Today, high-rises dot the skyline, hundreds of thousands of vehicles belch fumes on congested traffic arteries and super-malls have become the cultural centers of gravity in Jakarta, the fourth largest city in the world. In between towering super-structures, humble kampongs house the majority of the city dwellers, who often have no access to basic sanitation, running water or waste management.
While almost all major capitals in the Southeast Asian region are investing heavily in public transportation, parks, playgrounds, sidewalks and cultural institutions like museums, concert halls and convention centers, Jakarta remains brutally and determinately ‘pro-market’ â€” profit-driven and openly indifferent to the plight of a majority of its citizens who are poor.
Most Jakartans have never left Indonesia, so they cannot compare their capital with Kuala Lumpur or Singapore; with Hanoi or Bangkok. Comparative statistics and reports hardly make it into the local media. Despite the fact that the Indonesian capital is for many foreign visitors a ‘hell on earth,’ the local media describes Jakarta as “modern,” “cosmopolitan, ” and “a sprawling metropolis.
Newcomers are often puzzled by Jakarta’s lack of public amenities. Bangkok, not exactly known as a user-friendly city, still has several beautiful parks. Even cash-strapped Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, boasts wide promenades, playgrounds, long stretches of beach and sea walks. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur compete with each other in building wide sidewalks, green areas as well as cultural establishments. Manila, another city without a glowing reputation for its public amenities, has succeeded in constructing an impressive sea promenade dotted with countless cafes and entertainment venues while preserving its World Heritage Site at Intramuros. Hanoi repaved its wide sidewalks and turned a park around Huan-Kiem Lake into an open-air sculpture museum.
But in Jakarta, there is a fee for everything. Many green spaces have been converted to golf courses for the exclusive use of the rich. The approximately one square kilometer of Monas seems to be the only real public area in a city of more than 10 million. Despite being a maritime city, Jakarta has been separated from the sea, with the only focal point being Ancol, with a tiny, mostly decrepit walkway along the dirty beach dotted with private businesses.
Even to take a walk in Ancol, a family of four has to spend approximately $4.50 (40,000 Indonesian Rupiahs) in entrance fees, something unthinkable anywhere else in the world. The few tiny public parks which survived privatization are in desperate condition and mostly unsafe to use.
There are no sidewalks in the entire city, if one applies international standards to the word “sidewalk.” Almost anywhere in the world (with the striking exception of some cities in the United States, like Houston and Los Angeles) the cities themselves belong to pedestrians. Cars are increasingly discouraged from traveling in the city centers. Wide sidewalks are understood to be the most ecological, healthy and efficient forms of short-distance public transportation in areas with high concentrations of people.
In Jakarta, there are hardly any benches for people to sit and relax, and no free drinking water fountains or public toilets. It is these small, but important, ‘details’ that are symbols of urban life anywhere else in the world.
Most world cities, including those in the region, want to be visited and remembered for their culture. Singapore is managing to change its ’shop-till-you- drop’ image to that of the center of Southeast Asian arts. The monumental Esplanade Theatre has reshaped the skyline, offering first-rate international concerts in classical music, opera, ballet, and also featuring performances from some of the leading contemporary artists from the region. Many performances are subsidized and are either free or cheap, relative to the high incomes in the city-state.
Kuala Lumpur spent $100 million on its philharmonic concert hall, which is located right under the Petronas Towers, among the tallest buildings in the world. This impressive and prestigious concert hall hosts local orchestra companies as well top international performers. The city is currently spending further millions to refurbish its museums and galleries, from the National Museum to the National Art Gallery.
Hanoi is proud of its culture and arts, which are promoted as its major attraction â€” millions of visitors flock into the city to visit countless galleries stocked with canvases, which can be easily described as some of the best in Southeast Asia. Its beautifully restored Opera House regularly offers Western and Asian music treats.
Bangkok’s colossal temples and palaces coexist with extremely cosmopolitan fare â€” international theater and film festivals, countless performances, jazz clubs with local and foreign artists on the bill, as well as authentic culinary delights from all corners of the world. When it comes to music, live performances and nightlife, there is no city in Southeast Asia as vibrant as Manila.
Now back to Jakarta. Those who have ever visited the city’s ‘public libraries’ or National Archives building will know the difference. No wonder; in Indonesia education, culture and arts are not considered to be ‘profitable’ (with the exception of pop music), and are therefore made absolutely irrelevant. The country spends the third lowest amount in the world on education (according to The Economist, only1.2 percent of its GDP) after Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador (there the situation is now rapidly improving with the new progressive government).
