Fun Times in Indonesia
There’s a great episode of Bojack Horseman where Diane (a Vietnamese-American character) goes back to Vietnam to in an attempt to find purpose and a sense of community only to find her parent's culture totally unrelatable to her. I can relate to this experience, but I don’t feel completely divorced from my mom culture. I like Indonesia a lot. The food is great, the country is beautiful and diverse, the people are generally friendly. Something about it feels like home. My pet theory is that it's the food, since it was a big part of my diet growing up.
I would love to say that upon landing in Jakarta that you’ll be greeted by a combination of any of these good things. But probably the first thing you’ll notice is the traffic, which is what this essay is actually about. Ha! Gotcha! Now you can’t leave.
Jakarta’s traffic is notoriously terrible. Straight off the plane I was greeted by 20 minutes of gridlock a frustrating 1 km away from my hotel. Jakartans spend 3-4 hours everyday commuting. It’s a serious problem on both an individual and macroscopic level. This is a stifling influence in the city economically and I don’t have to tell anyone that it fucking sucks to spend your evening after work sitting in traffic.
Having spent a month in Ho Chi Minh City, a city of comparable size, I noticed one big difference, cars. In HCMC there’s very few cars. The Vietnamese government artificially raises the price on cars making them prohibitively expensive. The streets are packed to the brim with motorbikes. Simply from a volumetric standpoint it’s more efficient. This is not the case in Indonesia, in fact quite the opposite. Talking to my uncle who is a project lead for infrastructure projects around Jakarta, there’s a ton of lobbying from Japanese car companies, as domestic automobile production in Indonesia is practically non-existent. You would be hard pressed to find a car on the road that’s not a Honda or Toyota. He also claims that the Japanese car companies also try to limit the development of public transportation to maintain Indonesia's reliance on their cars. Maybe we're getting our tinfoil hats out prematurely, but it seems pretty reasonable to me. There's a ton of cars in Jakarta and they create huge bottlenecks in already cramped streets, they exacerbate a problem already inherent in high population areas. This is why Jakarta’s traffic is way worse than Ho Chi Minh.
At its core Indonesia’s problem is one of infrastructure. Indonesians are super stubborn and difficult to regulate, they resist systemic change. A rotating license plate system was put in place a couple of years ago which failed miserably, the public simply ignored it. The police literally cannot pull every trespasser over to fine them, not to mention that pulling people over causes more traffic which leads to unwillingness in the police force to enforce these types of programs. This happens to pretty much all of the programs of this nature.
So instead the structure has to be changed around the people. Either in the form of expanded roads and better city planning or, better yet, the improvement of public transportation systems to keep people off the roads. In the defense of the flawed but functional government, Jokowi’s administration has made huge efforts in this aspect, in fact it’s his main platform. He installed a new rail line between the two major cities in West Java, Jakarta and Bandung. He also has a new, albeit incomplete, MRT in Jakarta.
Indonesia just completed its presidential election cycle. It’s a massively involved process especially in the remote fringes of the country. It was the single largest voting day in the world. *Spoilers ahead* the voting resulted in the victory of the incumbent Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) over the contender Prabowo Subianto. There’s lots of policy differences between the two, but the relevant one here is that Jokowi welcomes foreign influence while Prabowo wants to cut it out as much as he possibly can.
This brings us to the elephant in the room when we’re talking about South-East Asian economics, China. I’ve written in the past that, in my opinion, South-East Asian countries need to be weary of the Chinese influence and for many of these countries it needs to be an imperative to rely on China as little as possible. But Indonesia is a different story.
Java’s traffic problem is stifling the economy. The government loses $5 billion USD annually due to congestion (Jakarta Post). This is a ridiculous chunk of change for a developing economy, especially one with no internal manufacturing. The Indonesian government is poor, racked with corruption and bureaucratic bloat. It also has a myriad of other problems that they would like to pour money into. From pollution to disaster relief to the litany of environmental concerns the nation faces. Not to mention many places have little to no infrastructure in the edges of the country.
Utilizing China’s willingness to give out low interest loans to build infrastructure may be the easiest way to push Indonesia towards a more self sustaining economy, even if that means giving up some geopolitical independence and domestic cultural power in the short term. I also think that the threat of Han Chinese pushing out native Indonesians is not quite as relevant as it is in Cambodia or Vietnam simply because of the distance.
Indonesians haven’t had the best relationship with the Chinese in the past. Although a peaceful equilibrium has been reached now there was a great deal of resentment and violence even as recently as the 90’s. And Indonesia is certainly not safe from the wave of nationalism/populism that has been on the uptick in recent years. Prabowo’s popularity, especially in more conservative rural areas, is understandable. I was in Cianjur, a smaller, more conservative city in the country during the elections. Talking to many of the people that supported Prabowo I felt echoes similar to some of the ideas in the US. A fear of loss of national identity and economic independence, which to be perfectly honest could be part of the price that is paid to China. But at the end of the day Indonesia has a wealth of problems and not a lot of wealth of the money variety. Indonesia quite literally needs the money to move.