The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, September 02, 2012


Anywhere decent left to live?                                       

Among the forecasts on population growth here’s news to stress those smug folk who don’t live in big cities like Jakarta, preferring the better quality of life found in smaller centers: 

Be prepared: Your view of the mountains will disappear behind smog; motorbike engines will shatter your silence.

By 2015 nearly 2.5 billion people globally are expected to live in cities of up to one million compared with 600 million housed in cities of more than five million.

In brief the urban drift continues, but most growth will now occur in smaller cities.

That reverses past trends.  In 1940 Semarang had 200,000, a quarter of Jakarta’s population.  Since Independence the Central Java city has grown five fold, the capital 20 fold.

Once visitors seeking the ‘real’ Indonesia were told to head to the hills where splay-toed men trail buffaloes through mud and leather-skinned women thresh rice in parched paddocks.  But for how much longer?

Soon the majority will be cramped in kampong, not raising corn and cassava for national consumption, but problems for urban planners.  Only 30 per cent of Indonesians will live in rural areas by 2035.  Twenty years ago it was the other way around.

It’s a demographic shift so rapid you only have to return after a couple of years to find once-familiar landmarks turned to rubble. Few Western cities can match Indonesia’s speed of urban change because they’re shackled by prolonged planning, environmental concerns and rigid construction rules.

What’s going on?  Globalization, urbanization or nation-building?  Push or pull? These questions feature in Asian Cities, New Zealand historian Malcolm McKinnon’s study of megalopolis and metropolis in India, China and Indonesia, focusing on the two Javanese centers mentioned above.

Western cities are also expanding, though for different reasons. Growth in places like Germany’s Frankfurt and Canada’s Toronto comes from international migration, while most Asian cities rely on movements of locals seeking better wages.

The two main exceptions are Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where foreigners are imported to do what the author calls the 3D jobs – dirty, difficult and dangerous. 

Unlike the opening of China to capitalism through political fiat, the economic development of Indonesia has no precise starting point.  The fall of Soekarno in 1965 was a critical point in history; it helped the West breathe more deeply but a flood of capital didn’t follow.

Under Soeharto the state kept control close to the State Palace.  Since his departure Jakarta has remained the magnetic political and entertainment pole of the Republic.  It seems that the much-heralded era of reformation and decentralisation was more sound than substance.

The Big Durian continues to seduce the hopeful and the hard up to seek their fortunes, out-charming Medan, Makassar and other regional centers despite the capital’s black hole reputation.

Compare this with Shanghai, not China’s capital but a huge and powerful attractant through its commercial energy and wealth, with 24 million residents, four million more than Beijing, yet so easy to access. 

If this situation was replicated in Indonesia industrial Surabaya would be the nation’s most populous.  Now too late.  The circling towns have expanded like cells on a slide, creating a borderless mess of terracotta and asphalt.

Semarang had its golden era as a trading port in the late years of Dutch colonialism, the third largest city exporting agricultural produce from the hinterland.  Now it has slipped to ninth place and according to Dr McKinnon is “unequivocally a provincial city.”

In the West the creation of the urban monster has been longer, slower but more consistent, dating back to the industrial revolution, then the centralization of government.

Asia is a fertile area for globalization studies but it’s a discipline where locals tread reluctantly. Says the author: “Scholarship in urban Asia remains, despite over 60 years of independent and independently-minded Asian governments, dominated by the Western academy.”

It would be good if this intellectual energy was leading towards solutions – but that doesn’t seem to be the goal.  Maybe because it’s all too difficult, like the job of town planning in a culture where rupiah, not rules, determine where and how you’ll live.

Asian cities don’t have to be gross.  Hong Kong has been rated as the world’s most liveable by The Economist magazine.

If Soekarno had acted back in the 1950s Jakarta could have been another Semarang and the nation’s capital would be Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono keeps the idea alive through occasional CPR, but not the necessary drip feed of dollars. 

If Jakarta can’t even complete a proper public transport system, or an athletes’ village for the Southeast Asian games without corruption, how could it cope in establishing an entirely new city? 

Would rebuilding be a better economic solution, despite the huge complexities and astronomic costs?  Elsewhere the models are mixed.  In 1960 Brazil shifted its capital to Brasilia, a city that now has 3.7 million residents. Rio, the nation’s center since the mid 16th century now has only 4.5 million.

Less successful have been attempts to move Kuala Lumpur’s 2.6 million by creating Putrajaya. The new city has wide roads and green parks but only 70,000 residents.

It’s a pity that Dr McKinnon hasn’t explored these issues, preferring to concentrate on history and theory – interesting but of limited use.

We know Jakarta is overcrowded and already rushing towards failed city status on the grounds of traffic management and pollution.  What are needed are books on how to fix the problem.

ASIAN CITIES: Globalization, Urbanization and Nation Building
Malcolm McKinnon
NIAS Press 2011
(First published in The Sunday Post, 2 September 2012)


1 comment:

Kio said...

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