Wednesday, September 27, 2023 | 15:40 WIB

A Move to Nusantara
A Break with Jakarta and History

Jakarta, IO – Indonesian Independence Day is the 17th of August and every year on the 17th of August, Indonesians place a flag in front of their house and neighbourhoods put up red and white banners and bunting. However, they say that this year is the last time the President celebrates the 17th of August in Jakarta. Next year, he will celebrate it in the new capital, Nusantara.

For some Jakartans this is infuriating. Behind their silent stoicism, the whole exercise of moving the capital arouses anger in them. When asked how they felt about this being the last Independence Day that the President of Indonesia would be spending in Jakarta and also how they feel about President Jokowi moving the capital to Nusantara in Kalimantan, most however, reacted with sadness and many with quiet indignation.

At a doctor’s clinic, a group of nurses provided a mixed response to the question. A Javanese nurse called Titiek said, “I feel sad that this is the last time the President will be with us to commemorate the 17th of August and I don’t like it that he is moving the capital to Kalimantan. All the civil servants will move and then everyone who provides them with goods and services, will move and most of them are Javanese. It will be so much more difficult for all of us to see our families in the villages on Java. It will be so much more expensive and take so much more time to see them. Moving the capital will just make everything so much more complicated.”

Surprisingly, amongst them was a nurse from Kalimantan. Her name was Rini and she commented, “I just find it strange wanting to move the capital to Kalimantan. We are not poor in Kalimantan, you know. We don’t need the capital to be in Kalimantan; we are rich without that. We have lots of natural resources and there are plenty of investors in Kalimantan. As far as I’m concerned, moving the capital, will just complicate matters and make everything more expensive. You know what I think? I think we will just end up having a town with all the problems of Jakarta: the traffic jams, the over-population and pollution.

If the capital is moved to Kalimantan, then there will be even more investors coming to Kalimantan and that will just make prices go up. Look, now the price of a return ticket from Pontianak to Bali is about Rp 4 million whereas from Jakarta the price is only about Rp1.500.000. Yes, Pontianak is further from Bali than Jakarta but not that much further. When the capital moves to Nusantara, mark my words those ticket prices will increase even more.”

Ober is a Batak nurse from North Sumatera with very different views. She declared, “Personally, I couldn’t care less if they move the capital.  I’ve never met the President in person. On the 17th of August, I just watch him on television. If the capital moves, I’ll still just be watching him on television. What difference does it make to me where he is in real time when I watch him on TV? And as for visiting our families – really in this day and age we can keep in touch with them through the telephone or zoom. Meeting them virtually can keep us connected. It will make no difference to me whatsoever, if the capital moves.”

A small group of people from one of the many small kampongs next to a wealthier residential areas were playing badminton on a quiet road with more affluent houses. There are no parks in this area of Jakarta and small boys are always trying to play football on the quieter neighbourhood roads whereas on the weekends, the adults try to play badminton on those roads. When asked during a lull in the badminton game, how they felt about this being the last 17th of August where the President would still be in Jakarta to celebrate Independence Day, the adults responded almost in chorus, “Sedih banget! Terribly sad!”

“I don’t like that he is moving the capital,” said Ibu Yanti a middle-aged lady wearing a black headscarf, getting ready to hit the badminton ball with a racquet. “It feels like he’s running away and just leaving us behind.”

“People say that it’s because he’s afraid that there’ll be another demonstration in Jakarta – like the one against Ahok in 2016,” commented Pak Yani who was on the other side of the imaginary badminton net where they were playing.

“Won’t it be possible to make such demonstrations in Nusantara?”

“Yes, but it will be more difficult and more expensive. Most of the demonstrators came from Java. They would have to cross the sea if the capital were in Kalimantan.”

“But why should he care if next year is his last year as president?”

Pak Heru shrugged. “Aren’t they trying to change the law so that his son can become vice-president?”

I turned towards the women. “But you feel sad that the President of Indonesia will no longer be celebrating Independence Day in Jakarta?”

A woman spoke up, “The dead are here, Ibu.”

“The dead?”

“Taman Pahlawan Nasional (the National Heroes’ Cemetery). All those people who died fighting for independence. They’re here…”

“Other towns have taman pahlawan (the heroes’ cemeteries) too, with people who died fighting,” commented one of the ladies, playing badminton.

“Yes, but in Jakarta its national. There are people buried here who died fighting from all over the country; not just from a single region or province. Jakarta Kota Proklamasi! Jakarta is the Proclamation City!”

