Politics Analysis

Indonesia's new capital city project is an ongoing disaster

By | | comments |
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The ongoing construction of Indonesia's new capital city continues to raise major human rights and financial concerns, Duncan Graham writes.

AT THE END OF 2023, there were three clear signs that Indonesia's new capital city project on Borneo island – personally driven by President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo – was not going well.

Now, it's in deep strife with the show's two top bosses quitting the AU$45 billion-plus Ibu Kota – meaning "capital" in English – Nusantara (IKN) plan to relocate sinking, polluted, overcrowded Jakarta to an isolated forest site in East Kalimantan.

Displaced Suku Balik people were angry about the compensation they’d been offered for leaving land held for generations.

As some families refused to move, construction work alongside their houses continued, flooding homes. Hardly the best way to win community support.

These were major matters for the wee folk that could have been foreseen during early planning, but the real concern didn’t need to be found by interviewing distressed villagers — the sign was obvious.

Lines of idle trucks – one had 85 – blocked a lane of the main road. They were queuing for diesel outside fuel stations that had run out of supplies.

This worrying scene, as this reporter observed, was not a one-off but repeated regularly. Ironically, the bowsers were surrounded by vast plantations of palms that could be used to make biodiesel.

Closer to the unfortunately named "Ground Zero" rises the grandiose presidential palace where diggers and crawlers were churning the wet season mud. Vehicles regularly spun off the tracks.

For anyone familiar with the security and safety of Australian construction sites, this was chaos.

The 250,000-hectare zone is more than a three-hour drive from the port of Samarinda. A closer airport is being built.

Locals seemed nonplussed, comforted by regular statements that all was well. Apart from Jokowi, assurances came from IKN head Bambang Susantono (hand-picked from the Asian Development Bank) and his sidekick Dhony Rahajoe — an architect and real estate developer.

All changed at the beginning of June when the two men walked off the job ten weeks before the first stage grand official opening planned for 17 August, the Republic's National Day.

This is now to be a split ceremony with VIPs in IKN and Jakarta.

Indonesia’s most credible newspaper, Kompas, questioned whether the bosses had been sacked weeks earlier than the official resignation announcement. This said they had left for ‘personal reasons’. At least it omitted the cliche about "spending more time with the family".

In September, 12,000 civil servants are set to relocate from Jakarta 1,200 kilometres south in Java. Jokowi has said he’ll be among them once the plumbing is fixed.

The quitters kept their mouths closed, but it soon became obvious that the issue was legal access to land and lack of money to pay the contractors and their 10,000 workers.

IKN had started using public money – by law, limited to 20 per cent – while the President dashed around the world seeking investors, including Australians.

He told them that he foresaw ‘a smart forest city concept, a modern and environmentally friendly city' with 70 per cent of land in ‘green areas… envisioned to be a heterogeneous forest emulating a rainforest'.

A Melbourne University study offered a different picture:

'Removing genuine public participation ensures [IKN]…will not be a city for all Indonesians. Instead, it looks like it will serve the interests of political and business elites and the people who back them.'

Mulawarman University anthropologist Martinus Nanang told this reporter in Samarinda:

"My colleagues and I asked for all reports and surveys but we’ve never seen them. We fear many decisions are being made without research. They [government planners] are afraid of the reaction by global environmentalists."

An Australian-led research team stated that ‘Everyone acknowledged the project was political'.

Under the Indonesian Constitution, a president can run for only two five-year terms. Jokowi will stand down in October when the new President-elect Prabowo Subianto is inaugurated.

In this year's election campaign, Subianto was supported by Jokowi because it was believed the newcomer would maintain his predecessor's legacy. 

Prabowo has yet to comment on the resignations.

The only serious investor interest came from Japan's SoftBank Group, which reportedly talked of a USD$100 billion (AU$151 billion) loan. That hope collapsed in March 2022.

Big money wants guarantees of good returns — tricky when the proposal is about administration rather than manufacturing.

There’s also concern about corruption, sadly commonplace in Indonesia, particularly infecting big public works.

Speaking to Reuters, Arya Fernandes – an analyst with the Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies stated that 'the question is how to convince investors that there is no problem'.

The Government rushed in two ministers as replacements for the quitters, while Jokowi said he’d be announcing investments soon — naming the United Arab Emirates as the likely saviour.

Ancient kings of Java in the Hindu-Buddhist era built splendid temples to honour their reigns. 

Jokowi seems to have similar ambitions.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in East Java.

Related Articles

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Duncan Graham
Tobacco industry leaving Indonesia up in smoke

A lack of regulation, heavy advertising and subservience to the tobacco industry ...  
Indonesia's new capital city project is an ongoing disaster

The ongoing construction of Indonesia's new capital city continues to raise major ...  
Widodo's son to continue family's political dynasty

With a new President to be sworn in later this year, the son of Indonesia's current ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate