What is there to love about Jakarta? That was a question I asked myself when I first moved to the city back in 2008. The city’s traffic has been consistently ranked among the worst in the world for many years. In my first few years in the city, when I was still driving to work, there was one time when the congestion was even worse than usual because it rained earlier in the afternoon. I got stuck for hours in my car trying to get home, and I did everything I could to kill the time – from singing to listening to the radio, snacking, up to one point where I didn’t know what else to do. And then there’s the flooding. The 2007 flood displaced 500,000 people, claimed 80 lives, and cut the access to the main airport. Six years later, another major flood hit the city, inundating the main thoroughfare of Jakarta’s Central Business District (CBD), and even the presidential palace itself.
Home to almost 10 million people – or more than 30 million in the Greater Jakarta area – the city has been facing great challenges and problems from time to time. As the capital of Indonesia – a country with a population of 250 million – Jakarta provides endless opportunities attracting people from all over the archipelago to come to the city and try their luck. Since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, construction in the capital only began in earnest in the early 1960s, in preparation for the 1962 Asian Games which Jakarta hosted. A 120,000-seater Soviet-funded stadium was built, and a large 5-star hotel – designed by a Danish architect – was constructed at the heart of the city. In front of the hotel a concrete monument of a man and a woman perched atop a tall pedestal was added. Facing north – the way foreign athletes and officials arrived from the old Kemayoran Airport – it was then called the Welcome Monument.
Then in 1985, the new Soekarno-Hatta International Airport – located some 20 km away to the northwest of the city center – which was designed by Paul Andreu, the same architect behind Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, began operations. Inspired by Javanese traditional houses, Andreu incorporated tropical gardens and vernacular design in the architecture. Six years later, Terminal 2 was opened, and it has been serving international flights since then.
As the Indonesian economy grew and flight fares became more affordable, demand for air travel dramatically increased in recent years. In 2011, the first phase of Terminal 3 was inaugurated, and five years later the rest of the new terminal was completed. However, unlike the previous two terminals, the new one took a radically different design. Taking a form like most modern airports around the world, it lacks the Indonesian charm the older terminals exude. Ambitiously dubbed as Changi’s competitor in the region, Terminal 3 fell short of expectations even from day one. The day the new terminal began serving passengers, an electric short circuit led to a blackout at night. Several days later, the automatic check-in system went down. Just two days afterward, parts of the arrivals area was flooded following a heavy downpour. Indonesia loves to take Singapore as a benchmark for development, but many things proved to be merely a dream than a reality, including the new airport terminal.
A reputable property developer once dreamed that Jalan Prof. dr. Satrio (a busy street in downtown Jakarta) would rival Singapore’s Orchard Road – a wide avenue lined by glitzy malls and shopping centers, luxury hotels, and leafy trees along its sides. He has opened a big mall filled with a number of South Korean tenants since then, outshining an old all-you-can-get mall, a cheap clothing and fake goods shopping center, and another modern mall down the South Jakartan street. But to make this part of the city a convenient and walkable shopping district, easy access is key. In reality, the traffic on this street during rush hour is arguably among the worst in Jakarta.
Probably part of the reason for this obsession to be like Singapore is the fact that many Indonesians go to the island nation for holiday or shopping. As of last year, there were almost 300 flights serving the Jakarta–Singapore route, making it the busiest international route for both Changi and Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta. Business, medical tourism, and education are other main reasons for Indonesians to travel to Singapore. On the other hand, there are more than 20,000 Indonesian migrant workers in the island republic, many of them working as domestic helpers. In Hong Kong, the number is more than 150,000. Instead of going to Jakarta, some Indonesians choose to find jobs abroad to support their families back home. In Jakarta one can find two Hermès stores, as well as that of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Prada, and many other big names in the fashion industry. Even France’s Galeries Lafayette joined the bandwagon and open their first store in Jakarta in 2013. But then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are people who live by the railway, or in densely populated areas, or in dingy houses by the river banks.
Beginning in 2012, when Joko Widodo – formerly the mayor of the Central Javanese city of Solo – was elected as the new governor of Jakarta, the city began undergoing significant improvements. In 2013, the construction of the city’s first ever rapid transit system commenced after more than 20 years on the drawing board. It was initially planned to be completed just ahead of the 2018 Asian Games which Jakarta and the South Sumatran city of Palembang will co-host – a rather ambitious target to achieve. However, in the latest update the first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line is slated for completion in 2019, although any further delay won’t surprise me at all. Nevertheless, it is very encouraging to finally see the day when a real metro system is being constructed underneath the city’s congested streets.
Then in 2014, when Jokowi (as Widodo is known in Indonesia) was elected as the president of the country, his deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – known as Ahok – took the helm of the capital. Ahok, who is an ethnic Chinese Christian, was in fact the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta in almost 50 years. This was seen as remarkable progress for the Muslim-majority city which experienced deadly racial riots targeting its Chinese community back in 1998 following the Asian Financial Crisis. Known for his straightforward and brash-talking style, Ahok brought even further reforms to the city … and lots of enemies.
