The new Indonesia – awakening giant of Southeast Asia

I stood on the deck of the PELNI ferry as we entered Jakarta Bay and stared. This was nothing like what I had expected. It looked more like Manhattan than a Southeast Asian seaport capital in a so-called ‘third world’ country.  Once we disembarked there were even more surprises.

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THAT FIRST VISIT to Indonesia’s national capital was in September 2001, not so long ago. I had sailed down on the overnight ferry from Batam.

Indonesia was still emerging from the turmoil of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 – a struggle through an awkward, disruptive transition from 31-years of the Suharto New Order dictatorship to morph into a decentralized, democratic system of government.

But on that day, looking at a skyline of modern, gleaming buildings reaching for the clouds, you would never know it. A heck of a first impression, made much more so by my arrival by sea.

I should have better known what to expect. But I was still new to Indonesia and unprepared for what lay before me, I  didn’t yet appreciate that Jakarta was Southeast Asia’s largest city with a massive Greater Metro population.

Today it is an even bigger story. As of the 2020 census, more than 31 million people lived in Greater Jakarta. (1) That’s about five times the population of Singapore and some 6 million people more than the total population of Australia.

It makes Jakarta the second or third largest megalopolis in the world – up there with Tokyo, China’s Chongqing and Shanghai and India’s Delhi, but still trailing the massive metropolis formed by Guangzhou- Foshan. (It’s probably worth noting that all of these massive megacities are in Asia.)

Infrastructure – the new Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, a section of the 2,816km Trans Sumatra Tollway due for completion in 2024, and the striking Phinisi Tower at the State University in Makassar, South Sulawesi.

Avenues, flyovers, monuments, malls … and squatters

The spaces below, between and around Jakarta’s CBD skyscrapers are filled with wide avenues, tollways, flyovers, massive shopping malls, monumental, public buildings, and extensive parklands.

And around them are hectares of suburban housing and, sadly, the makeshift homes of squatters jammed into any available spaces.  

It’s hard to believe that just 100 years ago this was a capital with a population of only about 115,000. (2)

It’s growth and transformation are symbolic of what has happened and is continuing to happen in Indonesia as a whole.

Yet the wider world is largely unaware of the changes, and achievements in the new Indonesia – changes happening in a rush!

You too should be prepared to be surprised, even gob-smacked, if you are visiting for the first time. The country you discover will almost certainly be different to what you have been led to expect. Or, if you are returning, you may have trouble recognizing the places you thought you knew.

The air of vibrancy and optimism can be palpable, though it comes tempered by plenty of evidence of remaining challenges.

The different faces of modern Jakarta – horrendous traffic snarls, squatters living in the shadow of skyscrapers, and sophisticated shopping centres like Taman Anggrek Mall (it means orchid garden).

Skylines, scale, newness, and motorbikes

If flying into Jakarta your first impression will be of an ever more striking skyline of soaring skyscrapers, along with crowded motorways, monuments, and massive retail malls – there are said to be more than 200 malls as of 2021, and still counting.

If arriving via Bali, it will be beaches, traffic and sprawling low-level urban spread. Bali has no skyscrapers. Apart from just ONE multi-floor hotel, all buildings in Bali are limited to ‘the height of a coconut tree’.

If flying via Singapore into regional Indonesian, you’ll be struck by the size of provincial cities, the modern new airports, and the scale of new building and infrastructure projects seemingly underway everywhere.

Wherever you arrive you will be gob-smacked at the swarms of motorcycles – it’s estimated 85% of Indonesian households own at least one and typically more than one.

For the year 2019 sales of new motorcycles and scooters topped 6.5 million. They tussle for road space with cars and lorries – pre covid more than a million new cars were hitting the road every year.

And wherever you go you will be dazzled by the lush, verdant green of tropical vegetation cloaking forests and fields. It has caused Indonesia to be labelled The Emerald of the Equator.

An epic transformation but the traditional is being preserved

The rapid changes are not just confined to the big metropolitan hotspots like Jakarta, Bali, Batam, Medan, Bandung, Palembang, Pekanbaru, Surabaya, Makassar and Semarang.

Today’s Indonesia has long since moved on from those school textbook images of sleepy tropical backwaters, terraced rice paddies, water buffaloes hauling wooden ploughs, bicycle rickshaws, and kampungs (villages) complete with crowing chickens, thatched roofs, clumps of bamboo, and banana and coconut palms.

Thankfully, there are plenty of rural areas where those icons of traditional lifestyles are still to be seen.

Distinctive traditional Houses of Sulewasi, Indonesia

ABOVE – Traditions retained –  Houses of the Toraja People in Sulawesi – Pic Kartika Sari  Henry, Wiki Commons.

RIGHT – Rice farmer pedals past paddies and the laying of a new water main – Uwe Aranas, Wiki Commons  

Traditional farmer cycles past laying of new pipeline

BUT FOR BETTER OR WORSE, today’s Indonesia is leading the charge of the modernizing ‘emerging’ countries described by economists as the ‘newly industrialized’.

If it were a country, the Special Capital District of Jakarta (population about 10m) would be rated ‘high income/developed’ by accepted international economic measures.

Pre-pandemic it registered nominal per capita GDP (gross domestic product) of US$19,000, well above the accepted international ratings benchmark threshold of $12,000.

On a purchasing power parity basis (ppp) – that is with adjustments to take account of currency exchange rates – it was the equivalent of US$55,000. (2)

For the whole of the Jakarta metropolitan area the per capita GDP was US$8,800 or US$28,800 after exchange rate adjustment.


Rising incomes, urbanization, industrialization, growing direct foreign investment, improving education, better governance, and massive infrastructure programs are transforming the Indonesian archipelago, and the lives and aspirations of its 278 million people (population estimate as of 2021).

In short, Indonesia is indeed the ‘rising giant’ of Southeast Asia. It is following a development path like China before it, but from a more recent starting date and somewhat more slowly under the checks and balances of a democratic system of government.

It is by far the largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN),  has the world’s 4th largest population and is resource rich

It is a member of the G20 (holding the rotating Presidency in 2022), and a key founding member of the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade agreement.

There is little doubt Indonesia is poised for a prosperous future. International economic analysts have forecast that, on a purchasing power parity basis, it will be the world’s fourth or fifth largest economy as soon as 2030 – smaller only than China, India, the USA and possibly Japan or Turkey.

By 2020 it had already climbed to number seven.

It is an example of how the Asian Century is changing our world. It is engrossing to watch from afar and a fascinating place to visit.


  1. – Final numbers 2020 Census.   
  2. (figures from Jakarta Badan Pusat Statistik)