Indonesia’s planned new capital sparks criticism — including of its name

Approved move from Jakarta to the island of Borneo could cost $34B

National Weekend Edition /
Jan.January 29, 2022 02:00 PM

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Jakarta and the orangutans of Borneo (Wikipedia, iStock)

Indonesia’s three-year-old plan to move its capital, Jakarta, to the island of Borneo, is drawing criticism for everything from its environmental impact to its very name.

The nation’s House of Representatives voted the move into law last week, choosing what critics call the “Java-centric” name of Nusantara, according to Nikkei and the Associated Press.

That’s on top of the impact from plopping a 1,000-square-mile city in Borneo’s East Kalimantan province, home to orangutans and leopards among other wildlife. That’s not to mention the influence it will have on Borneo’s indigenous people, a spiraling price tag and the project’s potential for corruption.

A move from Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, stems from global warming, urban management and population growth. Jakarta is home to 11 million people and may be the world’s most rapidly sinking city: Fully one third of it may be under water by 2050, five years after the move is expected to be complete. Most blame uncontrolled groundwater extraction made worse as the Java Sea rises because of climate change.

The city’s air and ground water are heavily polluted. It floods frequently. Its streets are so clogged that urban congestion costs the economy an estimated $4.5 billion a year. And it’s prone to earthquakes.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo says a new capital will solve many problems. It would house fewer people in a new “sustainable city” with good transportation. It also means a city integrated into the natural environment in a region not prone to natural disasters.

“The construction of the new capital city is not merely a physical move of government offices,” Widodo said last week ahead of the plan’s approval. “The main goal is to build a smart new city, a new city that is competitive at the global level.”

The plan would mean moving some 1.5 million civil servants more than 1,200 miles across the Java Sea to Borneo’s northeast coast. Other nations that have moved capitals include Pakistan, Brazil and Myanmar.

Then there’s that name. The term “nusantara” was introduced by the Majapahit kingdom, a Java-based empire from the 13th to 15th centuries that conquered the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

“There is nothing more Javanese colonialist than Nusantara as the name of the capital city,” read one viral tweet.

Others say the decision was rushed. A committee deliberated for just six weeks, with scant public input, before the vote.

It also means committing $34 billion to the ambitious project amid a pandemic. Widodo said three years ago that about a fifth of the cost would be paid for by the government, with the remainder coming from private investment.

Yet potential investors such as Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and SoftBank Group Chairman Masayoshi Son, who once expressed interest, are no longer being mentioned. A state website declared — and then rescinded — that the nation would pick up half the cost.

Furthermore, the recent arrest of a Borneo regent over alleged bribery has raised concern about the vulnerability of such large infrastructure projects to corruption. Such graft has occurred in the past, leading to the abandonment of very costly projects, according to Nikkei.

“Jokowi has been weakening law enforcement institutions and neglecting bureaucratic reform principles that would help implement the capital move with lower corruption risks,” consultant Eurasia Group said in December. “Under current conditions, there are risks that the capital move would create conflicts of interest, markup and kickback scandals, legal recriminations, and delays.”

[Nikkei Asia, AP] — Dana Bartholomew





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