Indonesia’s Getting a New Capital City ?!?

After over a year of speculation and rumor, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has announced his plan to move Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to the island of Borneo. The study team has selected a site between Kutai Kertanegara and North Penajam Paser regencies, or roughly here, between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. Here’s a pull-out view that compares this location to the rest of Indonesia, including Jakarta.

This all seems rather sudden—for most of the past 20 years the idea of moving Indonesia’s capital has seemed like a pipe dream—but it in reality it is not. The idea of moving Indonesia’s capital is an old initiative dating back to the 1950s, and Indonesia’s first president Sukarno even outlined some plans for moving it to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan province. There are at least four things going on behind this new initiative to develop a new capital city.

One is that Jakarta is a difficult spot to have one of the world’s great cities.* It is literally sinking. It is also vulnerable to earthquakes, flooding, and all sorts of other natural disasters, although to my understanding it’s rather insulated from tropical cyclones, so that’s something. From the perspective of a country looking for a capital city that won’t stand a plausible chance of being underwater in the next 50 years, a move away from Jakarta makes good sense. The Indonesian part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, is (unlike much of the rest of Indonesia) not seismically active. The study team also considers it to be relatively safe from cyclones and other types of natural disasters. Hopefully the team will pick a good site that is not actually in a peat swamp (see here).**

And hopefully the prevailing winds from Borneo’s peat swamp fires blow in a different direction most of the time.

The second issue is that Jakarta is massively overcrowded and shows no sign of getting better any time soon. Population growth in the greater Jakarta region (Jabodetabek) is a huge problem (see here).

This kind of population growth means that traffic is a constant problem, as are administrative issues such as public services, sanitation, and so forth. Jakarta recently opened its own MRT, and that will help; and President Jokowi built his national reputation by serving as a capable Governor of Jakarta, so it is possible to make some progress in administering the city. But managing infrastructure and population growth will be a perennial problem for Jakarta. A fresh start in a sparsely populated territory seems attractive in that regard, although Jakarta watchers have correctly noted that moving the administrative function of government to somewhere else won’t do much to address these problems for Jakarta itself.

The third issue is about the concentration of Indonesian politics in the island of Java. Java is Indonesia’s most populous island by far,*** and the country’s plurality ethnic group (the Javanese) originate there. It is common to draw contrasts between Java and “the Outer Islands.” Even though Jakarta is not located in an ethnic Javanese-majority region of Java, the capital’s location on Java inevitably biases national politics towards Javan issues. Moving the capital is a way to decenter politics, away from Java and in favor of a city which is equally inconvenient for everyone except for the relatively small percentage of the population who lives in the province of East Kalimantan.****

One might be tempted to draw a parallel to the creation of Brasilia or Canberra here, but the analogy doesn’t quite fit. Both Brazil and Australia have two large cities that via for primacy (San Paulo/Rio de Janeiro, Sydney/Melbourne), and a high modernist planned capital in a sparsely populated and inconvenient area is a nice compromise. Jakarta is clearly Indonesia’s primate city.

And the fourth and final issue: Jokowi’s preference for infrastructure development (see this nice piece by Eve Warburton for more). Actually breaking ground on a new capital city would be a capstone for Jokowi’s infrastructure push in his second term in office. But as Eve’s analysis suggests, we ought to take care in attributing too much developmentalist coherence to this initiative. Just as important, surely, are those economic interests who stand to profit handsomely from the tenders and contracts that will come from building a new capital city from scratch. Let’s hope they do better for Indonesia than they did for North Haverbrook, Ogdenville, and Brockway.

For some more thoughts, check out this recent podcast I did with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


* That’s right, Jakarta is indeed one of the world’s great cities. The Big Durian. Back in the day, Daniel Ziv’s Jakarta Inside Out was the go-to reference for why that is.
** Something something drain the swamp something something.
*** A handy reference: twice the population of Great Britain, but in half the area.
**** Even the rest of the population of Indonesian Borneo will not have easy access to this new capital unless there is a major upgrade in that island’s infrastructure. Having driven part of the “Trans-Kalimantan Highway” (roughly here to here) several years back, I can attest that it’s not going to be very easy to get to Indonesia’s new capital from anywhere other than Samarinda or Balikpapan.