The Challenge to Transform Jakarta

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CAN Jakarta’s new Governor Joko Widodo bring real change to Indonesia’s capital city? Suffering from floods, pollution and rising crime, as well as some of the world’s most notorious traffic jams, Jakarta could certainly do with some improvement.

Affectionately known as “Jokowi”, this former mayor of Surakata (popularly known as Solo) in Central Java comes to the job with impressive credentials. 

Mr Widodo transformed Solo, a city once known for its poor government services, high unemployment, mob violence and weak economic growth, into one of the most vibrant cities in the country.

Building alliances with local businesses, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations, he oversaw the peaceful relocation of thousands of street vendors to relieve traffic congestion, created a one-stop shop for business licences, improved conditions in local slums, and upgraded health services.

Having won the governorship of the Special Capital Region (DKI) of Jakarta in September, Mr Widodo’s popularity in Jakarta rests on the assumption that he can transform the capital as well.

But is this expectation realistic?

In the eyes of the public, Mr Widodo has certainly begun well. Soon after taking office he made a surprise visit to several local government offices. Finding them virtually empty, he warned city officials publicly that they would have to shape up or lose their jobs.

A master communicator, Mr Widodo has also begun meeting residents regularly in the streets, encouraging them to dispense with formality and call him bang (elder brother).

But the real test will come when the new governor attempts to deal with issues such as the city’s traffic jams and perennial flooding. Here he will come up against the political and administrative minefields that have long stymied his predecessors.

Jakarta’s special legal status means that Mr Widodo will not have to worry about obtaining the cooperation of the city’s five mayoral districts. This is because, unlike other provinces, the mayors are appointed by the governor, rather than elected.

In theory, money for development projects should not be a problem either. Mr Uchok Sky Khadafi of the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency notes that the city’s revenues have consistently exceeded its expenditures. And government auditors have recently noted that there is scope for even higher collections from what is by far the wealthiest city in the country.

The challenge is to get much- needed projects off the drawing board.

In solving Jakarta’s traffic problems, for example, Mr Widodo will have to cultivate good ties with the central government. All of the city’s toll roads are run by companies associated with the Ministry of Public Enterprises.

According to Mr Uchok, major thoroughfares such as Jl Gatot Subroto, Jl Jend Sudirman and Jl Thamrin in Central Jakarta are also the responsibility of the national government.

And in a typically Indonesian twist rarely appreciated by both Jakartans and foreigners, central government bureaucrats have to be consulted even when it comes to land-use issues in major suburbs such as Senayan and Kemayoran.

Measures designed to mitigate flooding and the effects of powerful storms resulting from climate change face similar coordination problems.

Land use along North Jakarta’s entire coastline is also a central government matter, and the Ministry of Public Works must be consulted regarding anything that affects the rivers that flow through the city. As Mr Uchok put it: “There are two authorities in Jakarta, the central government and the DKI.”

That statement, however, probably underestimates the scale of the difficulty.

Because most of the city’s office workers regularly commute from satellite cities such as Bekasi, Depok and Tangerang, resolving traffic congestion requires the cooperation of the authorities in these areas as well.

A similar point can be made about the need to preserve the water catchment areas of rivers flowing through the capital. While geographically part of Greater Jakarta, these urban areas are administered as regencies located in the province of West Java.

Mr Widodo also needs to be careful when dealing with the city’s bureaucrats. Because he is an outsider, the new governor has few local loyalists to put in charge of government agencies. Resentment within the DKI’s bureaucracy could build up very quickly if he is seen to be appointing too many non-Jakartans to key positions.

In Solo, Mr Widodo used his enormous popularity to overcome any resistance he encountered with the local legislature by calling his supporters onto the streets. But although popular in Jakarta, he has no similarly well-organised political machine in the capital.

His record in Solo has been truly impressive. But Jakarta is a much bigger city, with numerous competing power centres. It will be interesting to see how good his political and administrative talents really are.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

The inability of the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to bridge the deep divisions between her populist government and its royalist opponents in the military and bureaucracy remains a major concern.

Prime Minister Yingluck has selected a competent economic team, but it is difficult for these technocrats to deliver on the new government's campaign promises without triggering inflation or hurting business. 

The government has also been unable to resolve the ongoing insurgency involving ethnic Malay Muslim rebels in the south.



  1. Attempts by the government to amend the constitution. The proposed rewrite is aimed removing legal measures initiated by the royalist generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister's elder brother, in 2006.
  2. Ballooning government debt as officials seek to finance government programmes aimed at subsidising rice prices in order to retain the support of farmers.
  3. The relationship between Prime Minister Yingluck and senior generals. Coups have been a common means of regime change in Thai history, and any attempt by the government to purge royalist elements in the top brass could trigger yet another. Thailand

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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