Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Politics of the Indonesian city

Published: Dec 06, 2016

York University professor Abidin Kusno shares reflections on Ahok's leadership

Andy Fuller

Andy Fuller interviews Abidin Kusno, a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, on his work exploring the pasts and futures of Indonesia’s cities and his opinion of Jakarta Governor Ahok’s approach to reforming and rebuilding Jakarta’s city administration and infrastructure.

AF: You are an architect by training, and your academic work is within Postcolonial Studies and Memory Studies. What drew you to the study of Indonesian cities? 

AK: I think the reasons for studying Indonesian cities are both intellectual and experiential. I grew up in Medan, entered high school, studied for an architecture degree at university in Surabaya, and worked in Jakarta. These are the three largest Indonesian cities, and each has very different characteristics and temperaments. Out of the three, it was Jakarta that I knew the least, however before I left to work in North America, it was where I was living with my Indonesian family and so it became the place I would return to. Little did I realise that out of this quite personal need to make sense of my new home, I would then begin to study and write about it. This became possible when I got the opportunity to pursue graduate study in the United States under a Fulbright scholarship. Studying abroad offered a distance I needed to make sense of the place I called home. 

What drew me intellectually to study Indonesian cities was due in a large measure to the intellectual environment at the State University of New York, Binghamton, in the 1990s. I was inspired by many things there (it was my first trip abroad). I was amazed by the library, the courses, the professors and my fellow students. My mentor, Anthony King, taught courses on colonial and global cities from a historical and contemporary perspective. He had just published Urbanism, Colonialism and the World-Economy (Routledge, 1990). He was very active in Immanuel Wallerstein’s Fernand Braudel Centre, contributing to debates on the role of cities and (urban) cultures in the formation of a world-system. Our Art History department welcomed different theoretical approaches beyond the tradition of the discipline and it also encouraged students to take courses outside the department. Besides Art History, I took courses in Sociology and History and became interested in issues around colonial cultures and postcolonial conditions as these were analysed in World-System Studies and cultural theories. 

Cornell University, a leading centre for Indonesian studies, was just a one-hour bus ride away. It has the greatest collection of Indonesian books and newspapers I had ever seen and all so accessible in a space resembling a warehouse. At that time, all the main players who formed the ‘Cornell approach’ to Indonesian Studies were still teaching, such as Ben Anderson, Jim Siegel and Takashi Shiraishi. I had never taken courses with them, but the proximity to Cornell allowed interactions to take place. In such an intellectual environment, when at home Indonesia was still under Suharto, it was not difficult to question what I had taken for granted – the meaning of history and nationalism, as well as ideas of modernity and tradition, including my experiences (or memories) of Indonesia. To me, the notion of ‘memory’ meant exploring suppressed histories, or ways of expressing stories outside official representations. Space and form (by way of my architecture and spatial training) became a medium for setting up different knowledge and narratives. I simply thought it was my job then to ‘spatialise’ or ‘visualise’ Indonesian politics by bringing together architecture, urban space and political imagination. I should probably also mention that (after completed my PhD) I taught for two years at New York University’s Metropolitan Studies program following a postdoctoral appointment at the university’s International Center for Advanced Studies, which then had a multi-year focus on (global) urban knowledge. New York was undergoing what Neil Smith, a critical geographer, called ‘revanchism’, associated with the policy of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. To teach in a program critical of Giuliani’s approach, I had to learn about the city and I developed some perspectives. But my heart was then in Jakarta as the city moved on to post-Suharto era. These encounters and experiences were invaluable in helping me think about Jakarta, where I thought I would be returning after my extended period of study abroad.   

AF: Can you paint us a picture of how Indonesian cities are changing today? What makes them such exciting sites of research?

AK: Indonesian cities are recognisably diverse, but Jakarta, the capital city, is the political centre of Indonesia and the site for capitalist modernisation. It is naturally a site where changes are most rapid, especially in the urban form, but at the same time we could say that the city never seems to change. The old persists in all that is new – the new and old layers co-exist. Physically, more and more spaces are being opened up by property developers to signify development, but this is accompanied by the emergence of new kampungs (low-income residential areas) despite the demolition and displacement of the old ones. Such production of spaces is highly dynamic but it defies a linear view of time and space. I sought to understand this dynamic by way of interpreting the changing urban form of Jakarta as an outcome of an assemblage of power relations and different interests that are not always compatible and often paradoxical, for example between developers, the government, and people who rework the city. This process, however, is not entirely new as capitalist modernisation produced an uneven development of the cityscape, especially in the Global South. So, what is new in Jakarta? What is changing? Historically, there is a change in the way institutions, like the city government, work (this is also happening in other parts of the world); there has been a change in the way power operates and it changes the relationship between the city and the nation.

AF: To what extent has the city freed itself from the nation-state? 

AK: Introduced in the post-Suharto era, decentralisation delegated administrative authority in many sectors. There are local elections to choose the head of local government, including the governor of Jakarta who in turn appoints civil servants. Along with this is the emergence of a new style of local politics where politicians can gain (politico-economic) power with little support from the central government. For instance, Ahok, a Christian–Chinese from outside Java, became governor of Jakarta. Ahok, and Jokowi (President Joko Widodo) too, are both clearly products of this policy change. 

AF: Is the city fulfilling a mission that the nation-state has failed to do, such as good governance? Can you talk about this in relation to Ahok? 

