Navigating ambition and reality in ‘Solusi Jokowi’


Handout photo from the Presidential Palace in March 2022 shows Jokowi mixing water and samples of soil from 34 provinces during a ‘Kendi Nusantara’ ritual in Penajam Paser Utara, as the government prepares to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. – AFP photo/Presidential Palace

PRESIDENT Joko Widodo’s second term is coming to an end, and I remember being in Jakarta in 2014, preparing for field trips to Central Kalimantan when Jokowi won his first term. There was a sense of optimism and change in the air. I recall buying a book named ‘Solusi Jokowi’, which outlined his proposals and promises as President-elect.

Time flies, and his time in office is almost up, with less than 1.5 years left.

Jokowi was Indonesia’s first head of state to come from neither the political elite nor the military. He started as a furniture maker, then became the mayor of Solo, the governor of Jakarta, and now the president of Indonesia.

His political career was based on his promises to bring new life to the country with fresh ideas to eradicate corruption, overhaul the bureaucracy, upgrade infrastructure, boost economic growth, protect the natural capital, and resolve past human rights violations, among other things.

After being re-elected in 2019, Jokowi during his second inauguration speech reaffirmed his vision of Indonesia becoming a developed nation by 2045 and one of the world’s top five economies. He has also expressed his desire to elevate Indonesia’s status as a maritime power. However, the President has been facing difficult challenges from competing vested interests throughout his two terms.

Jokowi has presented himself as a nationalist and developmentalist, forming a wide coalition to advance his agenda. His focus on infrastructure has earned him the image of an ‘infrastructure’ president. Throughout his nine years in office, the President has travelled the country, inaugurating new airports, ports, and bridges. Photos of him wielding a shovel or riding a motorcycle on a new road have almost become a daily occurrence across the nation.

Under Jokowi’s leadership, Indonesia has embarked on grand and ambitious development plans for Kalimantan. These plans involve constructing a new capital city, or Ibu Kota Negara (IKN), in East Kalimantan, developing economic corridors, building massive infrastructure projects, and establishing sprawling industrial parks. The objective is to reduce the concentration of power in Java, stimulate regional economic growth, and create a new capital city that is more sustainable and disaster-resilient.

While these projects are commendable, they pose significant challenges. The relocation of the capital city requires substantial investment, infrastructure development, and environmental considerations. The President has been calling on foreign governments and companies to invest in the development of the new capital, but the absence of a comprehensive and overarching vision for the project has made many investors hesitant.

Furthermore, there are widespread concerns regarding the uncertain political will and support for the Nusantara project after Jokowi’s term ends. Since SoftBank Group from Japan withdrew from the project in March, there have been no significant investment commitments made. With increased risk aversion in the investor communities, many remain unconvinced with Nusantara.

Despite the limited time frame for obtaining wider public consultation, the IKN law has already been passed and efforts are underway to formalise governance, budget, and planning through legislation. However, allocating funds has proven to be challenging due to competing needs especially from post-Covid recovery.

Jokowi has made some moves, such as announcing the Nusantara Capital City Authority leadership and declaring that Jakarta will no longer be the capital by 2024, with a concrete date set in August 2024 to move into Nusantara. It appears that the President is keen to push ahead with his plan to reduce the chances of his successor potentially undoing it. However, scepticism and uncertainty remain, and many have openly cast their doubts on the project.

While Jokowi’s record in infrastructure has been generally positive at the city level, during his tenure as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, his approach to governance has been relatively less successful at the national level.

As I noted last year, the Nusantara project is a microcosm of Jokowi’s second term as President of Indonesia. The approach is characterised by the President’s high confidence in decision-making, which may have led the administration to overlook planning and details, resulting in policies that overly focus on short-term political gains and may not be sustainable. It is therefore not surprising for many to maintain a critical perspective regarding Jokowi’s aspirations for large-scale infrastructure projects.

As Jokowi steps down in October 2024, uncertainties and risks loom during the transition period. The future of these mega-projects depends on the incoming president and their policies. An Indonesian economist described to me that Jokowi is ‘casting a wide net’, hoping that some of the policies and projects may survive and become his legacy. However, many may not be retained on a full scale due to limited financial capacity and unfavourable global economic conditions.

The upcoming changes in Indonesia’s leadership provide Malaysia with an opportunity to reassess potential collaborations. Malaysia, especially the Bornean region, can capitalise on the strong cultural ties and relationships to establish a closer partnership that benefits both.

Cross-border cooperation in infrastructure development and environmental management can contribute to regional stability and prosperity, but careful decisions need to be made based on a more honest assessment of the situation.

Driving change requires more than just imagination and personality. Borneo has come a long way from colonisation to confrontation and collaboration. Both sides may need to raise their game in a careful manner to achieve a sustainable development trajectory.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Sunway University and Harvard University. He is interested in exploring sustainable development in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.