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Plan to hire foreigners to supervise construction of Indonesia’s new capital Nusantara draws criticism

JAKARTA (CNA) – As Indonesia is trying to speed up the construction of its new planned capital Nusantara, the government’s intention to hire foreign supervisors to oversee the megaproject has sparked criticism. 

Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investments Luhut Pandjaitan said in parliament earlier this month that the hiring of foreign workers is needed to ensure that the new capital will be ready in time by August next year. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had set a target to launch Nusantara as the country’s new capital on Independence Day in 2024. 

“We hope on the 17th (of August) –  not hope, we must – be able to celebrate there. But the quality of the work is key,” said Pandjaitan.

“Therefore, I reported to the president that with all due respect, we need to use foreigners as supervisors so (the construction of the capital) is of good quality. Don’t let it be the case that the presidential palace is finished, but the quality is not good.”

Pandjaitan’s comments drew criticisms, including from a politician from the ruling party Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), of which Indonesian president Widodo is a member of. 

Even as Pandjaitan doubled down on his plans to hire the foreign supervisors, analysts say the ballooning costs of the new capital should be taken into consideration when the government seeks to employ foreign hires.

This aerial shot taken using a drone shows the construction site of the new capital city in Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan, Indonesia on March 8. PHOTO: CNA SOURCE

Expertise of locals should not be discredited: PDI-P politician  

Following Pandjaitan’s announcement that the government was mulling plans to hire foreign supervisors, Nusyirwan Soejono from PDI-P said that the professionalism of Indonesians should not be discredited.

The politician said that Indonesians are capable of building and supervising the construction of major infrastructures such as roads and buildings.

“So, if you invite foreigners to supervise (the construction of the capital), it discredits the ability of professionals here,” said Soejono, who is head of PDI-P’s industry, employment and social security unit.

He added that as Nusantara is set to become the country’s new capital, there would be security aspects concerning important buildings – such as the presidential palace – that are best left for Indonesians to handle. 

The construction of Nusantara in Kalimantan is expected to be completed in several stages. 

The first phase – consisting of the construction of the palace, a few ministries and basic infrastructures such as roads and housing – is slated to finish in 2024, which will be Widodo’s final year in office. 

The final stage of Nusantara’s construction is scheduled to be done in time for Indonesia’s centennial in 2045, with the new capital connected to surrounding cities such as Balikpapan and Samarinda.

On June 12, Pandjaitan defended his stance, and said that the quality of workers in Indonesia is good, though they should be able to learn from “capable experts”. 

“We should not be ashamed, we should not feel inferior. But if we are not capable, then learn.

“Maybe in six months, maybe a year … so that the quality of our buildings becomes far better,” he said. 

On his end, President Widodo said that the use of foreign supervisors to speed up construction of the new capital had been suggested to him. 

“Well, if it’s just one or two, who can direct, control and supervise so that the quality becomes good, why not?” said Widodo last week.

An attendee films a video presentation of Indonesia’s new planned capital Nusantara at Ecosperity Week in Singapore on June 7. PHOTO: CNA SOURCE

Government should consider ballooning expenditure 

Mohammad Faisal, Executive Director of Center of Reform on Economics (CORE) Indonesia, which focuses on research in the economy, regional development and public policy, said that the government should consider their spending on foreign hires especially when the construction of Nusantara uses the state budget. 

At the end of May, Minister of Public Works and Public Housing Basuki Hadimuljono said construction of the first phase of Nusantara is about 30 per cent ready.

The total construction cost is estimated to be USD35 billion. So far, the budget for the new capital has come from state coffers.

“Apart from quality, what is cheaper? If you use foreigners with international standards, automatically, the cost would be higher than using a domestic workforce,” said Faisal.  

“Is it worth the money even if the quality is good? Can it not be done by local experts with lower salaries? Because it comes down to budget constraints, especially since the development of Nusantara currently still relies on the state budget.”

Political policy expert Trubus Rohadiansyah from Trisakti University believes the government should be tapping on the expertise of local workers instead of relying on foreign hires. 

“Because by using the state budget, they should be using local workers amid high unemployment rate,” he said, adding that the state budget comes from taxpayers’ money. 

“Otherwise, this could lead to conflicts within the society … and it can be political, especially leading up to the 2024 election.” 

Rohadiansyah also believes that there could be potential for conflicts between foreign supervisors and the local workers, who up until now, have been the ones working on the construction of the new capital.  

“The potential is high, especially when it comes to social jealousy,” he said.

“The presence of foreigners may not make the local people living there happy, but they would feel envy.” 

Sibukdin – head of local tribe Paser Balik in Penajam Pasar Utara regency where the new capital lies – is aware of plans to hire foreigners to supervise the construction of Nusantara.

He told CNA he is against it. 

“I hope the plan won’t go ahead because it can create problems. Because there are many Indonesians who can be supervisors. The indigenous people or Kalimantan people could hold a protest against it,” he said.  

Sibukdin, who goes by one name, said that the indigenous people already feel left out as they are not involved in the construction nor have benefitted from the new capital.

“We indigenous people have yet to feel the benefit,” he said.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo speaks about the planned new capital Nusantara at Ecosperity Week in Singapore on June 7. PHOTO: CNA SOURCE

Building Nusantara is a “massive undertaking” 

In addition to whether Indonesia has the expertise and capability to complete the capital, concerns have also been raised about foreigners having direct knowledge of the layout of the sensitive buildings. 

Peaceful conflict resolution lecturer Ichsan Malik from Indonesian Defence University told CNA that there should not be any issues regarding security concerns.  

“The builders should be Indonesians because we are talking about building the state palace, which has certain routes for security and evacuation. But the supervision, I think, can be done by foreigners.” 

Meanwhile, Achmad Jaka Santos Adiwijaya, secretary of the new capital Nusantara, said every professional employed to work on the megaproject has a contract.

A non-disclosure agreement clause signed by the workers means that whatever the person has worked on cannot be revealed to non-relevant parties, said Adiwijaya.

Hence, he is not concerned about security issues. 

“When it comes to leaking secrets, let alone foreigners, even Indonesians can divulge if they feel there are no ties, restrictions, or harsh sanctions or they have bad intentions,” said Adiwijaya.

“Leaking a secret does not depend on a person’s nationality, but on what regulations and opportunities there are.”

He asserted the new capital is a “massive undertaking” that is designed to use advanced technology.

“So, who has this advanced technology? Who can supervise it? There must be a combination,” said Adiwijaya.

“I think not every supervisor would be a foreigner, no. There must be Indonesians too, whether to balance things out or ensure knowledge transfer.”