Johannes Nugroho: Think Carefully Before Moving Indonesia's Capital to Kalimantan

JUNE 02, 2015

During a recent lecture at the National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas), the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, floated an old idea of having the Indonesian  capital  moved to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan. She reminded her audience  that it was her father, the nations founding president Sukarno, who first recommended that location as the new capital, and she went on to list the advantages of the scheme, such as the low probability of earthquakes in Kalimantan.

On July 17, 1957, Sukarno unveiled a new monument comprising 17 pillars to mark the start of construction work on the new city of Palangkaraya, observing  that the number 17 represented the date of Indonesia’s independence in August 1945. The central ninth pentagonal pillar, tipped with the representation of a flame, he explained, symbolized the five points of the state ideology, Pancasila, while the eternal fire spoke of the nation’s undying hunger for independence and development.

Sukarno’s penchant for symbolism was clearly apparent here. For someone who often drew inspiration from ancient Javanese Hindu mythology, this was perhaps to be expected. Nevertheless, the new outside-Java capital initiative was probably not Sukarno’s own idea.

The adviser responsible for championing Palangkaraya was Semaun, the first chairman of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), who had returned to the country from a  30-year exile in the Soviet Union in 1953. The employment of Soviet architects and engineers during the construction of Palangkaraya must have been  the result of Semaun’s influence, too, though by this time he had left the PKI. He later even joined the anti-communist Murba Party. Labor activist Edi Cahyono wrote in his 2003 essay “From Left to Right: The Ideological Shift of Semaun” that Semaun came back from the Soviet Union “a different man.”

Indonesia’s literary giant, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, also wrote in his “My Apologies, in the Name of Experience” that Semaun "once offered [Sukarno] therapy for this genetic defect: move the capital out of Java, to Palangkaraya, in central Kalimantan." Pramoedya’s “genetic defect” was the apparent continuation of colonial policies in the nascent republic. Facing separatist movements in 1950s, the government, according to Pramoedya, resorted to “the colonial tradition, that is, with two Javanese exports: armed mercenaries and Javanese with hoes.” He then suggested Sukarno was deeply conflicted because of this.

So Sukarno’s yearning for a new capital was partially based on the symbolic importance of cutting cut ties with the country’s colonial past. Jakarta, previously Batavia, had been the capital chosen by the Dutch for the Netherlands East Indies. The State Palace in Jakarta was the former residence of the Dutch governor general while the palace in Bogor, known as Buitenzorg under the Dutch, was the top colonial official’s stately country retreat.

Ironically, the new capital would not really have freed the republic from its past, however. Despite Pramoedya’s condemnation of the old colonial export of “Javanese with hoes,” transmigration seemed to have been integral to Semaun’s plans for the new capital. Even Semaun was unable to see how the new capital could flourish without the necessary transmigration and rapid industrialization that he envisaged in his “Manpower as Postulate in the Theory of Guided Economy.”

Palangkaraya is one of the few cities in Indonesia established for a specific purpose, much in the same way that Canberra and Ottawa were chosen. The site was originally known as the village of Pahandut. The new name came from the Dayak word “palangka,” meaning sacred place, and the Sanskrit “raya,” which means great. In the Sundanese tradition, the word palangka can also mean “throne” or “seat.”

Sukarno’s Palangkaraya may have been the great esoteric catalyst or the symbolic axe with which the president meant to cut Indonesia’s ‘karmic cycle.’ In the end, time ran out before Sukarno could do anything with the city.

Almost 60 years on, how practical would it be to relocate the capital  to Central Kalimantan, a region whose infrastructure, both in terms of quantity and quality, is decades behind Jakarta’s?

Most of our officials and public servants in Jakarta reside in Java. Would they be expected to live permanently in Central Kalimantan? Or would most of the new capital’s residents be absentees used  to flying back each weekend to Java — perhaps even tripping off to Malaysia for a holiday?

From a strategic point of view, is it wise to situate the capital city on an island shared with two other countries, Brunei and Malaysia? Furthermore, how could having a capital that is landlocked  be in harmony with President Joko Widodo’s doctrine of “a maritime fulcrum”?

Given the role of political patronage in conducting business in Indonesia, would private companies be forced to relocate their headquarters to the new capital and re-create the traffic chaos that often characterizes  Jakarta?

Whatever Indonesia’s decision is regarding the new capital initiative, let’s make sure that we don’t end up with more problems than we have now.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at johannes@nonacris.com.

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