When Indonesian President Joko Widodo decided last year to pursue outlandish plans to build a new capital city in far-flung Kalimantan, advisers shook their heads in despair. But they were not surprised.
“Jokowi doesn’t like analysis; he likes action and decisions,” one official told me, using the president’s universal nickname. “There was no proper analysis of which infrastructure projects would boost growth and productivity the most. Instead, he just pushed projects depending on where he was visiting.”
The president said the $32 billion project is necessary to ease the pressure on overcrowded Jakarta, spread development beyond the economic powerhouse of Java and realize Indonesia’s destiny to become an advanced nation.
But the economics of moving the capital did not add up, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending the economy tumbling toward its first recession since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. While many nations have built new capitals, few have attempted to do it so far away from the existing one, 1,300 km across the sea.
The dream of constructing Indonesia’s very own Brasilia, Canberra or Naypyitaw embodies the president’s best — and worst — traits. On the one hand, he is ambitious, focused on building much-needed infrastructure and good at charming foreign investors. On the other hand, Jokowi is impulsive, impatient with experts and prefers launching headline-grabbing initiatives rather than pushing tough reforms.
Inspired but exasperated by Jokowi, one of his ministers told me it was best to understand the president as a “bundle of contradictions.”