorough deliberation process behind it or if the move was made after a wide-ranging consultation with relevant stakeholders. Such a thorough decision-making process is necessary and Jokowi should weigh up all the options because relocating the capital will be neither easy nor cheap. National Development Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro estimates that building a new capital could take between five and 10 years and cost about US$33 billion. And if finally the government could muster the strength to build a gleaming new capital the next question would be if the new site would be worth all the effort.

Anyone who has ever visited Myanmar’s new capital city Naypyitaw 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 strength of the country’s military regime. Government employees may work in the city but many prefer to leave the city once the job is done, leaving most of its streets and office buildings empty.

The new capital city of Malaysia, Putrajaya, suffers from the same problem. Twenty years after it first opened, it continues to face difficulties in luring people to live there, although it lies only 25 kilometers from the old capital Kuala Lumpur. The new capital of Brazil, Brasilia, also has the quality of being unlovable. The absence of street life prompts people to shun Brasilia on the weekends to have fun in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

In most cases building a new capital has not paid off immediately. But if President Jokowi thinks that Jakarta, and its fast-expanding suburbs and exurbs, is no longer viable as the country’s capital city, he should find solutions to deal with the city’s problems instead of giving up and looking for a replacement.

Even some of the best capital cities in the world have to deal with classic problems like pollution, congestion and increasing crime rates. Paris may be the most beautiful city in the world, but it is also notorious for its poor air quality and persistent traffic jams. But despite the problems, neither President Emmanuel Macron nor his predecessors have ever thought of relocating the capital. If anything, the city’s Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo has stepped up efforts to reduce congestion and curb pollution, including by banning all types of vehicles from entering the City of Lights.

Beijing is known mostly for its smog and chronic gridlock in which a 10-mile journey can take up to 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 of the arguments put forward in favor of finding a new capital city is the fact that Jakarta is sinking very fast, at 25 centimeters a year. Many have predicted that by 2050, 95 percent of the city will be submerged. But this is a common problem affecting many coastal cities in the world (Mexico City is the fastest sinking city in the world, at 30 cm per year) and with tough action against groundwater exploitation the problem could be mitigated.

Jokowi’s plan to move the capital city also feels jarring, especially after the euphoric opening of Jakarta’s MRT, among the crucial steps toward mitigating the city’s traffic madness. It certainly feels cruel to abandon Jakarta after such a sweet honeymoon.

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Staff writer for The Jakarta Post.