You are on page 1of 8



The Absence of Nationalism in Transnational City

In my visit to Jakarta in the last summer, I was experiencing the urban, metropolitan city very distinct from other major cities in the world. Jakarta was rather segregated into different areas, correlating with the different social order from the impoverished caste to the highly opulent and more authoritative group of people. However, unlike the balanced ratio of slums versus upscale area in New York, Tokyo, or Paris, Jakarta is very imbalanced; with the façade of highly-rised buildings, commercial, business and financial district, contrast with the bigger area of slums (kampung in Indonesian, literally means rural village, however in this matter located in the middle of urban area, and regarded as low-income housings and has a much lower standard of living) surrounding it. The reason why Jakarta reflects a failure of a structured urban area is based on the fact that it’s listed number 46th in list of world’s cities by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and number 16th of the 20 largest megacities in 2005 and their projected GDP in 2030 (Fig. 1). Indonesia itself is also listed number 16th in list of countries by GDP by IMF, World Bank, and World Factbook, just ahead of Australia and ranking it the highest in GDP as a South East Asian country. Nevertheless, it is also a fact that GDP doesn’t take into account the wealth distribution of a city or country, which could refer to the imbalanced income from the impoverished (lower class) and upper-middle class, thus GDP is limited in determining the economic health of a country. The simple statistic data of Indonesia’s economy is also disregarding major issues such as misallocation of investments, over-exploitation of natural resources, and ultimately the standard of living in much bigger areas. Jakarta’s zoning and urban planning is reflecting a social inequality and present urban issues (such as transportation, traffic jams, air pollution, economic routes and distribution) and a significant issue of how racial status (Chinese descendants dwelling in Indonesia as opposed to native Indonesians) still serves as a measurement of social class; a bourgeois point of view in a globalizing world.
Fig. 1 : Jakarta listed in top 20 largest megacities according to GDP.

In his writing of Behind the Postcolonial, Abidin Kusno argued about how “urban design contributes to providing a postcolonial “national” city that cuts across class, ethnic and racial boundaries.”(p.145) In analyzing Jakarta’s urban activities and built environment, there’s antibiosis in the living condition of lower class people, social and racial mentality, economic distribution, and decisions made in urban planning and construction. By addressing the existing problems in Jakarta, I’d like to bridge the causes and effects into a much more essential origin, delineating Indonesian’s cultural history, historical events, national mentality and attitude either as a counter response or internally affected by colonialism. For Instance, the persisting problem of traffic jams in Jakarta, a mostly shared experience by the vehicle users, is analogous to the amount of privately owned cars, as: “no matter how often the authorities launch their orderly-traffic campaigns, no matter how many new rules and regulations are introduced and no matter how many new roads are built or enlarged, Jakarta’s traffic snarls continue to grow worse almost by the day” (Jakarta Post, January 8, 1995: 1 quoted in Kusno p.147). (Fig.2) The substantial amount of upper-middle class community who prefer to have his/her own vehicle is justifiably caused by the feel of insecurity and distress in taking a public transport; Jakarta’s Bus Rapid Transit System is dominated by lower class workers commuting from rural to the central area of the city. When the government introduced ‘three-in-one’ zones, where all vehicles passing through the area are prohibited from entering unless they carry at least two other passengers besides the driver, interestingly, it started the appearance of ‘street urchins’ or ‘hitchhikers’ who offer service as an additional passengers, and in return would receive ‘tip’ or payment. Whether or not this activity seems to be motivated from the fear of getting fines from law enforcement, there’s an additional interaction between lower class and upper class society, where they share in one ride. However, the broader aspect I want to discuss here is the tendency of social separation between upper and lower class as a response to either the unorganized and ineffective transportation system and highFigure 2: Everyday scene of Jakarta Traffic Jams

ways or the predisposition of insecurity of an upper class worker who contemplates on social or even racial status.

In traveling around Jakarta, one could argue that there’s a constant sense of foreign-ness not affiliated with what represents Indonesia. As a capital city, Jakarta should have represented the international ‘gate’ and the front frontier of Indonesia with its highly distinctive culture and traditional aesthetics. However, major shopping districts, real estates, and luxurious residential areas are not only displayed as a ‘royalty throne’ over impoverished area, but also an unrefined, superficial coating of ‘Greco-Roman Revival’, borrowed from the preconception of the rather orthodox Western’s display of surplus, lavish, and monumental authority. One of the biggest and exclusive malls in Jakarta, Grand Indonesia, is designed with its interior having different ‘World themes’, such as ‘New York theme’, ‘Chinatown theme’, or visually interesting design of a restaurant in the shape of a yacht, where it envisions a family oriented gathering place and recreational area (Fig. 3). However the issue of accessibility into these magnificent and splendor building is specifying the wealth gap between the higher class group of people and the lower class group; it literally stand out among the deficiently built kampung areas, which populace comprises a bigger percentage of the city dwellers. Another matter is that the very lacking elements of local culture would make it a good example of how globalization in Jakarta had made it irrational for private investors, in decision-making of what to build and what not to, by almost completely abandoning any vernacular aspect in it. No matter it is a native or a foreigner, one couldn’t possibly assume that Grand Indonesia belong to Indonesia; it is an utterly in a different category of mediocre replicas that enhances the plastic and superficial quality of Jakarta’s globalized lifestyle. By this example that incorporated almost the entire urban fabric of Jakarta, we would start to ask questions of origins; how and when the social disparity and the loss of national identity had manifested in Jakarta’s urban built form.
Figure 3: Various scenes of reproduction in Grand Indonesia and other Jakarta Malls.

