Indonesia's new capital. The drama in the making

Indonesia's new capital. The drama in the making

By L. Sinaga

Many people say that a household is the smallest unit of a nation and a government is merely the large version of it. this is true when we realize that the most essential part of a household or a nation is the people living there. If our once nice and comfortable house and neighborhood now change into a polluted, crowded, congested, flooded area shall we move to another place? Certainly yes if we are so helpless and unable to persuade our community members to solve the environmental problems together.

When we observe the cause of the initial problems it’s evidently caused by some members of our own community. Do we have power and authority to rectify those culpable parties? If we are so weak and feeble we better shut up and skedaddle then. If we have decided to move out, have we checked the balance in our bank account?

Plans to move the government center away from Jakarta which suffers from congestion, floods and pollution have been debated for a few decades. There’s also a fear of sinking due to over-extraction of groundwater while parts of North Jakarta are falling at an estimated 25 cm a year due to subsidence.

If we were lazy and doing nothing instead of erecting seawalls or spillways and changing our attitude in managing our garbage, it would take forty years to lose one kilometer of coastal land in North Jakarta. If we are scaredy-cats who can’t stand to observe minor, common and logical natural consequences to happen then we can move out.

The capital of Indonesia will move to East Kalimantan, about 2,000km (1,250 miles) north-east of Jakarta. The new capital will be based in the regions of North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara. The new capital will be named Nusantara, which means archipelago. It’s in a forested area separated by sea from all major parts of Indonesia and it can only be visited by using ships or aeroplanes.

The air flight tickets from Java to Kalimantan vice versa will cost one month’s salary of average workers in Indonesia. So we can be sure nobody will go to that new government seat to make any protestations, demonstrations or uprising. Java island is home to 60% of Indonesian populations and more than half of its economic activities. If one secretly despised the clutch of Javanese culture and philosophy in government and cultural pedestal, then moving away by crossing a wide sea (around 2.340,3 km) is a logical move (if you catch the sarcasm drift here).

Public-Private Partnerships

Traffic jams in Jakarta are common, like in most major Asean cities – Unsplash

Let us pretend to forget many racial conflicts that had happened in Kalimantan in recent history, when local tribes violently rejected the immigrants from Java some years back. Let us pretend again to forget that the whole of Indonesia is within the Ring of Fire, also referred to as the Circum-Pacific Belt, a path along the Pacific Ocean characterized by active volcanoes frequent earthquakes and other unwanted natural disasters.

Moving the capital would cost around 466 trillion rupiah ($32.7bn), it is said that the government would fund around 19% or just a fifth of the costs while the rest is expected from public – private partnerships and private investment.

It’s assumed that the price tag includes new government offices and homes for about 1.5 million civil servants on a plot of 40,000 hectares. Logically government offices and their entire ministry offices will relocate there as well as parliament, military and police headquarters.

We can later expect many interesting stories and drama when the government implores the nations to move their embassies to a secluded place. We are just wondering if the above mentioned costs have included the anticipated costs for constructing hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, offices, houses, malls, new roads, bridges, railways, airports, ports, and so on.

And all of them will be built on debts, debts and debts while in the meantime we saw declining tax revenues and widening fiscal deficit.

Can’t we just move the capital to a nearby city like Bandung, Jonggol, Banten or just accept the fact that we will lose 25 cm of land per year and transform the flooded area into technology-based fisheries? Can’t we just improve the existing infrastructures, move the affected residents to safer areas and build an underground drainage tunnel as the Japanese did in Tokyo? We don’t need billions of dollars of debt to do so.

Colonial Era

Historically during the colonial era Indonesia had moved the capital several times i.e. to Yogyakarta and then to Bukittinggi. But the move didn’t entail a massive amount of new debts that will add more hardship and deprivation to the next generations. Some people might argue that moving a capital is not really uncommon because many countries had done so like Brazil, Myanmar, Uni Soviet, Kazakhstan and Nigeria.

But those new capitals were not built on huge debts; 81% of the costs obtained from debts . The high costs will also be endured continuously by Indonesian people who are required to be involved in the daily operations of the new city. In the least, even the expected workers and laborers to build Nusantara city will be required to borrow money just for transportation costs to reach the desolated location.

Some people might argue that moving the capital would even out social polarization and support more a balanced regional development or the potential to redistribute national wealth. But they don’t anticipate that private sectors and industries will not automatically move across the sea just because the national government moves their offices.

The evidence from experiences of other countries didn’t back up the rose-colored glasses assumptions. They also forgot that all skilled and resourceful people in Indonesia especially in Java island are Javanese and the Javanese hold dear the principle “Mangan ora mangan kumpul”.

They don’t like to be separated from their family members and their close-knitted community. Historically, the Javaneses were spread outside of their communities only due to coercion and colonialism. People are the most important and critical ingredient to any progress and civilization. The idea to put the center of power as far away as possible from the majority of the population is unthinkable.

