ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

The Many Reasons to Move Indonesia’s Capital

There are a variety of rationales put forward for the decision to relocate the capital, some more prominently articulated than others.

By Giora Eliraz for
The Many Reasons to Move Indonesia’s Capital
Credit: Bayu Syaits on Unsplash

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced last year an ambitious plan to relocate the capital city, namely the seat of government, from Jakarta, in the most populous and politically dominant island of Java, to a  yet-to-be-built city in the province of East Kalimantan on the huge island of Borneo. Jakarta would remain the financial and business hub of the Indonesian archipelago. The construction of this billion-dollar project is planned to start this year, pending parliamentary approval, and 2024 has been set as a target date for the first stage of manning the new capital. Investors both inside and outside Indonesia have expressed interest in the project; its major funding will be based on state-owned entities and the private sector. Meanwhile the government is preparing a bill to seek parliamentary approval.

The idea of removing the capital from Jakarta, let alone off Java, reveals deep political, cultural and historical insights. Jakarta has functioned as the national capital since Indonesia began to realize its independence in late 1949. Known as Batavia, it served before that, since early 17th century, as the center for Dutch East Indies colonial rule. One may perceive the relocation of the capital from Java to an outer island as somewhat puzzling, given that Jokowi is largely viewed as a leader who is deeply rooted in the Javanese political and cultural context.

Officially, two main arguments have been brought forth. First, Jakarta’s serious chronic urban problems — such as overcrowding, traffic congestion, and intensive floods. The relocation is believed to relieve some of the heavy burden on Jakarta. The new capital, it is argued, would present more favorable conditions: a smart, modern, green forest-like city and a melting pot of future technological innovations. The government says the huge forests in the planned new capital’s region will be protected and pollution minimized by using renewable energy and clean energy sources. Yet, environmental activists fear the move will have negative effects on the region: damaging the forests that serve as significant habitat for rainforest wildlife spices, including the remaining orangutan population; increasing pollution that is already on the rise there due to coal mining, palm oil industries and extensive forest fires; posing difficulties for local communities which dependent on the dwindling forests; escalating conflicts in the sparsely populated region between indigenous communities and flocking migrants, as well as increasing land grabs. 

But Jakarta’s severe urban difficulties are not enough to explain the capital relocation away from Java, let alone that an option of moving the capital to another place in Java, not far from Jakarta, was also studied. Hence, a second official argument seems to suggest the rationale to move the capital off Java. According to Jokowi, the relocation to East Kalimantan aims to realize a national vision of economic equality and of an advanced Indonesia, since the capital city also represents the nation’s progress. Hence, it seems that this move indicates that the Jokowi administration’s understanding that the national paradigm of development should be changed from Java-centric to Indonesia-centric. Indeed, regional inequality between the inner Islands, Java in particular, and the outer islands has been, for decades, a major source of concern and tension, in particular over an alleged discriminating Java-centric policy in the field of development. 

In reality, Jakarta’s urban problems have for decades sparked discussions about whether the capital city would need to be moved. Sukarno, the nation’s founding president and an inspiration figure for Jokowi, raised as early as the 1950s the idea of moving the capital to Central Kalimantan. Interestingly, like now, Kalimantan was mentioned in the same context as a geographic center of Indonesia, symbolizing a national center. But talk about the issue had never progressed. Even the idea of capital relocation raised during Jokowi’s first tenure was said to quickly dissipate. And then, talk recurred soon after Jokowi’s reelection in 2019, followed by a concrete plan.

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Perhaps there are less visible and articulated considerations behind the idea. In recent years Jakarta has been used too often by zealous Islamist groups as a central stage for demonstration of power, conducting massive street politics full of hatred towards the “other,”, challenging both the secular oriented values of the state and  the process of building democracy, and even aiming political arrows at the president. In fact Islamist groups have found the public sphere of Jakarta a very effective stage for gaining greater media attention, being involved in national politics, and mobilizing people by translating their socioeconomic grievances into the Islamist agenda. So perhaps Jokowi, who shows now a greater ambition to fight religious radicalism, seeks to deprive the Islamist groups of such advantages by moving the capital to a region where they enjoy much less support and have already met certain active opposition among the people. 

Seemingly paradoxically, Javanese cultural perception of locations might enrich understanding of move as well. Location is argued to be a key determinant in the Javanese worldview. Thus, unrest, disorder, and conflict suggest that a certain location is a socially “wrong place.” In fact, through a wider perspective that goes back beyond recent years, Java, and Jakarta in particular, carry the burden of historical narratives full of tension, conflict and blood feuds. So perhaps the zealous antagonist activity of the Islamists at the heart of Jakarta in recent years has pushed the government, even unconsciously, to translate into action a decades-long idea of moving the capital, not just outside of Jakarta but off Java. Nevertheless, there is enough ground to assume that the process of decision-making related to the relocation, the same as other state decisions, has been deeply grounded in systematic rational reasoning rather than cultural perceptions.

This ambitious plan may join other indicators in pointing to Jokowi’s intention to use his second term for making his own mark on the pages of Indonesia’s modern history as a faithful guardian of the founding values of Indonesia securing the colorful fabric of society as well as a national leader who led the entire archipelago into faster, substantial economic growth and development.

Dr. Giora Eliraz is an affiliate instructor at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle; research associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking (FORTH).