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Comparing Singapore to Jakarta is Like Comparing Apple to Durian


I am amazed that some media and some people keep publishing comparisons between Singapore and Jakarta. When I read one of the articles, well it was fine and fun. But then, when the second, the third and so on got published, I thought it is too much already! No, it’s not about the quality of the writing because in fact I did enjoy some of those articles. It is the unfairness and the un-usefullness of such a comparison that got me writing this opinion piece with the hope that this would be the last of its kind.

One article in the Jakarta Post last year spoke about Singapore as a world away from Jakarta despite being only a stone throw from the latter. Singapore is clean and lives are orderly. Jakarta is filthy and lives are unpredictable. Another article, also in Jakarta Post late last year elaborated further on the issue of security: Singapore is predictably safe while safety in Jakarta is always questionable. The former is also seen as very clever in attracting tourists (of whom Indonesians made up 20 percent) while the latter—and the whole country as well—is said to be incompetent and clumsy in promoting its abundant tourism potentials. All true, I agree. But then so what?

Of course there are some things that Jakarta can learn from Singapore. But the problems in Jakarta—with no less than 14 million people, a great many of whom are under-educated poor, and is surrounded by a vast hinterland that is ready to send even more poor people to the capital city—are much more multifaceted and complicated than those faced by Singapore, a strategically-located yet physically-secluded city-island-state of 4.5 million people that can easily select whom they want to welcome or invite (the rich and the bright, of course!).

Yes, Singapore and Jakarta are similarly multicultural (although the cultural compositions are different), but Jakarta population is much more multilayered, income-wise and education-wise. Moreover, in an increasingly democratic Indonesia, Jakarta gives more room for differences in opinions and interests, even though eventually it is always the powerful that prevails.

The word “power” however should be seen in a broadest sense because even the poor, collectively, have power (at least to brand the government as insensitive, for example). To borrow the words of recently visiting Professor Abdoumaliq Simone of the University of London, the rich of Jakarta has increasingly shown “the power to waste,” while at the same time the poor has exhibited “the power to wound.” What an irony in a place where resources are always scarce!

Thus, in Jakarta almost every attempt to turn a stone will certainly face strong objections from at least one section of the society, be they the poor who lived under the toll-road structures, the people (not necessarily poor nor disabled) who beg on the streets, the land-owners/occupiers who want to profit from every government project or the rich of Pondok Indah neighborhood. It does not matter whether the objections are justified, simply selfish or, worse, blatantly opportunistic.

In addition, Jakarta has no right whatsoever to say no to people coming from other parts of Indonesia, be they forced by rural poverty, seeking better education, hunting for job opportunities or simply wanting to see the “big village.” In fact, constitutionally Jakarta is obliged to take care of its poor dwellers, although in reality these poor people are left to compete in the urban market with the not-so-poor, the barely middle-income and even the rich in getting a little hold of any urban space needed for them to survive. This results in continuous tensions that are inexistent in the generally prosperous city-state of Singapore.

Those differences alone (and there are many more) have made it difficult to simply adopt whatever is working very well in Singapore to Jakarta. Therefore, comparing Singapore and Jakarta is not a useful apple-to-apple comparison. I would rather see it as an apple-to-durian comparison that gives little lessons for Jakarta to learn and to improve. Analogically, apple is healthy but somewhat boring for sensation-seekers while durian is stimulating, smelly and unpredictable but can also be treacherous for some people. It is apt to this analogy that durian is said to be forbidden in many parts of Singapore!

Here, I am not arguing that nothing can be learned from Singapore for the betterment of Jakarta (there are a lot). But comparing both cities only on what are seen on the surface, without going into the roots of the differences and only from a certain cultural viewpoint—especially from a culture that sees “chaos” only as the opposite of “order,” forgetting that there are actually “patterns” even in chaotic situations—has very little value.

I understand that in the first article I mentioned in the beginning, the author only wanted to point—and even celebrate—the big differences of two cities in a close proximity. Meanwhile in the second article, the second author wanted to see a safer and more tourist-attracting Jakarta. Yet, again, comparing apple to durian never comes to a fair and therefore acceptable conclusion. Despite the authors’ good intensions, the articles are actually an unfairly bad tourist-promotion for Jakarta that is actually still struggling to cope with the post-crisis political-economic transformations and that actually contains a beauty inside its chaotic surface—only if we can see it.

Therefore, to compare in an apple-to-apple (or more correctly, durian-to-durian) fashion, Jakarta is best compared to cities of “its class”: those that have somewhat similar socio-economic and demographic conditions such as Manila, Bangkok, Dhaka, Karachi, Lagos and Kolkata and other megacities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) in the developing world. In this way, Jakarta is not doing very badly. This is no reason whatsoever for complacency. In some areas like public transportation, traffic-congestion and housing, Jakarta has a lot to catch up.

What about safety? In this regard, Singapore is exceptional not only when compared to Jakarta but also among major cities in the world. Moreover, safety—or more accurately, the sense of safety—is actually a socially-constructed concept. Accordingly there are two types of safety: real and perceived. The latter often distorts the former when it is seen from the rich and orderly viewpoint toward a poor and somewhat chaotic atmosphere (and the other way around as well).

Familiarity to the surrounding people and environment does also count. If you know the people, you will feel much safer to be within a slum community in Jakarta at night (many of the kampungs are 24 hours) than, say, walking in the downtowns of New York, Los Angeles or some other megacities of the world. At least in Jakarta no legal visitor has ever been beaten in the middle of the night by a group of plain-clothed police mistakenly thought the visitor were illegal worker—something that happened last year to a visiting Indonesian sport-judge in Kuala Lumpur.