Taman Pahlawan Nasional
Taman Pahlawan Nasional or the National Heroes’ Cemetery in Kalibata, South Jakarta opened on November 10th 1954.

“You mean independence was proclaimed here?”

“Yes… and the Sumpah Pemuda was announced here.”

The Sumpah Pemuda is the Youth Pledge of 1928 where young Indonesians pledged that we are one nation, one people and that we choose Malay as our national language. It was in a sense the spiritual birth of Indonesia.

‘And,’ I thought to myself, ‘Jakarta was also the place where the Cultural Polemics were held and where the Malay language was modernized so that when independence was declared on the 17th of August 1945, Indonesia already had a national language ready to communicate the 20th century to us and to unite the nation.’

Marcellia Lesar, a psychologist living in Jakarta commented that she was not in the least concerned about the President no longer celebrating Independence Day in Jakarta. “I feel disappointed with the government. Moving the capital and all those infrastructure programs are bringing this country into enormous debt. A debt that we and our children and grandchildren will have to pay off. I do not feel that the spirit of the struggle for independence has been truly carried out by the government so I am oblivious as to where the President celebrates Independence Day.”

Another Jakartan, Pak Karsim told me, “Moving the capital will move a lot of people out of Jakarta. Perhaps, that will help solve some of Jakarta’s problems.” Later, a Chinese Indonesian friend of mine said, “We have to move. The city is sinking. What do you want to do? I live in North Jakarta so I know how it feels.”

It is true that the capital is sinking and according to a BBC report from 2018, Jakarta is the fastest sinking city in the world; sinking at a rate of about 10 to 15 centimetres per year. It is said to already be 50% submerged below sea level. So, perhaps, we do have to move the capital.

However, if this is due to rising sea levels, why are Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore not experiencing the same fate as Jakarta? Jakarta is not the only city or even capital that is sinking. So are Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, New Orleans and many other cities. In the 20th century Tokyo sank 4 meters whereas Shanghai, Bangkok and New Orleans sank about 2 meters. However, what the government seldom addresses, is that cities are sinking not due mostly to sea levels rising. The reality is that if on average a coastal area experience about 3 millimetres of a rise in sea levels per year, they experience about 7 millimetres of ground level sinking due to slow subsidence. Land subsidence levels are far higher than sea levels rising and in Jakarta they are caused by the extraction of groundwater from coastal aquafers, by very deep wells (land subsidence can also be caused by the extraction of oil, for example).  It is mostly this groundwater extraction that has caused Jakarta to sink more than three metres from 1947 to 2010, and because of it much of the city is still sinking by about 10 centimetres per year.

I once heard a Dutch expert on water management explain that the problem is not the water needed by most of Jakarta’s population (which mostly comes from dams such as the Jatiluhur Dam) but from the water being pumped out of the ground by high-rise buildings – and amongst the major culprits are the government ministries which have many high-rise buildings in their compounds; a fact, the government does not like to face because water pumped out of the ground is free of charge for the government whereas water from the dams must be paid for. If the capital is moved will the ministries stop pumping out ground water in Jakarta? The Japanese were able to substantially prevent Tokyo from sinking further by addressing this issue.

In May Jakarta ranked among the 10 cities with the highest air pollution levels in the world, however for August it topped the list. (IO/Faisal Ramadhan)

Another major problem is air pollution. According to Kompas, Indonesia has the worst air pollution levels in Southeast Asia with 2,5 mikrons of pollution particles making breathing Jakarta air a health hazard. It is the town with the third worst pollution levels in Indonesia (after Tangerang and greater Tangerang).

Last Wednesday however, Reuters reported that according to data from Swiss air quality technology company IQAir, Jakarta had become the city with the worst pollution levels in the world – leaving many Jakartans furious and with demands on the government for solutions. (Since last May, Jakarta’s pollution levels which normally rank it as the 10th most polluted city in the world had become the worst pollution levels globally). Jakarta is one of the most gridlocked cities in the world and is also situated close to 16 coal-fired power plants, both of which are major contributors to Jakarta’s pollution. The President blamed the prolonged dry season for worsening pollution levels even further.

Another question is where it leaves Jakarta economically and socially if all government ministries are moved to Kalimantan. It is nearly 30 years since Germany moved its capital from Bonn to Berlin. When the capital was moved, ministries such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry for Economic Development, the Ministry of Education and Research, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Labour and Welfare, left substantial parts of their operations and staff in Bonn – and 30 years later, they are still in Bonn. One ministry in fact remained almost completely in Bonn namely, the Ministry for Digitalization and Infrastructure. There are also government institutions such as the German version of the auditor’s office for government institutions which have maintained their headquarters in Bonn. This did not then create a chaotic situation in Bonn.

