Jakarta ranked in the bottom ten of the 2019 Safe Cities Index, but does that mean residents are at risk?

Photo:The Diary of a Hotel Addict

Jakarta remains among the least safe cities in the region. But the threats residents face are systemic rather than violent.


Jakarta languishes among the bottom ten cities surveyed in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU’s) Safe Cities Index for the third time. The EIU ranked Jakarta in 53rd place out of the 60 cities surveyed. In 2017, the city ranked 57th, and in 2015 Jakarta came last out of 50 cities surveyed.

Despite its lacklustre performance, the city has made strides in improving citizen safety. The EIU looked at citizens’ personal safety and digital safety, as well as the city’s healthcare provisions and infrastructure. Within these parameters, Jakarta ranks poorly as citizens grapple with an underfunded health system, the spread of misinformation, and limited urban disaster relief mechanisms. 

Crime is high, but citizens’ personal safety is rarely in danger

An unsafe city conjures images of a lawless society where crime is rampant and citizens fear walking the streets alone at night. However, Jakarta does not fit this image.

The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) at the US State Department warns “there is considerable risk from crime in Jakarta.” But violent crime is low. Citizens’ personal safety is rarely endangered by criminal activity.

The Jakarta Metropolitan Police Chief reported 50 murders and 801 aggravated assaults for 2018. In a population of more than 9.5 million, this means a murder rate of around 0.5 per 100,00, far lower than Bangkok, Seoul, and a slew of US cities.

Indonesian police personnel in Jakarta.
Photo: AWG97

“Indonesian criminals are normally reluctant to use force and usually do not harm their victims unless confronted with violence,” the State Department claims, with snatch-and-grab robberies from a passing motorcycle or moped are the most common form of crime.

Poor digital safety, an underfunded health system and limited disaster planning leaves citizens vulnerable

Jakarta’s citizens’ safety is threatened by more systemic problems. The EIU ranked Jakarta in 55th place for digital security. Digital security takes many forms, and not all are equally problematic.

In 2016, a 24-year-old hacked a videotron billboard and streamed a pornographic video to shocked commuters in an incident that highlighted Jakarta’s digital vulnerabilities. However, digital safety goes beyond the follies of bored IT systems analysts. In May this year, a cascade of misinformation disseminated on social media triggered riots which left nine dead and hundreds injured. More than 400 were arrested in some of the worst street violence seen since the fall of Suharto in 1998.

In 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo lifted the head of National Cyber and Cryptography Agency (BSSN) to a ministerial level in an attempt to divert more resources to cybersecurity threats and stem the spread of misinformation. However, it remains unclear whether the decision will have a significant impact on Jakarta’s digital security or whether the move was a nominal political gesture.

A tough budgetary environment means healthcare gains are slow to materialise

The United Nations heralded the Indonesian government’s commitment to establishing universal healthcare by 2019. However, budgetary restraints have hindered progress. Healthcare in Jakarta remains limited to disease treatment with limited attention paid to prevention. As many as 71% of deaths in Indonesia are linked to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), essentially the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Much like Jakarta’s digital security, there are signs that the regional and national governments are taking citizen’s health more seriously. The government will double healthcare premiums for the lowest income categories to address the deficit caused by expanding the universal healthcare system (currently starting at US$1.80 per month). The class II and class III premium bands will also see their premiums increase. Politicians have expressed their desires to increase the quality of healthcare offered in line with premium hikes.

Disaster planning has fallen to community groups

While Indonesia has a national disaster mitigation strategy, local initiatives are in short supply.  Jakarta is amongst the cities with the highest flood risk in the world. Land subsistence and increasing sea levels have left communities scrambling to take matters into their own hands to prepare for impending floodwaters.

The Indonesian Red Cross trained disaster preparedness agents in local communities after the 2007 floods. These agents were emergency first responders and helped evacuate residents, set up field kitchens and distribute relief products. Plan International has also played a major role in educating residents on natural disasters and developing community contingency plans in local schools and public buildings.

Flooding in Jakarta in 2013.
Photo: Seika

A 2018 project funded by USAID will also focus on increasing local disaster preparedness at the provincial, sub-district and school level.

Citizens’ emergency preparedness is increasing, which will help mitigate the worst impacts of natural disasters. However, this has been despite, not because of, the city’s urban planning departments.

The capital move is unlikely to reduce risks to residents

The government’s plan to relocate Indonesia’s capital to East Kalimantan is unlikely to reduce the environmental threats to citizens and could put more citizens at risk. The move is designed to ease the burden on Jakarta’s ailing infrastructure by moving 1.5 million public servants out of the city and create a “smart city in a forest”.

The proposed site of the new capital sits near the peatlands surrounding the Mahakam Lakes. Peatlands are highly flammable and are always a spark away from erupting into flames.

With around 180,000 hectares earmarked for construction and a vastly bigger population living in close proximity to the Mahakam peatlands, the region is at heightened risk of forest fires. Small-scale agricultural activities have been linked to spikes in forest fires. As agricultural activities in the region increase, so too will the blazes.

The construction of the new capital will not necessarily translate to a safer Jakarta either. Jakarta needs vast investment in urban infrastructure to mitigate the risks of flooding. Limited access to potable water leaves many residents relying on deep wells and extracting large volumes of underground water only hastens land subsidence and causes the city to sink further, increasing the risk of flooding and exacerbating its effects. The government’s decision to spend US$32.7 billion on relocating the capital will only leave fewer funds for large-scale infrastructure projects in Jakarta. 

While there have been improvements, without long term investment in regional health and infrastructure, Jakartans will continue to face health risks, loss of life from natural disasters and violence triggered by misinformation online.

But viewing these systemic problems through the lens of public safety brings the issues out of the drawing boards and into the homes of Jakartan residents. It starkly illustrates how governmental policy impacts the lives, and loss of life, of people across the city every day. Neglecting systemic issues in Jakartan society is not merely an inconvenience, it can be tragic. As a result, many of the issues highlighted in the Safe Cities Index should seize the political spotlight and be at the centre of political and social debate.