Maybe we should learn something from our near fellow Asian neighbor Myanmar who moved their capital from Yangon/Rangoon to Naypyidaw where the distance was merely 367 km. The official explanation for moving the capital was that Yangon had become too congested and crowded with little room for future expansion of government offices.

Their drama goes with: “Entire villages disappeared from the map, their inhabitants drove off the land their families had farmed for centuries. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of displaced persons were ‘enlisted’ to help build the new capital. After the city was properly built the drama continued with stories of people being forced to move to Naypyidaw.

In Myanmar, moving the people and city to Naypyidaw – or forcing the people to move away – meant thousands of civil servants have been ordered to move and face considerable personal hardships. They threatened to impose harsh prison sentences or deny pensions to civil servants who refused to relocate; there have been reports of several arrests.

Sinking Feeling

Coal mining is already a disruptive element in Kalimantan – Already damaging to the environment – Unsplash

There is no place on earth that is free from natural calamities, especially in the Circum-Pacific Belt. But we will move out from Jakarta because we are afraid to see 25 centimeters of the North Jakarta claimed back by the sea annually. Maybe East Kalimantan has a low risk for flooding and landslides but the risk of forest fire is very high. East Kalimantan is prone to hotspots not only figuratively but also literally; Javanese versus the Kalimantan people in face to face encounters in close proximity is a never-ending drama in the making.

Let’s ponder again that the distance between Yangon to Naypyidaw is merely 367 km on dry land. The distance from Java to the new capital is 2.340,3 km and we need to cross a wide sea. Naypyidaw is a city built from scratch and now it’s super-deserted like a ghost town where people feel so awkward to be there.

In the case of the government of Myanmar, they have already moved at least one of its investment agencies back to Yangon. The Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), the principle body for foreign and domestic investment has returned to Yangon from Naypyidaw, to provide better access to businesses.

The entire directorate has been moved back to Yangon for the convenience of investors; it is easier for them to administer investors since most businesses are based in Yangon.

The vanity project of Naypyidaw city ended up being featured as a dark tourism destination on the TV show Dark Tourist in 2018.

One can wonder; did the current Indonesian administration consult the military before deciding to move the seat of power to a secluded location?

Any Defense Strategies?

Indeed one can only wonder. Is the move wise from a defense perspective and strategy? What happened to the idea that the highest power must be protected and secured at all costs? Did we ever see a queen bee separated as far as possible from her underlings?

What happened to the idea of safety in numbers? Is it safe to put oneself or the leader of the pack in an open space far away from the people who can help them? Didn’t they ever read invader chronicles where an invader army can conquer any country simply by capturing their leaders?

Many future invaders will think twice to invade Jakarta because they can not surmise what kind of defenses and labyrinths that had been prepared there since colonial era. Moreover, Jakarta has millions of population to guard the nation and they can get a million more instant support from nearby cities.

Any future invaders will get international outcry if they kill children, old women or unarmed civilians. The same scenario will not happen in a new secluded capital where reasonably it will be heavily secured with high technology weapons and heavily armed military personnels.

The death of one unarmed old woman by military invaders in Jakarta will get more international sympathy for Indonesia than the death of two millions of military personnels in Nusantara city.

The picture was taken by me on the rooftop of the Intiland Tower in South Jakarta City – Unsplash

From a military strategy and defense perspective, it is ill-advised and imprudent to move the seat of power to a secluded place far from rapid reinforcement. We need to reflect; it takes three days to travel by ship, which is a cheaper mode of transportation from Java to Kalimantan. Is it wise to position all-important and leading officials in an isolated forested location?

On a side note, the country and nation of Brunei has lived peacefully in prosperity may be because they have comfortable distance from other capitals in Kalimantan island.

If Indonesia moves the capital in proximity with Brunei Darussalam they might soon feel edgy and nervous. So far, no big invaders have the audacity to invade the small, peaceful and gentle Brunei because of the international condemnation that they will get.


But if the seat of power of Indonesia is in Kalimantan; when an invader army attacks Nusantara city in Kalimantan they can also get Brunei as their fat extra bonus.

Shall Indonesia make a neighborly discussion with Brunei before the move?

As a matter of fact, relocating a seat of power is not as simple as moving a house. They need to seriously consider the meaning of power or authority itself. Is it sane to claim power from a distant place? Is it wise to be protected by weapons but not by people?

Is it wise to put oneself in a position where one can not closely observe the dynamics of the majority of the people that one governs as well as in a position where one can not get quick help in urgent conditions? One can wonder who is the mastermind behind this preposterous idea of relocating a seat of power to a desolate location? What is the agenda? Who will benefit from all this snafu and fubar?

L. Sinaga is an Indonesian born in Pematang Siantar and works as a writer and an inventor.