Meanwhile, many of the empty government buildings left behind by government institutions and ministries that moved to Berlin, were taken over by the United Nations which opened offices for several of its institutions in Bonn. Some buildings were taken over by universities. This all helped to make moving the capital to Berlin far less traumatic for Bonn. Many German civil servants also preferred continuing to live in Bonn as they felt that their quality of life was better in Bonn than in Berlin. Ministries mostly moved the political parts of their operations to Berlin, such as political appointees, analysts and secretariats and allowed many of the more administrative or bureaucratic staff to remain in Bonn.

What happened in the end was a compromise decision between Bonn and Berlin. There was a negotiation and discussion where the needs of both cities were taken into consideration and a decision was reached which ensured a good outcome for both cities.

So, what is the plan for dealing with all that Mr President? Air pollution levels and sinking cities (and it is not just Jakarta that is sinking along the coast in Java) are just two of the massive problems that Jakarta faces and they are not things that can be dealt with, only by the Governor of Jakarta. To solve such major problems there has to be a national plan and national assistance.

When Mrs Clinton visited Indonesia as Secretary of State, just after President Obama was elected, everywhere she went Indonesians asked her the same question: Where is President Obama? Why isn’t he here? And she always gave the same answer, “A president’s job is to solve problems – and not just any problems but the most difficult problems. So, when a president is so well-liked in a place as Mr Obama is in Indonesia, he saves going there for when he has really tough problems on his plate.”

Mrs Clinton had it right in that the main task of a president is to solve problems. And by problems, what is meant is the really big problems. The problems that private citizens and governors of provinces cannot solve on their own. Is moving the capital to Kalimantan a major problem? No, it is a medium size problem. Solving the problems of Jakarta and other towns along the coast of Java – now those are major problems. So, one cannot blame Jakartans for asking, “What is the plan Mr President, for solving Jakarta’s massive problems?”

The objection is not moving the capital to Kalimantan. There are some well-argued reasons for that – but in that case, Jakarta has a minimum of at least four demands:

Firstly, the government has made a plan including the financing for moving the capital to Kalimantan. Now, make a plan including the financing for solving Jakarta’s problems.

Secondly, Jakarta must remain a federal or national city or daerah istimewa tingkat I. It should not become a provincial city under the Governor of West Java.

Thirdly, the central government should not move all its ministries to Nusantara. Leave at least one or two in Jakarta or like Berlin and Bonn leave at least parts of ministries in Jakarta.

Fouthly, pass a law whereby every President must be in Jakarta to commemorate the 17th of August each year. We are the proclamation city and it is here that the dead from all over Indonesia who sacrificed their lives for our independence, lie. The President does not have to spend the whole day in Jakarta, but raise the flag here, lay flowers on the graves at Taman Pahlawan Kalibata and sing the anthem here. After that, he can go to Medan or Ambon or Jayapura or wherever else he chooses but on this one day he should come to Jakarta.

Jakarta street merchant looking at cart selling flags for Independence Day. (Photo credit: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

At present the feeling is that the government is only concerned with what suits the government and Nusantara. The well-being and functioning of Jakarta and its inhabitants, is no longer of any great interest. Jakarta deserves better than that. It has been the capital of these islands for four hundred years and the prototype for a nation called Indonesia. Perhaps, one Jakartan expressed it best when she compared moving the capital with no real plan for solving Jakarta’s problems to, “…a child they no longer care about – and so they are just leaving it behind…”

What Jakarta needs now is an advocate who will speak up and fight for Jakarta. Someone strong, intelligent, who truly understands the needs of this city and cares about it and who can negotiate on Jakarta’s behalf with the central government and a president who seems to think that by moving to a new capital he longer has any responsibilities for the old capital.

In the past, every presidential hopeful from the provinces wanted to become Governor of Jakarta as a stepping stone to the presidency. Will everyone want to become Governor of Nusantara, instead now? Perhaps, not. Jakarta still has factories, industries and more inhabitants than any other city in Indonesia. Well, Jakarta is tired of being used as a stepping stone for the presidency with some for as little as a year. It is tired of governors who never held any real affection for the Big Durian. For the next Governor of Jakarta hopeful, Jakarta’s message is “Show us how you will negotiate with the central government on Jakarta’s behalf.” And for the President the message is ‘Where is the comprehensive plan for solving Jakarta’s massive problems?’ (Tamalia Alisjahbana)


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