What if Indonesia’s capital was situated in the Riau Archipelago?

THE Riau Islands are one of the richest provinces in Indonesia, strategically located within the crucial maritime crossroads connecting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to the South China Sea. Historically, it was once part of Srivijaya, Majapahit, the Malacca Sultanate and the Johor-Riau empires.

The breakup of the Johor-Riau empire in 1824 had divided this once formidable Sultanate into two, the Sultanate of Johor which is now part of Malaysia and the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was disbanded by the Dutch in 1911.

Today, the capital of the Riau Islands province is Tanjung Pinang on Bintan Island. Batam is the largest city in the province located a mere 13kms south of downtown Singapore.

Malaysia’s Johor Bahru is situated not too far away from the province.

As the Straits of Malacca is one of the busiest shipping ways in the world, with the ports of Singapore and Tanjung Pelepas in Johor being listed in the top 20 busiest ports in the world by the World Shipping Council. The Port of Batam is reported to be one of the busiest in Indonesia, aside from ports of Tanjung Priok and Tanjung Perak in Java.

The Jokowi administration announced in 2019 that Indonesia will be building a new capital, Nusantara, deep in the jungles of East Kalimantan. The construction of this grand project has now commenced and the first batch of migration from Jakarta to Nusantara is projected to take place in 2024.

Many nations have moved or are planning to relocate their capitals. Myanmar, for instance has moved its capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2012, the Ivory Coast moved its capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro in 1983 and Australia transferred its seat of government from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927. Malaysia did the same when its administration was transferred to Putrajaya in 2001 while Kuala Lumpur remains the national capital of the country.

In terms of distance, the city centre of Kuala Lumpur is just 40kms north of Putrajaya. This new administrative city is still considered within the Klang Valley, the largest urban conglomeration in Malaysia with Kuala Lumpur as its nucleus.

Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is located 280kms away from Sydney. Naypyidaw is about 400kms north of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. Yamoussoukro was built more than 200kms away from the coast deep in the jungles of Ivory Coast.

While Putrajaya and Canberra are thriving cities, things might not be the same for Naypyidaw and Yamoussoukro. To this day, Naypyidaw still is desolately under populated and the capital of Ivory Coast has not grown into a city it was envisioned to be.

Among the reasons why East Kalimantan was chosen as the site for the new capital was due to the fact that it is right smack in the middle of the Indonesian Archipelago and unlike other provinces, Kalimantan is almost completely free from natural disasters.

If geography is the reason, then it may not be so for capital cities like Canberra, Ottawa, Washington, London or Beijing. These cities are not geographically located in the middle of their respective nations. Beijing for instance, does not have this quality as the city is located in the north-eastern part of the country.

If geography really is the main factor, the capital of Australia should be erected in Central Australia somewhere in Alice Springs and Washington D.C. should be relocated to Kansas or Nebraska. Nevertheless, Australia selected a site within New South Wales to be made ‘Australian Capital Territory’ while Washington is located towards the American eastern seaboard relatively near its economic powerhouses of Philadelphia and New York.

These cities are not geographically situated in the middle of their respective nations. Nonetheless, Canberra, Beijing, Washington D.C, Ottawa and London function well as capital cities equipped with world-class facilities and efficient connectivity.

Nusantara, on the othe hand, will be built on a totally new site in Kalimantan, far away from Indonesia’s main cities of Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung or Medan. According to a census made in 2020, Balikpapan, the closest city to Nusantara is not even in the top 10 list of largest cities in Indonesia.

While it is true that East Kalimantan is not prone to natural disasters, the same applies to Riau Islands Province as well. Hypothetically, if Indonesia had chosen Riau Islands province, particularly Bintan, Batam or any of the adjacent islands as the site of ‘Nusantara’, then the capital of Indonesia would not geographically be in the middle of the archipelago.

Nevertheless, the Riau Islands are located just a stone’s throw away to Singapore and quite adjacent to Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. If any of the Riau Islands within the Strait of Singapore were selected, Indonesia will possess a new capital capable of capitalising trade flow criss-crossing the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

Logistically speaking, it would be nearer to travel from the Riau Islands to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and even Bangkok if compared to East Kalimantan, which is hundreds of kilometers away to the east.

Singapore is currently constructing a mega port in Tuas, touted to be the world’s single largest container port whilst Malaysia is still developing its Rapid project in Pengerang, not too far away from the Riau Islands.

Imagine if the new capital of Indonesia is built adjacent to the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, benefitting from three nations trade flow in one of the world’s busiest straits.

Nevertheless, Indonesia has began erecting its capital in Penajam Paser Utara, Kalimantan. This ambitious project may mean either two things – making or breaking the nation. Let’s be optimistic that Nusantara will one day become the dream city of the future. All eyes on Indonesia now for the construction of Nusantara, the new capital of the largest archipelagic state in the world.

Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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