Known as a member of one of the “westernized” elites, the former vice president, Mohammad Hatta, was addressing the problem of unity and integrity: “…The reason for all this is that most of our cities did not arise from our own society but rather as appendages of a foreign economy. These cities are not centers of the creative activity of our own people but primarily distribution centers for foreign goods… That is why our cities are not capable of filtering the foreign cultures that come here…We must be cautious and selective in the face of foreign cultures…For more than three hundred years we were dominated by the Dutch, and this did not destroy our culture” (quoted in Kusno p.149). Here there is a struggle to protect Indonesia’s traditional culture and heritage from Westernization of the Dutch colonialism, and the International economic dependency after the declaration of Indonesia’s independence. Despite the seemingly positive approach, by clearly differentiating and finalizing the borderline between Modernization and Cultural Heritage, Mohammad Hatta’s mentality is in a way rejecting to accept modernity as a necessary development towards a more integrated Modern Indonesia. In this sense, Indonesian cities are rather trapped in an inevitable current of the global world for the sake of the country’s economic growth. Moreover, the natives’ attitude towards new urbanized areas is rather passive and obligated, and migrations to urban cities were derived mostly from “poverty and overpopulation of rural Java” (Kusno p.151). This notion of foreign culture towards the urban cities are elaborated further by Kusno: “This transposition of space from rural to city enables both a forgetting of rural origins as well as a remembrance of them. The city here is far from obliterating the rural, but it enables the imagining or re-emphasizing of the common people that are presumably living in rural areas. The city represented as “foreign” thus enables the production of a new individuality and, by definition, an imagining of the old collective rural and also vernacular-indigenous identity” (p.151). In this concern, the concept of experience between rural and urban is fully metaphysical; there’s not much spatial and concrete relation and comparison. Even though the well-known ex-Governor of Jakarta, Ali Sadikin, proposed that “the images of social relations in the milieu of the urban kampung called up the ‘traditional’, smoothly working, relatively harmonious, self-enclosed ‘village of rural origin’ that cherished communalism”(Kusno p.152), there’s little that we can correlate between the cramped, unhygienic, and polluted kampung to the more nature-surrounded rural villages. The insufficient attempt to reconfigure the city’s form to the traditional spatial organization and societal value (as a traditional culture of agricultural living), by simply accepting it as it is, fails to accommodate a healthy living space for the indigenous people migrating from rural areas. With little that could be brought about in the urbanized area, Indonesian cities cannot generate a new sense of nationalism despite the attempts to incorporate literally the building styles (shape of roof, veranda, etc.) and village customs and activities; Indonesian cities remain foreign and remote to the majority of native Indonesians.

The riots of May 1998, as Kusno argued, had a “symbolic attacks on the Indonesian Chinese…The attacks were nonetheless carried out through an abstraction of the Chinese as ‘outsiders’ and through an association of them with ‘wealth’” (p.155) (Fig. 4). The riots also demarcated that: “the rioters showed that they are not like the Indonesian Chinese…the riots against the Chinese became a message sent by the rioters, less to the Chinese than to themselves, that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’…, identities were formed and also transformed” (Kusno p.164). On the other hand, to the Chinese, who constituted about 3 percent of the country’s 200 million population yet perceived as dominating the country’s economy, detached themselves even further, establishing themselves, out of fear, anger, and memory of past events, as ‘foreigners’, whose works and financial investments are mainly dedicated to other exclusive upper-middle class Jakartans.

Figure 4: The May 1998 Riot, native Indonesians were attacking, robbing and looting stores, houses, and cars owned by Chinese Indonesians

About 60,000 hectares of land for housing, located on the outskirts of Jakarta, is said to be controlled by 10 large developers, mainly of ethnic Chinese background. These developers tend to sell lands merely to speculators or to build luxurious houses in the eyes of capitalist modernity. The inspiration of these developers is neither rural nor nationalistic. Due to the collapse of Indonesian Communist Party in 1967, The New Order of Indonesia banned any potential representations of Chinese cultural events, as they were highly perceived as connected politically to the Communist Party. In result, The Chinese private business developers inevitably gained inspiration from Euro-American living style.

