AFTER weeks of rather frenzied speculation as to which of several localities in Kalimantan will be picked as Indonesia’s new capital, President Joko Widodo has finally announced it will be in East Kalimantan province.
It will be between the rather agreeable city of Balikpapan (an oil-and-gas-industry town that already hosts a sizeable expatriate community) and Samarinda (the provincial capital).
Excitement has been quite intense leading up to the announcement of the chosen locality and not just confined within Indonesia.
It is perhaps understandably so with the country’s near neighbours and especially the closest ones sharing the island of Borneo with Kalimantan: Sabah and Sarawak.
Leaders from both states from the respective chief ministers down have weighed in on the subject, all unanimously welcoming the decision and spinning positive hopes of any spill-overs — economic or otherwise — impacting the two states.
It is perhaps useful to get a reality check as to the concrete economic benefits that may accrue to both Sabah and Sarawak, at least in the more immediate term, of the great shift out of Jakarta.
East Kalimantan, after all, is about as far from either Sabah or Sarawak as can be on a rather big island.
There will be no real advantages of geographic proximity that either of the Malaysian states can speak of despite both sharing common borders with East Kalimantan.
Resources not found within Kalimantan required to build a new city from scratch will still be more efficiently sourced from other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, particularly from Java.
In fact, Sabah and Sarawak may be negatively impacted if the legions of Indonesian workers now in both states decide to move back to help build their new capital.
Such risk factors need to be assessed, not just any potential plus factors.
There is much talk about the possibility of Sarawak markedly expanding its sale of electricity to help power the emerging new capital city.
This presupposes the much talked-about Borneo Power Grid can move quickly beyond the discussion stage.
Probably a pipe-dream at this stage, considering the inter-connection from Sarawak to Sabah to facilitate the transmission of Sarawak hydro-electricity has not happened yet, either.
The far likelier scenario may be that Indonesia will utilise the abundant coal or gas found in Kalimantan to build up its own power-generating capacity.
Which leaves the pertinent question for Sarawak of whether there will be sufficient internally-generated uptake of the excess megawatts by the thousands coming onstream in a few years once its current dam-building spree is completed.
On a related note, instead of airily mulling whether foreign neighbours such as Indonesia or Brunei will want to buy Sarawak’s looming excess hydro-generated power, perhaps it may be worthwhile to dust up the original plan to supply power to Peninsular Malaysia by undersea cable?
Without a doubt, an Indonesian capital in Borneo will be a long-term boon overall for all those who call the island home.
Borneo takes on strategic significance never before seen once the capital of the region’s largest country and economy is ensconced within its shores.
The late foreign minister, Tun Ghazali Shafiee, mused privately to this writer long after he retired about the might-have-been when the idea of Malaysia was first mooted: the potential of Borneo as one of the region’s last development frontiers.
Perhaps in his wilder imaginings, the idea of Borneo housing Indonesia’s capital never even crossed his mind.
This single decision will, as the cliché goes, be a game-changer.
A long talked-about Pan-Borneo Railway may become a reality sooner than anyone anticipated.
Filling up any gaps as well as expanding the existing Pan-Borneo Highway around the entire circumference of the island should be an achievable infrastructure priority.
Perhaps far more important as far as Sabah and Sarawak go may be a revolution in thinking away from the smug insularity now existing which stands in the way of far more rapid overall progress.
That Indonesia can so easily and seamlessly decide on moving its capital to Kalimantan is a tribute to its unitary system of government, without over-zealous politicians in Kalimantan blocking any mass movement of “outsiders” from other parts of the country to the island.
Human capital is always the key to power any region’s progress.
If more enterprising Indonesians from Java and beyond are attracted (and welcomed) by the potential of Kalimantan with the pivotal move of its capital over there, Sabah and Sarawak may in years to come be left to ponder what saps their accustomed energies to the other side of the border.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak