Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jakarta in The Eyes of Foreigners

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' 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 In tramuros. 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 State, like Houston and
Los Angeles) the cities themselves belong to pedestrians. Cars are
increasingly discouraged from travelling in the city centres. 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 centre 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
orches tr a companies as well top internationalperfor mers. 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
at tr action 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 ex tr emely
cosmopolitan fare 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 the Dutch built almost all of
them. Not only are their collections poorly kept, but they lack elements
of modernity 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 tr eatment facilities, playgrounds, parks, sidewalks
and a mass public transportation system.

Rich Singapore aside, Kuala Lumpur with only 2 million inhabitants
boasts one metroline (Putra Line), one monorail, several efficient Star
LRT lines, suburban tr ain 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 me tr o 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 expa tr iates, 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 neighbouring countries in aesthetics, 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 neighbours 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.

Andre Vitchek* *Worldpress. org contributing editor*

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