Jakarta shopping malls

Life in Jakarta revolves around shopping malls. Gyms, cafes, bars, nightclubs are tucked away in gleaming, frigid monstrosities where the "no-smoking" signs should end in a question mark. They're more of a suggestion than an instruction. 

Lately I've been interested in the idea of public amenity -- free space that offers refuge like a park or a sidewalk. I've been interested in them because, here – in Jakarta -- there aren't any. So, I started wondering: when do people demand more from their cities than a place to work? When do they begin thinking of quality of life?

Jakarta monorail pillars

They stand like colossal dominos for about 13 kilometers through the middle of Jakarta's busiest streets. Cement pylons to support a planned monorail started sprouting after its start in 2004.

But by 2008 the state owned construction company overseeing the project walked away. The money had run out and land speculators made acquisitions tough. 

"That's a sort of monument to failed planning," says Pak Tiko, who heads up one of the new government agencies charged with taking projects out of the hands of bureaucrats and seeking private investors.

Sultan logo

Around the time the big US political parties were holding their conventions I got a first hand demonstration of the power of incumbency and the political cost of dithering. 

You've probably never heard of Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta, but he's one of the world's few remaining governing monarchs. Since independence in 1945, he held on to the role of governor -- subject to parliamentary review -- because his dad, No. IX, backed the right side in the struggle to oust the Dutch.