n a typical hot and humid day, entering a shopping mall in Jakarta is no ordinary experience. The cool air-conditioned breeze that hits your face as you pass through glass doors often brings some relief from the sweltering heat. Yet this entry, a ritualized and routine act for some, involves a meticulous process of unloading your belongings on a baggage scanner and surrendering to the security detector as it checks for any weapons or explosives. Once inside, the mall provides a sanctuary from the chaos of the streets. Such a space, however, was not solely created for an urban escape; it was also devised as a symbol of modernity to boost national identity in the making of Jakarta as a world-class city. 

Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, led a prestige project in the 1960s to build a series of impressive modern edifices from the famous five-star Hotel Indonesia, one of Southeast Asia’s largest multi-complex sports stadiums, to the Selamat Datang (“welcome”) Monument in preparation to host tourists for the fourth installment of Asian Games. The ordering of these megaprojects was part of the plan to beautify the capital and project the image of Jakarta as a cosmopolitan city. Alongside these grand developments, Sarinah, the nation’s first department store, began construction in 1962. At a staggering 74 meters and 15-stories high, the department store also made headlines as the first skyscraper in Indonesia when it was inaugurated by President Sukarno in August 1966. 

An original Sarinah sculpture designed and built in the 1960s. It remains in the same spot when it was first placed from 1963-1966. However, the identify of the artist who made the piece remains unknown (photo by author).

Located in Jalan Thamrin, a landmark avenue that leads to the capital’s center, Sarinah has since renovated its premises and expanded facilities to incorporate office towers and conference halls. Also known as Sarinah Tharmin Plaza, the mall underwent a drastic remodeling to give the department store a new modern face, including rebranding its business to market itself as a local specialty store for fashion and home goods. This modernization was supported by the Minister of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), Erick Thohir, who stressed the importance of the historical value of Sarinah, and the need to empower Small and Medium Enterprises and also promote local brands in an increasingly competitive international market. A slogan appearing under the company’s logo, ‘the Window of Indonesia’, serves to emphasize Sarinah’s honor and responsibility of showcasing Indonesia’s cultural heritage to the world. As the description of the ‘Company History’ proudly states on its webpage, “As a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), Sarinah was the brainchild of the country’s Founding Father, President Soekarno, with the purpose of facilitating retail trade activities and driving economic growth of Indonesia.”

The above history outlines the symbolic and cultural significance of Indonesia’s first shopping mall that is intertwined with the nation’s development. In many ways, the establishment of Sarinah extends beyond economic reasons, as it contains a national legacy left behind by Soekarno as a cultural landmark that symbolically marks Indonesia’s entry into a modern, global stage. But shopping malls became contentious sites of citizenship and belonging with new discourses of consumer culture blurring the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces. This essay seeks to expand on the spatial politics of culture surrounding malls and unpack what performing “modernity” means for malls in Jakarta today.

Post-Suharto Rise and Development of Shopping Malls 

Established under Soekarno’s remaining year of presidency, Sarinah marked a pivotal transition from the Old to New Order era under General Suharto in 1967 amidst a violent period of civil unrest following the military coup against the alleged Communist Party of Indonesia. During the 1970s, the capital saw few high-rise retail developments with the only other two plazas (Hayam Wuruk and Duta Merlin) erected at the end of the decade. Jakarta’s governor Ali Sadikin was more focused on renovating multilevel pasar markets typically consisting of small retailers and existing storefronts from the colonial era (Rimmer and Dick, 2009: 179). 

The surge of malls only started to rapidly increase in the 1980s and 1990s when the private sector began to actively invest in the development of large shopping plazas of 20,000 – 40,000 square miles (Rimmer and Dick, 2009: 179). Since Sarinah, shopping malls have shifted from being a state-owned enterprise to private commercial developments. Behind the boom of commercial development, governmental deregulation encouraged real estate investors in urban development, including measures to open up the banking sector to encourage economic and entrepreneurial activity alongside the rise of shopping malls (Kenichiro, 2001: 487). 

Photo Gallery depicting Sarinah over the years from 1960s to 2022. The reopening of the newly renovated Sarinah in 2022 is commemorated in the last wall (photo by author).

After the 1997 financial crisis known as Krismon, a prominent state strategy emerged to promote middle-class consumption through the proliferation of shopping malls (Herlambang et al., 2019: 631). This led to an exponential growth in the number of shopping malls after the financial crisis that led to the end of a political leadership by military general Suharto. Known as reformasi (1997-2006), this era was characterized by “democratic neoliberalizing urbanism” that received private sector projects favorably with “building permits and higher floor area ratios (FAR) for shopping center construction” (Herlambang et al., 2019: 636-7). The deliberate placement of these social and economic hubs took into account the surrounding “catchment area” of households and their disposable incomes. Shopping malls breed shopping malls in surrounding districts, and clusters of such developments are commonly located strategically in the Central and South districts of Jakarta. But the proliferation of shopping malls around Jakarta was not only economic, but also served as a means of performing modernity in post-colonial Jakarta. 

