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Dompak eco-city: a tale of corruption

The creation of new master-planned cities is an emerging transnational trend stretching across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Indonesia’s dream of a clean, modern eco-city in Dompak, however has been mired by the corruption of local and national elites.

Urbanization in Asia is often talked about in terms of expanding slums, gated enclaves for the elite and endless sprawl. On the other hand, little attention has been paid to new master-planned cities popping up across the world that are designed to showcase national aspirations, to ‘leap-frog’ economies from Third World to First World, and to display the power and ambitions of the local elite.

The creation of new master-planned cities is an emerging transnational trend stretching across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, with dozens of cities currently under construction to accommodate from tens of thousands to up to several million residents in some cases. Similarly, the price tag for these new cities ranges from the tens of millions of dollars up to 100 billion USD for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City.

To justify such massive expenditures on urban mega-projects, governments provide various rationales: old cities are overcrowded, a new city will diversify or jump-start the economy, a new city will put them on the world stage, etc. There are no guarantees that this strategy works, and what’s more a growing body of evidence indicating that many of these projects, aside from the financial risks involved, are deeply mired in corruption.

The making of a new capital

The Riau Islands is an archipelago of over 3,000 islands located between the tip of the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The archipelago split from Riau Province, located on Sumatra, in 2004, one of several new provinces formed in the years following the downfall of President Suharto. In 2006, Riau Islands Province (Kepulauan Propinsi Riau, otherwise known as Kepri) along with Singapore, became part of a Special Economic Zone, which has resulted in an economic and population boom. Since 2000, the population of Kepri has doubled and, thanks to increased manufacturing and off-shore oil, the provincial government’s cash flow has hit an all-time high.

After the new province was formed, government officials of Kepri quickly decided that Tanjung Pinang, a bustling port city of 100,000 and the main city of Riau Islands Province, would not be a suitable provincial capital. Rather, Dompak, a 925 hectare island a short drive south of Tanjung Pinang, was selected to be the site of the new capital and all public service sectors were to be relocated from Tanjung Pinang.

When the decision was made to construct a new capital, Dompak had a population of 2,679 residents who primarily earned their living through fishing and other maritime activities. The local residents, however, did not fit in with the vision for the new capital and plans to relocate the entire population were soon drawn up.

According to government officials in Kepri, the inspiration for Dompak is Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new administrative capital. The brainchild of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, Putrajaya is a gleaming new capital with wide, empty streets and orderly clusters of high-rise apartments for civil servants situated around a man-made lake. Putrajaya’s government buildings, bridge and parks have a distinctive “Islamic fantasy” style, in which government buildings and other secular buildings are topped with Islamic-looking domes.

With 20 kilometers of coastline, the plan was to transform Dompak into an ‘Eco City’ that would minimally impact the natural environment. The master plan features open green spaces and maintains the existing forest cover, water bodies and coastline as much as possible. Dompak was to have three bridges to connect it to Bintan Island and feature government offices, an Islamic university, a mosque, hospital, housing for civil servants, a golf course, botanic gardens and a small airport. In 2007, government officials publicly claimed that the Dompak project would achieve the level of prestige and international reputation that they perceived in Putrajaya.

While the models for Dompak appeared to emulate Putrajaya’s formal and lavish Islamic-looking capital, the project has taken a dramatically different course than its Malaysian counterpart. Over the past several years, Dompak has been submerged in a corruption scandal that has stalled construction and irreversibly damaged the landscape and ecology of the island and the credibility of local officials.

When the deadline for completion arrived at the end of 2010, only a third of the city infrastructure had been completed, while 75% of the 1.3 trillion rupiah budget had been spent. Since only the main mosque, Islamic center and several government buildings had been completed, the contractors paid the compulsory fine stipulated by the contract they signed with Kepri officials in 2007. Along with much of the original construction budget, the money paid by the contractors in 2011 disappeared into the hands of local government officials.

