Moving beyond colonial capitals

SEPTMEBER 1 — Indonesia seems to be serious about moving its capital. Following years of feasibility studies, President Joko Widowi announced last week that a new site had been chosen in Borneo’s East Kalimantan.

While the location spanning  both the North Penajam Paser Regency and Kutai Kartanegara Regency will require approval from Parliament, it seems that one of the most ambitious construction and administrative projects in the region might start as early as next year. 

The reason for the move, in short, is that Jakarta with over 10 million people and over 30 million in its broader metropolitan region is increasingly overburdened.  

The nation’s financial, business, education and technological centre, the city has — for years — struggled with massive immigration, snarling traffic and natural disasters.   

Perhaps most seriously of all, large parts of Jakarta are now sinking. 

The swampy terrain that makes up a large portion of the city is collapsing as aquifers have been tapped and layers of concrete and building put pressure on the surface.  

The sea has been encroaching on the sinking terrain, leaving whole neighbourhoods submerged.   

So, the need for a new capital has long been clear. 

Borneo (the Indonesian portion of which is known as Kalimantan) is also a clear choice for a new city.  

Unlike Jakarta and the surrounding island of Java, Borneo is underpopulated.  

East Kalimantan is lightly inhabited and relatively free from natural disasters, giving planners a veritable blank slate.  

There are also strategic imperatives at play. Kalimantan is much closer to the centre of Indonesian archipelago. 

Java might be home to most of Indonesia’s population but its location towards the far west of the immense island chain has made it harder for the government to focus on its more far-flung eastern islands and regions.  

There have also been accusations of Javanese dominance of government and the economy. 

The new centre will be a centre for all Indonesians and help administrators keep an eye on the promising eastern territories and restive Papua. 

It’s a bold move. Indonesia will be the first major Asean economy to move away from its colonial era capital.  

Putrajaya only slightly shifted Malaysia’s centre of gravity from the colonial centre of Kuala Lumpur.  

Singapore and Manilla remain colonial cities. Myanmar, of course, did controversially shift its capital from Yangon to Nay Pi Daw but the move has received more criticism than credit.  

Indonesia is moving its centre of power to an entirely different island over 1,000 kilometres from its current location.  

To succeed, it will have to create infrastructure and transfer population on quite an unprecedented scale. 

Success might mean the more equitable distribution of resources throughout the archipelago with Jakarta emerging as a more manageable purely business centre. 

But failure could lead to a massive wastage of resources, government debts — a half-finished capital — and a failing, neglected Jakarta.  

The stakes are high, but I wish Indonesia every success in this endeavour. Perhaps the map of Asean will be changing in the years to come. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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