Consumerism Escapade and the Culture of Forgetting

Anthropologist Lizzy van Leeuwen (2011: 156) poignantly observes that malls became “new urban social centers, as novel manifestations of a public spheres in which ‘people met people’ and new and experimental cultural forms became established – or not.” Malls are dynamic spaces of civil life that enabled new forms of sociocultural and political relations, but as shopping malls became a ubiquitous part of the capital of Jakarta, these spaces soon became a contested site of class, racial, and religious conflicts. 

From the onset, the opening of shopping malls conferred prestige when graced by the presence of influential political figures; Sarinah’s inauguration by President Sukarno marked a ceremonial turn in the nation’s quest for modernity and development post-colonization. But the iconic landmark was also an easy target to attack such ideals. In a recent 2016 tragedy, an extremist jihadist group executed a string of suicide bomb attacks on the capital’s busy Jalan Thamrin avenue, including a site right outside Sarinah’s security post (Yi, Holmes and Harding, 2016). Shopping malls also bore the brunt of violent state dissent and dissatisfaction against a widening income inequality, like the May 1998 riots which left thousands of civilians trapped in burning malls. During these riots, 69 people were killed in Lippo Karawaci, one of Jakarta’s largest malls, and damages to the property left the mall no choice but to close for long-term renovations. Widespread riots were fueled by anger and envy at the uneven flow of prosperity, with much of the violence and looting directed at Indonesian-Chinese businesses entangled with Suharto’s notorious business practices of collusion.

Malls helped to shelter a growing middle class from the street violence following the toppling of Suharto (Herlambang et al., 2019: 636-637). Generally, shopping malls try to be apolitical, but malls are inherently imbued in politics from free speech, commercial zoning, financing, state regulation, and environmental issues (Farrell, 2003: 216). Visitors indulge in a culture of forgetting – a pervasive sentiment that shelters them from the harsh realities of the outside world. Lippo Supermal had initially planned to erect a “special gallery” of photos and names of those lost to the May 1998 riots when the mall reopened, but the idea was quickly rejected for being too controversial (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 163). The social interactions inside malls were based on shared practices of consumerism rather than a shared memory of violence, as the middle-class could “tell themselves and each other that ‘nothing happened’ after all” (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 150).  In actuality, the desire to remain apolitical, i.e., silent about the ethnic violence of the riots, is also a political choice.

Malls as Contested Spaces of Citizenship and Belonging

Before entering a mall, the guard at the entrance checkpoint subjects one to a security inspection and impresses unspoken dress codes that signal classed belonging. Being barefooted, wearing rubber slippers or flip-flops is considered taboo, with a number of malls including Lippo obligating visitors to “borrow shoes in temporary exchange for their identity cards known as KTP (kartu tanda penduduk)” (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 165). These judgment calls were delegated to security guards and justified as a social equalizer protocol to ‘protect’ lower-income individuals from insults, stares, and embarrassment (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 165). Dress code enforcements speak to the “politics of spatial containment” through infrastructures that are capable of promoting “social and moral development of the population” (Schwenkel, 2020: 153).  

Malls also took on a different role, functioning as a social platform to forge and institutionalize new cultural values and relations between people of varying income status (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 151). According to an interview with the manager of the Lippo mall, malls carry social responsibilities to improve the welfare of neighboring citizens in the district: “Malls can help improve things – some do it for publicity, some do it voluntarily, like we do. We give polio vaccinations to school children. Lippo personnel give blood donations every three months” (Van Leeuwen, 2011: 164). Such publicity strategies acknowledge the presence of social inequality in the area, while also participating in “othering” lower-income groups who are unable to enjoy shopping mall offerings as those in middle- and upper-income strata. 

Once inside a mall, sociocultural norms privilege those who have the means to enter. The assumption that one would have a KTP is problematic, as this identity card was borne out of a national crisis following the political instability caused by the alleged communist coup in 1965. Identification cards were systematically initiated by “a concomitant of military campaigns to purge communists” (Strassler, 2010: 135) at the beginning of the New Order – a newfound way of the state to visualize personhoods who posed a threat to society. Ironically, the barriers of entry to high-end shopping malls posed the same forms of injustices for already marginalized populations in the city. The insecurity of land tenure and the informality of kampungs has political ramifications for an individual’s ability to claim citizenship and belonging in the city, including having access to shopping malls. Echoing shopping malls as “disciplinary towns” (Foucault, 1978), malls enforce social and class hierarchy that keep the urban poor out of elite private malls. This is reminiscent of the colonial spatial planning practices that segregated spaces between European settlers and local, non-White residents, creating functioning borders that restricted mobility and access between distinct ethnic groups within the colonial city of Batavia (current day Jakarta). 

