By: Philip Bowring

Indonesia’s plan to shift its capital from sinking Jakarta in overcrowded Java to thinly-populated east Kalimantan has naturally evoked comparison with other new Southeast Asian new capitals, Naypyidaw in Myanmar and Putrajaya in Malaysia. But Putrajaya barely counts as a new capital as it is little more than a suburb of Kuala Lumpur between the city and its airport. Naypyidaw was a political statement more than an economic or environmental necessity. Indonesia’s decision is both – and also the boldest of all.

The most recent comparison may be with Kazakhstan, which moved its capital from Almaty in the extreme southeast of the country to Astana (recently re-named Nur-Sultan) in the mid northeast, or, farther back, the shift of Brazil’s capital from coastal Rio de Janeiro deep into the high heartland of a vast country whose major cities were on or near the coast. It started from nothing in 1955 and became the capital in 1960 and now has a population of about 4 million

Astana was previously a middling provincial town in the middle of the barely inhabited steppe and was mainly known as a railway junction. It became the capital in 1997, five years after the decision was made, and now has a population of about a million. The shift was partly because Almaty was earthquake-prone and expansion was increasingly difficult due to its position at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. Astana had domestic political advantages as well as closer proximity to Russia.

Indonesia, however, faces a particular challenge. Kazakhstan is a vast landlocked state but is relatively well provided with roads and railways. Indonesia is a vast archipelago so its new capital would need massive investment in air and marine routes to link it to the more populated parts of the nation. As it is, the whole of Indonesian Kalimantan has a population of only 16 million compared with 145 million for Java, 50 million for Sumatra and 19 million for Sulawesi.

A proposed location between the existing cities of Balikpapan, with its already excellent oil and forestry-related infrastructure, and Samarinda should ease the problems of constructing a city from scratch. However, labor supply is another matter. Thinly populated Kazakhstan had to import large numbers of workers from other “stans”, India and China. Indonesia has surplus labor but housing the workers will itself be a major early issue.

The other question is the city design. Both Astana and Brasilia have suffered from the sheer volume of land available, giving planners and architects space to indulge theories which may not have much to do with how people like to live. Brasilia’s core public buildings, mainly the work of a single renowned architect, Oscar Niemeyer, but the city as a whole earned this rebuke from the writer Robert Hughes:

“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. It’s what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. You get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.”

Unfortunately, the designers of new Astana didn’t take this to heart. Instead, there are huge wide avenues and widely separated blocks of apartments, insufficiently dense to justify an underground rail system, overly reliant on car transport and ill-adapted to a climate that is hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Maybe resource-rich Kazakhstan thinks it can afford such inefficiency. Indonesia cannot. In any case, the old part of the city, built in Tsarist and Soviet times, provides a pleasant, relatively green, human-scale contrast to the new.

The other danger of new or rebuilt capitals is that, like Astana or Pyongyang, they are full of grand monumental architecture. Astana admittedly has a few interesting and original buildings which have drawn admiration. But it has plenty of others which are either the subject of jokes or – as in the case of a mosque donated by Abu Dhabi – distinguished only by their size.

Until much more is known about the topography of Indonesia’s would-be capital, about who will plan – and hopefully not over-plan – the city, all is conjecture. But capitals in time always attract activities which go far beyond those of politics, administration, and diplomacy. They naturally generate all kinds of service industries. Like Astana, it could have a million-plus people in a decade and three million by 2050. But tight government control of land is essential to prevent either suburban sprawl stretching to both Balikpapan and Samarinda, and land speculation which enriches a corrupt few.

The move is a great idea, focusing on Indonesia as an archipelago, not as an adjunct of Java, as well as relieving the burden on Jakarta. Any ex-capital of a developing country with a growing population can easily withstand losing its status. Almaty, for instance, thrives as a business center and hub for the “stans.” The bureaucrats would resent the move but Jakarta as a whole shouldn’t suffer. For the first time, Borneo/Kalimantan will gain an importance more commensurate with its size. But the implementation of such an ambitious plan would sorely test Indonesia’s governance and institutions.