These days, it feels like the Indonesian capital is just treading water. And that's not just because its literally sinking into the bay. Sure, Jakarta has new mass-transit lines—our first—but that project has been going on for years. The city, instead, has been going backwards—floating ideas to reintroduce long-banned forms of transport like the becak—a pedicab more common in smaller cities.
It's a difficult city to govern. The capital is 491 years old and, after 17 governors, it's still chaotic, congested, and way too likely to consistently break your heart. But Jakarta would be way worse if it wasn't for the work of one man—a man who still goes down in history as the city's most progressive governor—Ali Sadikin.
Watch: Jakarta Is The World's Fastest-Sinking City
As governor, Ali Sadikin's main goal was a relentless push to modernize the city, at any cost. He legalized gambling, tolerated prostitution, and implemented a family planning program to curb the city's population growth. All three are ideas that, today, would be seen as insanely controversial. The current administration is actually the polar opposite, having followed through on a campaign-trail promise to shut down the city's brothels, and running on a ticket supported by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist political party that has routinely railed against the "evils" of family planning and contraceptives.
Under Ali Sadikin, the gambling dens helped fund the city's development. The tax base in Indonesia is notoriously low—in a country of more than 255 million, there were only 27 million registered taxpayers in 2014, and only one million of those actually paid the full amount. Ali Sadikin found a workaround, basically charging a sin tax on those gambling dens. He wanted to turn the capital into a world city, one with skyscrapers and modern amenities, not slums and sprawling low-rise neighborhoods.
"Ali Sadikin had ideas about a sensible life in the city,” JJ Rizal, a historian at Komunitas Bambu, told VICE. “The city wasn’t just a place for the aristocrats to chase their dreams, but for the poor as well.”
When then-president Sukarno appointed Ali Sadikin as governor of Jakarta in 1966, he knew what kind of city he was getting. Jakarta was, at the time, struggling to shake off its colonial legacy. The city was heavily stratified along social, ethnic, and economic lines and still full of dirt roads and heavily-wooded neighborhoods.
But Ali Sadikin saw a city as a place made up of people, not infrastructure. His efforts to create a sense of community in the city were, in hindsight, problematic. For every program that aimed to connect neighbors through a sense of shared community, there was a bulldozer waiting to demolish another slum. His Kampung Improvement Program eventually fell apart after it was unable to survive the strain of continued population growth.
The roads and other urban developments, though, stuck around. His decision to legalize gambling didn't sit well with many in Muslim-majority Indonesia, but Ali Sadikin, a governor who was appointed and didn't have to worry about elections, dismissed the complaints outright, telling his critics, “[then] don’t ride on the roads, don’t use the hospitals, because gambling built them.”
Eventually, the gambling dens closed down. The city continued to grow, and with it, so did all the ills we have to deal with today—the traffic, pollution, and shoddy infrastructure. Like I said, it's a difficult city to govern, and, eventually, the capital's inertia won. But it's still interesting to think about what the city was before Ali Sadikin, and what it would've been without him.
It's also interesting to think about how some of Indonesia's most progressive, forward-thinking leaders are behind us. The country was a dramatically different place, even in our recent past, something we learned while making a documentary about the wild days of disco. We all live in a more crowded, more conservative, place today. But, hey, at least the becak is back.