In similar fashion, the unofficial codes of conduct that exist in the exterior world are not applicable within the mall. An article in The Guardian interviewed women who felt they had more freedom in their dressing, noting that “Each mall is different, but in central Jakarta you can wear what you want in the mall, and no one will stare.” This includes showing more skin and wearing above-the-knee skirts and shorts with heels, in stark contrast to expected attire at a traditional market or on the street. Others pushed back that this is a “false sense of freedom,” as it is solely within the confines of a shopping mall, an exclusive space that contains its own social conventions. Revisiting geographer Jon Goss’ (1993: 19) work on malls, retail-oriented environments are powerful in fabricating the illusion of social cohesion while advancing the practices of consumerist culture. During the Cold War, consumerism was considered a political act with citizenship and linked to “American culture superiority” (Farrell, 2003: 224). In the context of Indonesia, particularly following the 1965 genocide of alleged communists, it is arguable that consumer culture too became an important vehicle in driving post-1965 nation building. An excerpt of the article by Lamb captures this semi-private yet semi-public world of a mall powerfully: 

And while malls function in lieu of public spaces, they are hardly free. Even going to the mall costs money – you have to pay for parking, and if you want to sit down you have to order in a cafe or restaurant. 

The politics of space in shopping malls cannot be disentangled from citizenship and the state’s role in promoting anti-communist sentiment, one that was employed as part of the economic revitalization strategy following the 1997 financial crisis. In many ways, the history of malls in Indonesia traces back to political spaces socially and economically engineered by the state – spaces which resulted in the contestation of citizenship and belonging in everyday consumer practices. 

Microclimate Luxuries and the Built Environment

Sarinah’s legacy of being the first building in Indonesia to have modern, technocratic infrastructures such as air-conditioners, escalators, and electronic cash registers is uncontested. Even in popular traveler sites such as Airbnb and TripAdvisor, one can read reviews by tourists marveling at the historical significance of Sarinah being at the frontier of modernism. To combat the urban heat, Jakarta has since then developed a vast network of urban microclimates from shopping malls, gated suburban communities, cinemas, and high-rise office towers, much of which are most accessible by private cars. This limits outdoor street exposure to a minimum, except for instance, the momentary shuffling between indoor and outdoor space from one’s car to the mall entrance. Air-conditioning thus became a distinguishing factor between high-rise shopping malls and “traditional” pasar marketplaces, undeniably serving as a pivotal technology that facilitated the “social exclusivity” of the growing middle class, i.e., climate that is now purchasable with income, widening the temperature difference between citizens on the public street versus those inside “gated” buildings (Rimmer and Dick, 2009: 149-151). 

The first escalator in Indonesia (photo by author).

Moreover, shopping malls today bear the political face of questionable real estate development practices, as they pose increasing environmental threats to the rapidly sinking metropolis. Developers are able to bypass the stipulated height and width of spatial planning regulations through financial bribes, and many of them are “reported to grossly exceed their building floor coefficients” (Colbran, 2009: 28), meaning they are too big and heavy for the land they are built on. The construction of these high-rise buildings also requires the exploitation of groundwater that has, in some instances, depleted water sources that neighboring housing communities depend on (Putri and Moulaert, 2017: 839). Coupled with rising population growth along industrial activities, green spaces that served as vital recharge areas for groundwater in Jakarta has significantly decreased, which in turn contributes to exacerbating land subsidence (Abidin et al., 2011: 1762). 

A Repeat Performance: Practicing Modernity Yesterday for Tomorrow?

Oscillating between the global stage as a landmark of modernity and the local entertainment hub, malls exist within a liminal space of the semi-private and semi-public world. As a pioneer on many fronts, Sarinah was deemed as national icon, cementing its place as a national object of culture and value, and placing Indonesia on the world map following the International Asian Games. Showcasing technological frontiers such as air-conditioners and escalators, the building led the way for the rise of built microclimate environments that would change the “sociality and relationships within domestic and public spaces” (Frazier, 2019: 452). 

In May 2020, the management of the Sarinah announced its “closure” – a renovation and rebranding for the state-owned enterprise which signaled a severance to old ways of “modernity.” Approximately two years later in March 2022, Sarinah reopened with a community mall concept designed to gather young people and communities together. At the same time, who does ‘community’ refer to, and how does this challenge the dynamics of who decides which communities belong in these spaces, and who are these malls built for? The irony is that while shopping malls embody much of the shared consumer values of the middle-class, commercial utopianism “sells the good life not the good society” (Farrell, 2003: 266), with malls emphasizing consumer practices that do little to improve the widening disparity of communities nearby. 

What does it mean when malls, as consumer spaces, are idealized in form on the global stage, but function as exclusionary hubs that enforce class inequality and threaten an ecologically vulnerable city? While Sarinah’s “closure” technically refers to a renovation of the premises for a complete rebranding, the state-owned enterprise signaled a departure from old ways of “modernity” to a new era of embodying cultural heritage in a fresh light. What this might look like, and how Sarinah will be transformed when it reopens its doors after a complete transformation, remains to be seen.




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Dewi Tan is a recent Masters of Environmental Science graduate from the Yale School of Environment (YSE). Her research in environmental anthropology and political ecology focuses on urban development, water inequality issues, and speculative urbanism in Jakarta, Indonesia.