Will ASEAN Countries Move Their Capitals?

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Will ASEAN Countries Move Their Capitals?

Amid traffic jams and flooding, could moving a nation’s capital ease the pain?

If things fall apart and the center cannot hold, will anarchy be unleashed upon the world, as the poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote? Maybe. But there is a less chaotic alternative: Move the center.

Several Southeast Asian governments have seriously contemplated the idea of relocating their respective political centers for many years. Indeed, some already have. Malaysia partly moved its federal center from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya in 1999, while Myanmar transferred its capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005. 

Meanwhile, officials in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are discussing proposals to move their national capitals elsewhere due to worsening urban problems, such as congestion, traffic jams and flooding. Moving the seat of power could be crucial if leaders don’t take bold actions to prevent the collapses of Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila. Yes, these cities are literally and figuratively in danger of collapsing. 

The three-month Bangkok flooding in 2011 reminded everyone of scientific studies warning that the city has been sinking by 3 centimeters every year. In Jakarta, the disastrous floods in January that paralyzed the city proved that the five-year flood cycle is bound to get worse. On the other hand, Metro Manila is not only flood-prone but also lies along several earthquake fault lines.

The idea of transferring the capital is not totally absurd or even particularly radical. Quezon City was the Philippine capital from 1948 to 1976. A few years ago, former President Gloria Arroyo hinted that she was amenable to the suggestion of moving the capital to Cebu City. In 1957, Indonesian President Sukarno proposed the transfer of the country’s capital from Jakarta to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan.

But the decision to relocate won’t be an easy one to make today. The cost alone would probably cause politicians to baulk. Myanmar reportedly spent $4 billion to build a new government center and housing facilities in Naypyidaw. Then there is no assurance that transferring to a new capital would spur progress or that it would ease the woes of the old capital.

Instead of relocating the capital, the other alternative is to improve the current infrastructure of Southeast Asia’s megacities and make them more resilient to the harsh impact of climate change. The building of an 80-kilometer flood prevention wall and a mangrove swamp 300 meters offshore are being proposed to protect Bangkok from rising sea levels. Meanwhile, Indonesian House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie floated the idea of reclaiming 2,000 hectares of land from the sea in North Jakarta and transforming it into the country`s new capital city.

Building a second capital that would complement the current capital is actually worth considering. This is actually the role undertaken by Putrajaya, Malaysia’s other capital city. Kuala Lumpur remains the national capital, as well as the commercial and cultural hub of Malaysia, but federal administrative offices are located in the planned city of Putrajaya. Malaysia’s king and prime minister rule and govern from Kuala Lumpur but the country’s federal officials work and live in Putrajaya, 25 kilometers south of the capital. 

The push to build alternative capital cities is expected to continue as long as the deterioration in quality of life in Southeast Asia’s premier urban centers is not reversed or addressed adequately. Just last week Philippine senator Antonio Trillanes has proposed the formation of a commission that would study the feasibility of transferring the country’s capital. 

"Metro Manila is a capital which could hardly stand proud in the ranks of national capitals throughout the world," Trillanes argued.

The next floods or earthquake disaster to hit the region will definitely revive and intensify the discussion about transferring or creating a new capital in the affected country. But what should be emphasized in these debates is not just the nomination of a second capital but the need to implement a development model that would lead to the holistic progress of cities and rural towns as well. In other words, the challenge is not just building a grand capital adorned with majestic buildings and palaces but the creation of livable habitats.