Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Capital On The Move?

A topic that emerges from time to time in Indonesia is the possibility of moving the capital from Jakarta to someplace in the hinterlands. The potential move cropped up in the news again late last year when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed the notion first forwarded by the Home Affairs Ministry. Although this debate has died down a little bit over the past few months, it’s certain to emerge again. Besides, it provides an opportunity to explore and apply a couple of interesting geographical concepts relating to city size and function.


The Rank-Size rule (Zipf’s law) is often used in geography classes to predict the size of cities in a country. Zipf's rule shows a general pattern of populations of cities according to rank. According to the rank-size rule, if you list the cities according to population you should notice that the second largest city has half the population of the largest, the third largest has a third the population of the largest, and so on. Thus according to the rank-size rule, if the largest city has 1 million people, the second should have around 500,000, the third 333,333, the forth 250,000, the fifth largest 200,000, etc (1). This rule is very useful in some situations because it matches up well with population data. But does it work for Indonesia? Well, let's take a look at the populations of Indonesia's 11 largest cities (2):

Jakarta 9,588,198
Surabaya 2,765,908
Bandung 2,393,633
Medan 2,109,330
Berkasi 1,993,478
Serang 1,786,000
Depok 1,751,696
Tangerang 1,537,244
Palembang 1,441,500
Semarang 1,438,733
Makassar 1,334,090
Source: Wikipedia

If we applied the rank-size rule to Indonesia and round Jakarta’s population to 10 million, then we would expect the population of Surabaya to be 5,000,000, and Bandung to be 3,333,333. But isn’t consistent with the figures. This is especially so since Berkasi, Depok, and Tagerang are all considered to be part of the Jakarta regional urban agglomeration. Thus we have to use a different model for explanation.

This is where the concept of the primate city comes in handy. A primate city is far larger than other cities in the nation and, the words of Mark Jefferson, who came up with the idea, “is always disproportionately large and exceptionally expressive of national capacity and feeling”. Another condition of the primate city is that it is more than twice as large as the next biggest city. Usually the primate city is also the capital city. Paris is the most commonly cited example (3). Several factors contribute to the disparity between the primate city and the second city. Since it is so big, the primate city acts as a magnate for both migration and investment. This means that new talent, new ideas, and new opportunities are constantly flowing into the city, creating a positive feedback loop. But there are negative aspects as well. The prosperity of the primate city comes at the expense of other cities. Moreover, primate cities are often characterized by a wide range of urban problems: traffic jams, floods, poor sanitation, crime, slums, to name just a few (4).

Moving the Capital

So why move the capital? And is it even possible? Let’s take each of these questions in turn starting with the second question first. It certainly is possible to move the capital. In the past several countries have moved their capital cities, including the United States. But more recently, Brazil, Pakistan, and several others have moved their administrative capitals to new locations. In some cases the move involves only some administrative functions, as is the case with Malaysia’s administrative city of Putra Jaya. Reasons for moving the capital city vary. In the case of the United States, Washington DC was planned and built as a special district in part to prevent bickering between the several states over which one would enjoy the prestige of hosting the national capital. In other cases the capital is moved to an isolated or peripheral region (Brasilia) to balance out development and population. These are sometimes called “forward capitals” because of the intention to move the area “forward” using the new capital city as a springboard.

A more nefarious explanation comes from one of my favorite geographers, James Scott. He writes in “Seeing Like A State” that the “gridded urban order” of the planned capital city is a form of state simplification envisioned to make controlling the population easier. Pretty sneaky, eh? According to Scott (and other geographers), states in general try to address problems by simplifying them. They do this by using statistics and measurements, and translating very complex social problems into a few key explanatory variables. Another geographer, Tanya Li, refers to this as “rendering technical”, whereas Arun Agrawal and some others call it “legibility”. Anyway, if you happen to be looking for a good read, check out the Scott reference in the references.

In Indonesia advocates of moving the capital city cite all of the reason I mentioned above (of course, no one has explicit said that a new, orderly capital will enable increased surveillance of the population). For example, in Jakarta the number of vehicles is increasing 10 to 15% per year, while roads are being built at a rate of .01% per year. There is also the risk of various types of disasters, including floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Lastly moving the capital would enable the government to start from scratch, thereby increasing both efficiency and prestige.

Proposed destinations range from Jonggol on the outskirts of Jakarta to places as far away as Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo and Jayapura in Papua. The big obstacle is the expense involved. Many experts argue that moving the capital will do nothing to ease the congestion and environmental problems, because Jakarta will remain the commercial center of the nation. Government officials have proposed moving the commercial center as well, but exactly how that will be accomplished is unclear. It's one thing to move government offices and personnel, it's a completely different task to shift the entire commercial and financial apparatus of a nation.

For now the debate seems to have cooled a little. But it's certain to come up again, especially since there is no relief in site for Jakarta.

(1) Let’s practice. Say you have a country, we’ll call it Keithopia, which adheres to the rank-size rule. If the capital city (Keithopolis) has 1,600,000 people, how many people will the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th largest cities have?

(2) These numbers are only for the city proper, not the entire metropolitan area.

(3) A starker example comes from Thailand, where the largest city (Bangkok), is far larger than the second city, Ratchasima. The population of Bangkok is “everyone in Thailand”, whereas Ratchasima has around 300,000 inhabitants.

(4) Can you use population data found on the internet or in another source to find additional examples of both primate city countries and countries that follow the rank-size rule? Next see if you can find out what major problems these primate cities face.


Jefferson, Mark. 1939. The Law of the Primate City. Geographical Review 29.

Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like A State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


  1. Hi Keith, another great piece.

    From your personal experiences, do you think Indonesia would benefit most from a potential capital change to another city on Java or a shift to another island? Is a planned city like Palangkaraya, with all its potential benefits, considered a serious contender with such a huge disparity between Javan and Bornean populations?

    Terima kasih,

  2. Hi Scott. Thanks for the comment. To tell you the truth, I don't think the problems Indonesia faces can be solved merely by changing the capital. Some of the arguments for it, including the traffic and the water problems of Jakarta are problems that need to be fixed anyway and that could be addressed with a concerted effort. For example, they had the idea to build a monorail to ease traffic in Jakarta and even started building it, but it fell apart (i think) due to funding concerns. I don't see any technical problems to building a monorail; it's all capacity and will. The busway was a step in the right direction, but in my mind it's not run very well. Until these basic problems of capacity are solved there will always be problems whether they move the capital or not. It would be hugely expensive, and from what I've seen the construction industry is one of the hotbeds for corruption, so I would imagine it would be a feeding frenzy for those with the right connections.

    The second part of your question I think relates to what a lot of folks call the "Java Bias". I don't think moving the capital would help much because Java is so ingrained in the central government. But the decentralization that has taken place over the past 10 years may do more to address that than moving the capital. I point to one example: last time I was in Jogja one of my friends there told me that it is slowly losing its lustre as a university town. One of the several reasons for this is that newly-empowered regency governments are more interested in hiring the products of their own universities rather than people that were educated in Jogja. Thus I think slowly you might see the bureaucratic ranks filled with more local folks, and that might eventually filter up to the central government.