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

January 31, 2022

KUALA LUMPUR – For better or for worse, it really happens. The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the State Capital Bill, which will provide a legal basis for the government’s plan to move the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

The law, which has been swiftly debated in less than four months, gives the green light to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambitious plan, which is expected to cost $32 billion and has met with skepticism.

But the former mayor of Surakarta, Central Java, who has built his political clout on a national level in Jakarta brick by brick, remains undeterred.

With strong support from the international community – from Japanese conglomerate Softbank to the United Arab Emirates – the president can now begin building the new capital, which may not be ready when he ends his term in 2024.

There were many doubts when Jokowi first announced his vision shortly after his second term in 2019. The project is not like any other. It wasn’t like when Malaysia moved its seat of government from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya, just 34 kilometers away. Or other cases of capital swaps in other countries, mostly involving the same landmass.

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

While people attribute much of the disparity in wealth and development between Java and the rest of the country to the centralized government of the Soeharto era, the development and decentralization system built in the ashes of the country’s longest presidential regime holds sway changed by the fact that Indonesia is still Java-centric.

According to the latest 2020 census, Java is home to 152 million people, or around 56 percent of the country’s population, compared to 6.15 percent in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo that will house the new capital. And this despite the fact that Kalimantan is four times the size of Java.

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

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

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

With flooding and deforestation endemic to the region and the lack of infrastructure Kalimantan currently has, there is no guarantee that the new capital will be a better capital of Indonesia.

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

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