In search of a humane face of megalopolitan Jakarta

Syafiq Basri Assegaff.

The Jakarta Post, 13 November 2021.

Harboring more than 70 percent of all commercial activities of the nation, Jakarta has been the main attraction to many since the first urbanization took place in the early 1950s. Jakarta is not only the place where every Indonesian – both experts and non-experts – is welcome, but also the spot where survival of the fittest is more than just a classic text book. It was in the 1950s when the city inhabitants witnessed for the first time newcomers with no expertise living and fighting against the cruel life of the big city along the rail tracks and the banks of the Ciliwung River, one of 13 rivers that dissect Jakarta. In Jakarta 400 Years of History, Susan Blackburn writes that from the beginning of Dutch colonization in the late 17th century up to the present, Jakarta has not been designed for anyone other than the ruling government official elites, their cronies and the rich.

Democracy, the true spirit of reformasi that finally overthrew the Soeharto regime in 1998, gave rise to press freedom and freedom of speech like never before and fostered civil society political participation. However, it has not given much economic benefit to Jakarta’s poor. Politically, the poor remain invisible from one regime to another; these unfortunates have continued to be discriminated against.

Jakarta citizens rushing for home-coming to their villages (‘mudik’) celebrating Iedul Fitri after Ramadhan.

Indeed, years after Blackburn published her remarkable book in 1987 – which was banned by the Soeharto government – Jakarta still deserves to be called a segregated city, where the poor are slowly encouraged to migrate outside, where its middle class use their private cars extensively and choose their private destinations separately from one another.

Please click here for the original article published in The Jakarta Post, 13 November 2021.

It is obvious that since the economy is very much run by the market mechanism, Jakarta people have become more individualistic. Even if lower class citizens own a house, for instance, the city remains unfriendly to them, because they still have to pay extra for the recently hiked land and building tax (PBB). Jakarta’s native Betawi people and others who were born there, for instance, grew up and inherited their houses from their fathers and grandfathers in Jakarta. Many of them now seem to be in difficult situations.

But since the government is desperate enough to raise revenue from taxation, it appears there is no better and logical solution for the poor but to escape permanently from the city they love to nearby satellite towns like Bekasi, Depok, Bogor and Tangerang.

The situation remained the same until the Jakarta government under Governor Anies Baswedan made exceptional strides to erase such unfriendly taxation. In his recent presentation at the National Mandate Party (PAN) workshop in Bali, Anies made his point clear: Ideally taxation should be directed to land and houses for enterprise or business use, instead of residential use where housing is to fulfill people’s basic need: to protect them from rain, heat and cold.

From this point of view we can find out that Anies has shown that the state does not only provide a level playing field to ensure fair competition among the city inhabitants. The state is also responsible for interfering if something “structural” goes wrong.

Anies in his bicycle in one of Jakarta’s Car Free Day (Photo from Tempo).

Perhaps this was one of the reasons that certain groups recently announced support for Anies to run for president in 2024. Some have predicted he will be one of the strongest presidential candidates, as demonstrated in various surveys. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo currently top the list ahead of Anies. Leaving the election aside, another iconic program during Anies’ four-year governorship is his policy to transform the city of 11 million people into a more humane, less segregated and less alienated society by providing integrated public transportation and spacious sidewalks for pedestrians.

Jakarta now can pride itself as a city with no land and building tax for the poor, school teachers and heirs of those who have sacrificed their lives and wealth for the nation. However, the pandemic has prevented the full implementation of the policy, since businesspeople who are the target of the taxation have had to stop or slow down their commercial activities on their property.

Since the Jakarta government has been successful in developing this comfortable and more efficient public transportation system, middle-class people now leave their private cars at home and prefer to hop onto the public transportation.

Watch this video: Free emissions tests for car owners in Jakarta

With coverage of up to 85 percent of Greater Jakarta, compared to 23-24 percent when Anies took office four years ago, this integrated public transportation system has attracted many passengers like never before. The number of public transportation users reached 350,000 in 2016, and is projected to hit 1 million in 2030 if more improvements are made. Apart from generating an efficient, effective transportation system that reduces traffic congestion, this overhaul sends a message to the city dwellers that the city government aims to put an end to decades-long social segregation. 

Behind the fact that the “odd-even” number plate traffic restriction policy has forced the middle class to shift to public transportation, the spirit of egalitarianism prevails when every passenger receives equal treatment regardless of their profession or their socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic or other background.

There is no difference between bosses and office boys or between blue collar and white collar workers on public transportation. Like it or not, the idea of equality as well as togetherness is expected to slowly replace social segregation in the city.

One of Jakarta’s LRT in recent operation test

At least that was the idea behind Anies’ attempt to simplify the complicated public transportation system. The system integrates angkot (public minivans), medium-sized and large buses, MRT, LRT and commuter trains all together in one system, which is supported by wide pedestrian sidewalks to enable more human encounters to take place.

Being a scholar trained to think systematically and scientifically, and taking a good lesson from the fact that massive but poorly planned development had caused lots of man-made disasters, former education and culture minister Anies is used to starting everything he plans from an idea (paradigm), narrative, then – eventually – work.

Is it not his scientific attitude that has put Jakarta among the cities that have handled the COVID-19 outbreak effectively? And it is his scientific perception too that enables him to manage complicated problems like public transportation and the pandemic.  

Nevertheless, there is a lot Anies should do to transform Jakarta into a humane city.  

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