Under his governorship, Jakarta’s filthy rivers were cleaned up and widened, while illegal squatters along the riverbanks were moved to more humane multistory apartments. This has significantly reduced the flooding in the city during the height of the rainy season. He streamlined the city’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy and introduced convenient Swedish buses to replace the unreliable Chinese buses which had become the backbone of Jakarta’s bus rapid transit system for years. Healthcare service for the impoverished was also improved to serve as many people in need as possible. He also implemented a new electronic budgeting system, protected by a three-level security password, to fight against rampant corruption.
Suddenly Jakarta experienced a construction boom it had never seen in decades. In addition to the metro system, new roads, flyovers, Light Rail Transit (LRT) lines, and underground passes were springing up, raising a question among the city’s residents why it took so long for Jakarta to see its infrastructure upgraded in such a scale. Ahok’s approach to governing the city was far from conventional, to say the least. By doing so, he alienated the old, corrupt political establishment. Thanks to all of this, his popularity skyrocketed, at one point reaching more than 70% rate of approval. One year prior to the gubernatorial election, it was all but certain for Ahok to secure a landslide victory in the election despite his double-minority status.
However, in the final months of the election campaign, a video of Ahok’s allegedly blasphemous statement against Islam widely circulated on the internet. His contenders, having been desperately using smear campaign to deter Jakartans from voting for Ahok, exploited this unexpected ammunition to turn the tide against the incumbent. The Ahok saga had deeply divided Muslims with influential clerics from both pro- and anti-Ahok camps vehemently defended their stance quoting various verses from the Quran. For sure, social media became an ugly battleground among the grassroots supporters from both sides. To some, the runoff was seen as a struggle of a polite and well-mannered contender against the brazen and arrogant Ahok. But substantively this showed that religion-charged populism that has been sweeping across the globe – affecting places like India, Myanmar, Malaysia and the United States, each to a different extent – claimed another victim. This time it’s Jakarta, the capital of a country that was once dubbed a beacon of democracy and pluralism in the Islamic world.
In a dramatic turn of events, Ahok was charged under Indonesia’s infamous blasphemy law, which according to some reports has an almost 100% conviction rate. Several years earlier the nation’s Constitutional Court had seen a problem with the law and recommended amendments to it – although some believe that the law should be abolished altogether since it is prone to be misused for political and business gains. Pakistan is a grim reminder of what could go really wrong if blasphemy law is abused by those with wicked agendas, as an eye-opening Al Jazeera documentary shows.
Eventually Ahok lost the highly-divisive election, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Some people cheered, some others were devastated. Ahok was by no means a saint – some of the evictions carried out under his administration were deemed inhumane and criticized by human rights activists. However, it would have been a boon to Indonesian democracy had he lost in the election purely because the other candidates offered better programs, taking racial and religious issues out of the equation. But the intense hatred and enmity throughout the election was a serious backward step for the nation’s democracy – only regained less than 20 years ago following the fall of Suharto, a military dictator who ruled Indonesia for 32 years.
Looking at what happened to Jakarta, Singapore, which experienced deadly racial and religious riots in the 1960s, is probably even more convinced to keep its strict laws in place to maintain peace and stability in the country. The media is virtually controlled by the government, as opposed to Indonesia where a wide array of TV channels and online media outlets – some are owned by influential businessmen cum politicians, some others affiliate themselves with conservative religious groups – with varying views bombard the people with their own agenda. In the latest press freedom index, Indonesia ranked 124, still far from being a free place for the press but significantly better than Singapore at 151.
The election shows that Jakarta is still far from being a progressive and inclusive place where people are judged not by their race or religion, but by their merit. However, despite the demoralizing circumstances, Jakartans should not forget that the city is home to some of the country’s best talents and most creative people, as a video by Monocle suggests. It is home to a vigilante group who abuses religion for their own benefit, but it also hosts Southeast Asia’s wildest nightlife as some people attest. Its annual dance music festival attracts tens of thousands of people, yet it is where the region’s biggest mosque is located. In spite of its large Muslim population, many monuments across the city were inspired by Hindu characters and symbolism. One of the world’s largest Chinese Christian evangelical churches calls the city home, so does a massive Buddhist center located in North Jakarta. The city might never make it to Monocle’s annual Quality of Life index – a list of the world’s 25 most livable cities – which Singapore and Hong Kong always do. In the 2016 list, Singapore and Hong Kong’s ambulance response time, one of the parameters used in the index, were at the average of 11 and 12 minutes, respectively. While in Jakarta it’s 37 minutes. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if the city had a better transportation policy, system and infrastructure!
No city becomes perfect instantly. In fact, no city is perfect. Only if more people voice out their hopes and dreams, spread compassion, nurture empathy, and help each other to make the city home not only for the rich, but also for the poor, not only for the well-connected, but also for ordinary people hailing from all corners of Indonesia and beyond, will Jakarta serve its purpose as a home. Home is a place where everyone should feel safe, peaceful, accepted, meaningful and loved. To make the city home, Jakartans don’t necessarily have to only look up to Singapore or Hong Kong, but also to look into their heart and ask one simple question: “How do I want the city to treat me?”