An expert's point of view on a current event.

Indonesia Floats Yet Another Plan to Move Its Sinking Capital

Big plans to relocate from Jakarta keep disappearing into nothing. Will this time be different?

A section of newly constructed offshore seawall on April 27, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A section of newly constructed offshore seawall on April 27, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ed Wray/Getty Images

In 1957, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, took a 36-hour boat trip across a river to the small city of Palangkaraya, soon to be christened as the capital of the Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. Sukarno dreamed that the city could be the capital for “Maphilindo,” an imagined future confederation made of a never-realized union with Malaya and the Philippines.

But in the meantime, Sukarno thought it might also do as a capital for Indonesia, a nation that with its 260 million people and sprawling islands has always had trouble determining exactly where the center should be. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, an officer with the Dutch East India Company, placed the capital in Batavia, the administrative center of the Dutch colony. It later took a new name: Jakarta. After the declaration of independence from the Netherlands in 1945, the new government bounced around the islands, avoiding Dutch retribution and solidifying local rule, to cities as far-flung as Yogyakarta on Java and Bukittinggi on Sumatra, nearly 1,000 miles away from each other. It was not until 1964 that Sukarno declared Jakarta as the official capital.

Palangkaraya stayed a sleepy provincial city of a couple of hundred thousand people—compared with Jakarta’s 10 million-plus. The idea of it being the capital faded from memory—until now.

On April 29, the newly reelected president, Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), proposed a $33 billion shifting of the capital to another city—an idea that hadn’t come up in his campaign. Citing traffic congestion, overpopulation, and flooding, Indonesia’s planning minister, Bambang Brodjonegoro, said the new capital would strictly be administrative; economic and business epicenters would remain in Jakarta. Palangkaraya tops the short list of possible sites.

But this isn’t the first time Indonesia has hoped to change things up. The idea of shifting the capital away from Jakarta keeps coming up—and it keeps failing. So far, there are not a lot of signs that this latest proposal will be any more likely to materialize than the failed attempts of the past.

Jakarta certainly has plenty of problems. Its endemic traffic makes even short journeys potential nightmares, and congestion is estimated to cost the government $7 billion a year in lost productivity. There are also problems with pollution: Jakarta is the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, according to a Greenpeace report. Social inequality translates to slums and illegal land occupation.

Most of all, it’s sinking. Rising sea levels are bad enough, but the capital also suffers from serious subsidence. Buildings and citizens extract most of their water from underground, rendering it susceptible to collapse. The land subsidence expert Heri Andreas told the BBC last year that submersion might be imminent. “If we look at our models, by 2050 about 95 percent of North Jakarta will be submerged,” he said.

So the idea of getting critical government functions out of Jakarta—and thus either shrinking the city or limiting its growth—is tempting. In a lengthy Instagram post, Jokowi asked his followers to give him recommendations for the prospective new capital. In a message of intent, he arrived on Tuesday for a three-day trip in the East Kalimantan city of Balikpapan to “scout for locations,” according to a tweet by Indonesia’s cabinet secretariat.

Moving the capital would also stoke growth in areas outside of Java, where Jakarta sits. Indonesia’s colonial past has backed Java’s—or western Indonesia’s—dominance. Almost 60 percent of Indonesia’s population is on Java, thanks to a mixture of good fields and political closeness to past colonizers. The island is a magnet—and Jakarta its strongest pole.

This dominance continues in the present. Enny Sri Hartati, an economist at the Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance, told Foreign Policy that infrastructure is predominantly built on Java, where it dominates most sectors other than extractive industries. “Infrastructure follows the people, so people gravitate towards Java,” she said, adding that it also meant better services like health and education.

These might all seem like good reasons for getting the capital out of Jakarta. But the idea has been proposed plenty of times before—and never happened. Many cities have been pitched: Jonggol in West Java (Suharto) and Sidenreng Rappang regency in South Sulawesi (B.J. Habibie). Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor, formed a special team called Vision Indonesia 2033 to measure the approximately $7 billion plan.

“Big projects in Indonesia generally develop in one of two ways: as a boondoggle that attracts corruption but eventually gets done or as a ‘clean’ project that never gets done,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The challenge for Jokowi is to ensure it doesn’t turn into a boondoggle, but … he’ll have trouble attracting support if patronage networks don’t see themselves benefiting from the project.”

Nirwono Joga, an urban analyst, added that building a new city from scratch could take up 20 years—exceeding Jokowi’s second and final five-year term. “We can plausibly fear inflation. If it’s [$33 billion] today, what do you think it will cost in 20 years?” he said.

For the move to actually work, then, it needs networks of patronage and a real impetus behind it. Jokowi may have extra impetus to get it through, thanks to his desire to build a legacy—one based largely on ambitious infrastructure policies. The suddenness of Jokowi’s announcement could mean the urgency of the ecological crisis has really hit. Or it could mean that the plan is a cynical, attention-grabbing move that, like those before it, will dissolve into bureaucracy and nothingness.

Stanley Widianto is an Indonesian journalist.