Museums in Jakarta are in appalling condition, offering absolutely no important international exhibitions. They look like they fell on the city from a different era and no wonder â€” the Dutch built almost all of them. Not only are their collections poorly kept, but they lack elements of modernity â€” there are no elegant cafes, museum shops, bookstores or even public archives. It appears that the individuals running them are without vision and creativity. However, even if they did have inspired ideas, there would be no funding to carry them out.
It seems that Jakarta has no city planners, only private developers that have no respect for the majority of its inhabitants who are poor (the great majority, no matter what the understated and manipulated government statistics say). The city abandoned itself to the private sector, which now controls almost everything, from residential housing to what were once public areas.
While Singapore decades ago, and Kuala Lumpur recently, managed to fully eradicate poor, unsanitary and depressing kampongs from their urban areas, Jakarta is unable or unwilling to offer its citizens subsidized, affordable housing equipped with running water, electricity, a sewage system, wastewater treatment facilities, playgrounds, parks, sidewalks and a mass public transportation system.
Rich Singapore aside, Kuala Lumpur with only 2 million inhabitants boasts one metro line (Putra Line), one monorail, several efficient Star LRT lines, suburban train links and high-speed rail system connecting the city with its new capital Putrajaya. The “Rapid” system counts on hundreds of modern, clean and air-conditioned buses. Transit is subsidized; a bus ticket on “Rapid” costs only $.60 (2 Malaysian Ringgits) for unlimited day use on the same line. Heavily discounted daily and monthly passes are also available.
Bangkok contracted German firm Siemens to build two long “Sky Train” lines and one metro line. It is also utilizing its river and channels as both public transportation and as a tourist attraction. Despite this enormous progress, the Bangkok city administration claims that it is building an additional 50 miles (80 kilometers) of tracks for these systems in order to convince citizens to leave their cars at home and use public transportation.
Polluting pre-historic buses are being banned from Hanoi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and gradually from Bangkok. Jakarta, thanks to corruption and phlegmatic officials, is in its own league even in this field.
Mercer Human Resource Consulting, in its reports covering quality of life, places Jakarta repeatedly on the level of poor African and South Asian cities, below metropolises like Nairobi and Medellin.
Considering that it is in the league with some of the poorest capitals of the world, Jakarta is not cheap. According to the Mercer Human Resource Consulting 2006 Survey, Jakarta ranked as the 48th most expensive city in the world for expatriate employees, well above Berlin (72nd), Melbourne (74th) and Washington D.C. (83rd). And if it is expensive for expatriates, how is it for local people with a GDP per capita below $1,000?
Curiously, Jakartans are silent. They have become inured to appalling air quality just as they have gotten used to the sight of children begging, even selling themselves at the major intersections; to entire communities living under elevated highways and in slums on the shores of canals turned into toxic waste dumps; to the hours-long commutes; to floods and rats.
But if there is to be any hope, the truth has to eventually be told, and the sooner the better. Only a realistic and brutal diagnosis can lead to treatment and a cure. As painful as the truth can be, it is always better than self-deceptions and lies.
Jakarta has fallen decades behind capitals in the neighboring countries â€” in esthetics, housing, urban planning, standard of living, quality of life, health, education, culture, transportation, food quality and hygiene. It has to swallow its pride and learn from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Brisbane and even in some instances from its poorer neighbors like Port Moresby, Manila and Hanoi.
Comparative statistics have to be transparent and widely available. Citizens have to learn how to ask questions again, and how to demand answers and accountability. Only if they understand to what depths their city has sunk can there be any hope of change.
“We have to watch out,” said a concerned Malaysian filmmaker during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. “Malaysia suddenly has too many problems. If we are not careful, Kuala Lumpur could end up in 20 or 30 years like Jakarta!”
Could this statement be reversed? Can Jakarta find the strength and solidarity to mobilize in time catch up with Kuala Lumpur? Can decency overcome greed? Can corruption be eradicated and replaced by creativity? Can private villas shrink in size and green spaces, public housing, playgrounds, libraries, schools and hospitals expand?
An outsider like me can observe, tell the story and ask questions. Only the people of Jakarta can offer the answers and solutions.