The disappearance of the original investment funds, the lack of progress made on the infrastructure and buildings, and the missing fines have provoked considerable anger among residents of the Riau Islands. Since the island belongs solely to the government and there are no private buildings, the blame cannot be deflected away from the government. In a climate of rampant corruption, government officials do not appear to fear any consequences of their actions.

Locals have expressed outrage and disbelief that the project, which was seen to be a symbolic and very public statement of Kepri’s new era of development and prosperity, should be so badly mismanaged. Student activists have attempted to pressure local Kepri government officials to perform a sumpah pocong, or ‘pocong’ oath, a Muslim oath that is intended to identify and religiously punish the corrupt individuals. The oath involves dressing government officials in white cloth usually used to dress Muslim corpses, and asking them direct questions about their involvement in the corruption. If lies are told while performing the oath, it is believed that those individuals would receive a direct punishment from God. All of the government officials have refused to perform the oath

Meanwhile, over 200 households have refused to be relocated off the island into housing provided by the government. Dompak residents have visited the government housing and are outraged to see that it is substandard, run-down and lacking plumbing and electricity. By the summer of 2012, only five households had agreed to leave Dompak and move into their new homes on Bintan Island. Several families claim that they were forced to leave against their wishes and did not feel they had been given a choice. While many locals do not own official documents for their ancestor’s land, several families do have paperwork that alleges that they own over 40 hectares of the island. One landowner claims that the government deliberately refused to acknowledge his claims or process his paperwork.

Locals have also expressed frustration about the disruption to the island’s tranquility and the environment. The movement of earth has had an adverse effect on fishing, the most common occupation for Dompak residents, forcing locals to fish further afield from their traditional areas near the island.  

Yet one of the most unbelievable developments in Dompak’s progress is the discovery that large tracts of the island were being excavated not to construct foundations for buildings, but to illegally mine bauxite. Bauxite is a component of aluminum, the price of which has risen dramatically in recent years. Large machinery was transported to Dompak over the recently built bridge to extract the bauxite from open pit mines located in close proximity to recently constructed government offices. The heavy machinery has badly damaged the bridge, which was intended for cars; even after the mining activities were publicized, mining locations have increased. Locals are shocked that law enforcement officials appear to be looking the other way as private mining companies openly bring equipment across the bridge. The mining activities have badly damaged newly-built roads on the island and caused major soil erosion and coastal pollution.

Excavated earth, piles of bauxite and open pits lie next to new buildings and offices. The underground power lines that provide electricity for offices have been damaged and power outages are common. The pipe that encases electrical wires near the Agung Mosque appears to be cracked due to landslides caused by the excavation. The bauxite mining has irreparably ravaged the island’s ecosystem, completely derailed any ‘green’ aspirations for the project and severely undermined public confidence.

A major public health problem has also emerged as a result of the open pit mining and poorly managed construction in Dompak. Over one thousand construction workers have fallen ill with malaria, a disease that had been wiped out from the region but has made a startling comeback.

The fate of the new provincial capital encapsulates the rampant corruption that maintains Indonesia’s ranking as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In 2013, Transparency International ranked Indonesia and Egypt as tied for 114th most corrupt countries, after Ethiopia, Kosovo and Tanzania. While city-centric development and the creation of new master planned cities have seduced government officials across the developing world who seek to project images of urban modernity and progress, new cities such as Dompak are proving to be an unprecedented opportunity for corrupt officials to personally enrich themselves.

The dream of a clean, modern and eco-friendly capital for Riau Islands Province has been dashed for the foreseeable future. Until government officials in Riau Islands Province can regain the trust of investors and the local population, Dompak will sit as a massive monument to Indonesia’s misguided city-centric ambitions and the insidious and shameless corruption of the local and national elite.

About the author

Sarah Moser is an Assistant Professor of Geography at McGill University. Her research examines new master-planned cities, nation-building, the cultural politics of urban mega-projects, and urban trends in the Middle East and Asia. She is currently co-editing The Research Handbook on Asian Cities (Edward Elgar, 2016). She tweets @sarahkmoser.


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