A quote from an advertisement of the largest real estate developer of Indonesia, Ciputra Group, who is also a Chinese descent: “All the beauty and harmony in this world are the sources of inspiration to create and innovate special designs that will enable people to enjoy a more colorful and joyous life…The belief is that as long as the Group produces creative and quality products, it will prove its dedication and contribution to the society” (quoted in Kusno p.158). With that proposal on design aspiration, problematic consequences started to occur such as; the widening income gap between lower class and upper-middle class and the symbolic domination over Indonesian society that is aspired by this very foreign influence, barely related to any of Indonesia’s cultural history. Goenawan Mohamad indicated the psychological effects of how the capital city remains an uncomfortable place to live in:

“Jakarta does not seem to offer any meaningful sense of connection; there is nothing that must be retained and must not be lost… The city is alienating and it cannot stand alone, it is neither controlled by the ‘Dutch-style fortress’ nor by the spirit of the ancient Javanese ‘Mataram Kingdom’, but by something else, something stronger – the economic and political forces around it, that made us all foreigners here” (quoted in Kusno p.162).

Kusno later also remarked an essential statement that “the foreign-ness of Jakarta comes as a result of not following the proper process of nation-building. Here the city embodies a series of identities constructed initially for the Indonesian Chinese: ‘Money, exclusivity, and transnationality’”(p.163) (Fig. 5). Since Suharto stabilized his power in 1967, the Indonesia Chinese have been excluded from politics and have been made to represent themselves in the sector of economic success and hardship. The Indonesian Chinese is the economic powerhouse for Indonesia’s position in the international scope, however their contribution and execution is purely foreign or ‘transnational’. As the byproduct of Indonesia as a colonized country (establishing the relationship between Chinese and anything ‘foreign’), and the decisions made in Suharto’s New Order, Jakarta, as a representation of Indonesia’s multi-faceted disputes, is caught in a pattern of poor wealth distribution, transnationalistic culture, international economic dependency, and unthoughtful building and rebuilding. In protecting Asia’s traditional heritage in a globalizing world, William S. Logan observed, “what may also be new is the emergence of a counter-tendency to recognize, and often reinvent, traditional cultural heritage and urban forms in many Asian societies. In other words, globalization and localization are occurring side by side” (p.xii). He stated that we could actually “see this as resulting from a growing awareness that globalization does not represent ‘an overall process of uniformization’ but that it is, rather, a process that reinforces cultural difference”(Logan p.xvii). By conjoining global and local aspects and altering the economic concentration to promoting local cultures to a more standardized global taste (for instance, UNESCO lays down international standards for professional practices in the cultural heritage field), Indonesia would be able to break through the pattern of the deteriotating disputes and simultaneously reinventing a modern cultural heritage within the International views. Although I realize that in some places the standards of living is so low that economic development strategy would seem more important, the government along with the private investors should consider restorations and reinventions of Indonesia’s tradition, deconstructing it in such a way that not only the indigenous but all of the layers of foreign, largely European, colonial influences are revealed. Finally, there’s so much to be carried out with Logan’s proposal about ‘Paradoxical articulations’:

“Rather than seeing cultural heritage protection as an obstacle to development, it is now recognized that the two can go hand in hand, and that policies dealing with the two aspects together can bring about more effective programs to raise standards of living in developing countries and elsewhere, and lead cities towards a more sustainable future.” (p.xxi) (Fig. 6)

Figure 6: Indonesia’s historical and cultural asset that could benefit economically and culturally if promoted further.

Helmond, Arjan van and Stani Michiel. Jakarta Megalopolis : Horizontal and Vertical Observations. Amsterdam: Valiz Publishing, 2007. Knapp, Ronald G. Asia’s Old Dwellings: Tradition, Resilience, and Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Kusno, Abidin. Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, urban space and political culture. London: Routledge, 2000. Logan, William S. The Disappearing ‘Asian’ city: Protecting Asia’s Urban Heritage in a Globalizing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Nas, Peter J.M. The Past in The Present: Architecture in Indonesia. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2006. Ockman, Joan. Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention.New York: Prestel Verlag, 2002. Read, Stephen, Jurgen Rosemann and Job van Eldijk. Future City. New York: Spon Press, 2005. TIME Magazine. 22 Feb. 2007. Why Indonesia Matters. 12 Dec. 2008 <,9171,15925764,00.html> Sejarah Indonesia: An Online Timeline of Indonesian History.1996-2001. 12 Dec. 2008 <>