Indonesia’s Moon Shot

Commentary by Wayne Forrest

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced US plans to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. By the time the astronauts of Apollo 11 achieved this in 1969 technologies that were either in their infancy, or had not yet been born, were developed and spun off to widespread adoption as commercial products. Among them: structural analysis software, powdered lubricants, OpenStack, remotely controlled ovens, water purification, solar cells, freeze-dried foods, portable cordless vacuums, LEDs, artificial limbs, and cochlear implants. Indonesia’s President Jokowi has just committed his country to a similar long term project of monumental importance, moving the capital from Jakarta to a region of East Kalimantan (Borneo) called Penjamen Paser, between the cities of Samarinda and Balikpapan. If all goes well construction of the new city begins in 2020 and people start moving in 2024.

The head of state planning (BAPPENAS), Bambang Brodjonegoro, announced the move in April and the President formerly discussed it during his August “state of the nation” address. At the time Jokowi said: “The [new] capital is not only a symbol of our nation’s identity, but also represents our nation’s development,” “It’s for the sake of realizing an equitable and just economy.” Many may believe the reason to move the capital is environmental, as Jakarta is notorious for its traffic, pollution, and susceptibility to rising sea levels given how much of it is actually slowly sinking. However, the vision of the President and his planners is wider: its much more in tune with developing human capital, moving the country away from its current economic “capital”: its dependence on natural resources.

Moving upwards of a million people to a brand new city has the potential to stimulate new critical thinking among Indonesia’s engineers, architects, environmental planners, economists, bankers, software developers, many of whom are now in elementary school and will come of age when the project is well along. What kinds of power and modes of transportation will be employed and why. What kinds of schools and housing developments will be built. What about food and medical care ? How will construction material be moved efficiently. Can an innovative funding model be created ? Turning all the planning into reality will create lessons learned that will effect development everywhere in the country.

The world’s eyes will be on Indonesia, measuring how the new city stacks up against past capital moves: Ankara, Brasilia, Islamabad, even our own Washington D.C. What kind of city and community will Indonesia fashion ? Indonesia has little experience with a government planned community (think Batam). Most planned towns have been relatively small scale affairs accomplished by private real estate developers (think Ciputra, Lippo) or extraction companies (think Freeport, ExxonMobil, INCO and Chevron). Can it arrange the $33 billion that the government projects it needs when it has so many other obligations ? Can the plague of corruption be avoided?

If agreed to by Parliament and not challenged in court, 19% of the State budget will be dedicated to the move, far more than NASA’s which typically is less than 1% of the US budget. Most ministries, all legislative, and the State palaces are slated to move. Embassies may have to move, leaving behind their existing spaces to become Jakarta consulates. The disruption will effect everyone.

When JFK made his man-on-the-moon speech, NASA had no idea how to do it. But, the race with the Soviet Union concentrated everyone’s attention. Kennedy’s words could benefit President Jokowi: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Indonesia should accept its youthful President’s challenge, measure the best of its energies, move the capital to Kalimantan, and do the “other things”.

(The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members)