For as long as Indonesia has existed as an independent state, its leaders have talked about moving the capital away from its present location in Jakarta, on the island of Java, to a new, purpose-built site elsewhere in the country. The country’s founding president, known by the mononym Sukarno, was said to have favoured a large patch of forest in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. He ordered the construction of a new city there in 1957. His long-time successor, Suharto, who ruled from 1967-98, proposed another spot just 40 kilometres from Jakarta and seemed serious enough about it that property developers began buying up land in the area.
Neither plans ever came to anything, and nor did any other suggestions, though the site in Kalimantan has since grown to become the small city of Palangka Raya. So when President Joko Widodo announced in 2017 that his administration was going to open the conversation once again, there was a lot of scepticism. “Talk of relocating the Indonesian capital is just that – talk,” local journalist Febriana Firdaus wrote. “The plan is re-announced almost every year, and we repeat the same discussion.”
But in April last year, the government said this time around the plans would go ahead. In August, Mr Widodo declared that the new capital would be built in East Kalimantan at a cost of US$32.7 billion. Now the plan appears more concrete than ever, as the Indonesian president has solicited investment in the project from around the world and Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, is expected to join the project’s steering committee. Construction is expected to begin this year and is due to be completed by 2024. Even if the deadline ends up shifting a little, it looks as though this iteration of the move is really going to happen.
There are plenty of reasons that it should. Jakarta has many charms but the horrendous traffic jams in a mega-conurbation of 30 million people are not among them, as any visitor can testify. More seriously, the coastal city is sinking. North Jakarta has sunk by 2.5 metres in the past 10 years, more than half of the capital is already below sea level and it is predicted that large parts of it will be under water by 2050.
This is partly the effect of decades of excessive draining of aquifers, which are subsiding as the water is pumped out but also steadily rising sea levels. There have been plans for years to build a “Giant Sea Wall Jakarta” but the results so far are best summed up by a term widely used in South-East Asia: Nato – “no action, talk only”. Meanwhile, nearly 70 people died in floods in the greater Jakarta area this month. In the long term, it is possible that a significant area of the city may be claimed by the sea.
If that is a negative cause to move the capital, a positive one is that it would shift some power to the less densely populated islands, which have always resented how Java-centric the government is. A smart, green metropolis fit for the 21st century – which is the aim – would spur development in comparatively sleepy Borneo and serve as a showcase for a country that has often struggled to be as attractive to investors as successive administrations would have liked.
It would also cement the legacy of Mr Widodo – who is term-limited to stand down in 2024 – as a truly transformative president. Western liberal commentators who assumed Mr Widodo was of like mind have been disappointed by his relatively conservative approach to societal and religious issues. They probably misread him to begin with. As he indicated in his second inauguration speech last year, he is more concerned with economic and bureaucratic reforms to improve delivery and raise overall standards of living – and part of that includes a strong emphasis on infrastructure.
His dream, he said, was that “by 2045, after a century of independence, inshallah, Indonesia will have escaped the middle-income trap” and will have “become an advanced country". Everyone could agree with that goal, though perhaps not necessarily with the means to achieve it.
For instance, the president faces significant trade-union opposition to some of the legislation he wants to pass that would free up the labour market. This past Monday, thousands protested against the bill outside parliament, while inside it a union leader told MPs that “the government wants to build a heaven for businessmen, but they don’t realise that it will bring hell for workers".
Mr Widodo has assembled a grand coalition that includes the rival he defeated last year, Prabowo Subianto. On paper he should have the votes to push forward on his presidential agenda. One advantage of setting up in Borneo – although I am sure this had no bearing on his decision – will be that governments will not run the risk of being confronted by angry crowds. This is not about dodging accountability, which regular elections provide. But protests in Jakarta have sometimes been hijacked by dangerous populists who have pressured politicians into making bad decisions. The country's still-developing democracy might be better off protected from such disruptions.
All that is for the future, however. For now, President Widodo deserves congratulations for bringing the dream of a new capital for his country closer to reality than ever before. It is not only a necessary move but could even serve as a beacon for the region’s wider development. Indonesia and South-East Asia as a whole deserve nothing less.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum