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Number 1 Shimbun

Tweeting the "Big Durian"


 Diverse, multi-religious Jakarta
is the world's social media captial, reports Zakir Hussain


AS I WRITE THIS, preparations for Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election are underway. It is an unprecedented straight fight between the capital’s unassuming but popular folksy governor Joko Widodo and the polished yet temperamental former general Prabowo Subianto.

The battle is the talk of the town – among cab drivers and at coffee shops – and almost everyone has an opinion. But there are no tanks on the streets or policemen standing guard outside campaign headquarters; where things get really heated is on Twitter and Facebook, for Jakarta is the world’s social media capital. There was even a recent movie called Republik Twitter, about a university student who travels here to find the love of his life he met through – but where else – Twitter. Jokowi, as the governor is known, has 1.5 million followers, while Prabowo has some 750,000. (By comparison, outgoing President Yudhoyono has 5 million.)

The reason Jokowi is in the lead is that, since entering office in October 2012, he has embarked on ambitious efforts to weed out bureaucrats seeking bribes for public services, relocate street vendors off busy thoroughfares into markets and other public spaces, clean up the canals that contribute to annual floods, spruce up public parks and make himself available to those who want to see him. As a result, he gets a daily stream of petitioners at City Hall. Construction of a 32km-long mass rapid-transit system – Indonesia’s first subway system – is also underway through the heart of the capital, as is a separate 30km-long monorail network.

The big story, 16 years after
becoming a full-fledged democracy,
is really the booming economy.

If this sounds like things are looking up for the city known as the “Big Durian,” they are. The capital of 10 million sees its population double during the day as many residents from the outskirts of Asia’s second-largest metropolitan area (after Tokyo) travel into the thriving center for work. Congestion remains a major issue, and like much of the city, it’s often unpredictable – you could cover 20km in 20 minutes in a car on a good day, and spend an hour crawling 2km on a particularly bad one. But there are options – people can get on an ojek or motorcycle taxi at a street corner, or brave the TransJakarta bus network that has dedicated lanes in a bid to encourage people to switch to buses and leave their vehicles at home. That is, alas, a very tough proposition when rising incomes have made cars that much more affordable.

Even as it is political season in Jakarta, the big story about the capital of Southeast Asia’s largest country, 16 years after becoming a full-fledged democracy, is really the booming economy. Where five years ago, many wouldn’t think of relocating here, many are now moving in, be they freelancers or consultants. Decades of centralized control mean that even as an aggressive decentralization of power to the regions takes place, the national capital is where the money still flows fastest. And so skyscrapers with upwards of 50 stories and swanky shopping malls with brand-name shops are going up. Lavish luxury hotels are opening, including the Raffles Jakarta. Companies from all over the region are moving in to take advantage of growing consumer purchasing power – even though for now, the “consuming class,” as the consultants describe it, numbers just one-third of the population of 250 million.

All this has made Jakarta a much more vibrant place to live over the three years I have been here. New restaurants and watering holes open up almost weekly, with a range of cuisine from Argentinian to Uzbek for a third to a half of what you would pay in Singapore. Indonesia’s growing weight in the region, and the fact that the Asean headquarters are housed here, have seen Jakarta become a diplomatic hub in its own right.

Ahead of the April general election,
election commission officials went out to
a transgender neighborhood
to encourage them to vote

Muslim-majority Indonesia is largely tolerant and inclusive, especially in diverse, multi-religious Jakarta. Ahead of the April general election, election commission officials went out to a transgender neighborhood to encourage them to vote. At the same time, hard-line groups are also free to demonstrate publicly, making for occasionally lively copy, though the police often keep a watchful eye on them. Ubiquitous metal detectors at the entrances to most hotels, malls and office buildings are a reminder of the real terrorist threat, though thanks to police and intelligence work there has been no major attack in the capital since 2009.

Still, there has been an endless stream of possible stories, aided by officials who are generally open and willing to engage with journalists, and by the plethora of newspapers, news websites and TV stations. There is even a Japanese-language Jakarta Shimbun, published daily. Ministers and newsmakers often give their mobile numbers, and comment fairly freely. But they may not always pick up calls or reply to messages. When that happens, it’s better to turn to Twitter.

Zakir Hussain is the Indonesia bureau chief for the Straits Times.


Published in: June

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