Will Nusantara be Jokowi’s greatest legacy or his unmitigated folly?


Moving capitals is not necessarily a good move. There have been stories of reasonable successes, but equally as many failures.

KUALA LUMPUR – For better or worse, it is really happening. The House of Representatives passed on Tuesday the state capital bill into law that will provide a legal basis for the government’s plan to relocate the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

The law, which has undergone speedy deliberation lasting less than four months, gives the green light to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambitious plan, which is expected to cost US$32 billion, and which has been met with scepticism.

Yet, the former mayor of Surakarta, Central Java, who built brick-by-brick his national-level political clout in Jakarta has remained undeterred.

With strong support from the international community—ranging from Japanese conglomerate Softbank to the United Arab Emirates—the President now can begin construction of the new capital, which may not be ready when he completes his term in 2024.

There was much doubt when Jokowi first announced his vision just after he secured his second term in 2019. The project is not like any other. It was not like when Malaysia moved its seat of government from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya, which is only about 34 kilometres away. Or other instances of capital city swapping in other countries, which mostly involve the same landmass.

Moving the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan may bring about not only political and administrative transformations but also cultural ones. Jakarta has been the centre of government and business since even before Indonesia’s independence. It has faced wars and revolutions that have made Indonesia what it is today and the embodiment of the superiority of Java over other islands in the country.

While people blame much of the inequality in wealth and development between Java and the rest of the country on the centralized government of the Soeharto era, the development and decentralization system that was established in the ashes of the country’s longest presidential regime has not changed the fact that Indonesia is still Java-centric.

According to the latest census in 2020, Java is home to 152 million people, or around 56 per cent of the country’s population, as against the 6.15 per cent who live in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo Island, which will host the new capital. This is despite Kalimantan being four times larger than Java.

With such a large demographic advantage, Java controls about 59 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product according to Statistics Indonesia in 2020.

East Kalimantan, however, is indeed among the provinces with the highest gross regional domestic product (GRDP) per capita at Rp 125 million (US$8,708), second only to Jakarta at Rp 170 million. The population of East Kalimantan is 3.7 million, about a third of Jakarta’s.

National Development Planning Agency head Suharso Monoarfa has said Jokowi chose Nusantara as the name of the new capital that will occupy an area between North Penajem Paser and Kutai Kartanegara regencies.

With floods and deforestation endemic to the area and the lack of infrastructure that Kalimantan has at the moment, there is no guarantee that the new capital will become a better capital city of Indonesia.

But for now, the new capital plan allows Indonesian people to dream of a new future outside of Java.

Johan Jaffar

The Star