AK: It is interesting to examine how Ahok legitimises his method of governing through use of the term ‘good governance’ – which includes transparency, accountability and (to a lesser extent) participation. All these leave us with an impression of the rise of ‘new’ civic and democratic values, but they are actually ‘popular’ values (not always the same as the ‘people’s’ values). Popular values are often translated into populist programs – (ironically) hierarchical – to ‘give’ free education, free health care, almost-free bus rides and low-cost rental apartments (to compensate eviction), as we are seeing in Ahok’s administration. Decentralisation has given rise to such urban popular performances of the city government. The city has replaced the state as the arena for representations of such popular values.

AF: Populist politics (especially during electoral campaigns) generally starts with complaints about social divisions, injustice and unfairness, which take the form of unequal access to ‘urban resources’/ ‘collective consumption’ such as land, water, and public facilities/infrastructure. In what way have Ahok or Jokowi followed this path, as governors of Jakarta?

AK: Issues of fairness, justice and equality were indeed part of political campaigns, but populist politicians also know very well the limits to addressing such issues. They understand that people will continue to complain about public services, as they are demanding more and more services. So over time politicians would generally look for ‘popular problems’ that they think are cutting across different groups and would reach a broader audience. They would look for what they think are the urban majority and eventually their attention would shift from the urban poor to the ‘middle class’ who are not so much complaining about poverty, social divisions and injustices but more about issues related to the condition of urban space, the environment and sustainability (flooding, traffic jams, pollution and green space). In the end they create what they imagine to be their broad support base. Environmental sustainability has increasingly become the base of populist politics, displacing issues of livelihood that have been the main concern of the urban poor, and so it follows that the populist politician seeking election/re-election will incorporate environmental issues in their platform. 

AF: What other new practices legitimise the rule of a populist politician, and what implications might they have for the city? 

AK: With decentralisation, a city like Jakarta or Surabaya can behave as if it can exist on its own. But it still seeks a brand so as to emphasise its strength and distinctiveness, so that it looks unique, dynamic and new. This is why we see businessmen, corporate managers, celebrities and creative people like architects running for governor or mayor. We should not be surprised too, to see Ahok, for instance, using managerial language like ‘results’, ‘rewards’, ‘bonuses’ and ‘performances’ in his speeches on urban governance. The city leader can be rewarded not only by the people through re-election, but also by the state, which offers national budget funds based on performance. This has given rise to a politics of time in which the governor is constantly chased by time; he must act and show quick results, as speedy completion has become the sign of success. Getting works ‘done’ seems to sustain popularity; the key concern is how to gain influence within a very limited period of time. The implication of such politics for the city is seen in the kinds of urban programs/projects that get prioritised, and who or what projects are left behind. For instance, the focus on evicting kampung residents from the riverside as a quick ‘solution’ to urban flooding tends to ignore the more time-consuming investment in collaborating with authorities in the outer regions where headwaters are located. The long history of ‘criminalising’ kampung housing has also made it relatively easy for the authorities to evict kampung residents, even though the cost is high, both materially and socially. It is nevertheless seen as strategic because it can be done speedily to demonstrate the government’s tackling of various issues at once: flooding, land use, housing, green space and so on. 

AF: Why do you think Ahok has so much support?  

AK: I think the support that Ahok is gaining is not due to his eviction of kampung residents (people are actually very nervous about this), but due to the reforms he has implemented at City Hall, including disciplining his own staff. When Jokowi and Ahok took over the city administration in 2012, they knew that if they wished to implement their programs quickly – seen as central to the legitimation and sustenance of the platform on which they were elected – the greatest challenge would be ensuring the capacity of the bureaucracy to implement them. Prior to Ahok taking over as deputy governor, staff of the municipality were widely known to be less than energetic. They slowed things down. They knew that they would be in their positions longer than the governor, so why bother moving fast. I have been to City Hall more than a few times in the past (when Fauzi Bowo was governor and before). There were empty desks after lunch time, with no staff in attendance. In fact, the staff were not lazy; they were very active. They were doing their own business outside City Hall. They were ngojek (doing individual projects). I am not sure what those projects were but for sure they were not serving the public interest.

People believe that Ahok’s leadership will cause a striking shift in the operation of City Hall. He was a graduate of Prasetya Mulya – an institution of continuing education for (aspiring) CEOs seeking more efficient methods for managing companies. However, I think Ahok mistakenly believes that he can run City Hall like a corporation. He believes he has the authority to direct his ‘company’, but the municipality is not a company. He believed he could fire staff, but often he has only had the authority to reshuffle staff positions. What he was able to do was recruit new staff to outperform the old ones. This way he could set up examples and rules. This method has slighted many, especially senior bureaucrats who have an expectation of respect for the years of service they have given. Unsurprisingly, they don’t like Ahok. They don’t like being pushed around. However, the urban majority who are tired of a lax civil service see in Ahok a reformist figure and they fear that no other leader would do what Ahok has done; shake the bureaucracy and ‘clean up’ the apparatus from within. They have supported Ahok for this reason, perhaps, but we should note that many supporters remain uncommitted, disapproving of Ahok’s take on kampung and his view that capitalism should be allowed to prosper in Jakarta as long as profits are shared with the city.

Abidin Kusno is professor of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto. His recent books include After the New Order: Space, Politics and Jakarta (Hawaii, University Press, 2013) and The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia (Duke University Press, 2016).

This interview was conducted in October 2016.


Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}

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