Shocking recent Islamist attacks risk overshadowing a hard-earned reputation for urban revival

When little-known city official Tri Rismaharini (known as Ibu Risma) won the mayor’s job in 2010, Surabaya had a dirty industrial image.
When little-known city official Tri Rismaharini (known as Ibu Risma) won the mayor’s job in 2010, Surabaya had a dirty industrial image. © Instagram/dishubsurabaya - But since then the indefatigable mayor has won a series of global awards for her renovation of the city’s physical character and public services. It won a Global Green City award from the United Nations in 2017 and was a runner-up in the Lee Kuan Yew World City prize. The latter’s judges said: “Surabaya is an emerging city that is commended for its strong appreciation of culture and for taking a bold urban development strategy to preserve and develop its kampung neighbourhoods, instead of displacing them.” Ibu Risma devotes 30% of the city budget to education and has pushed green space to 20% of cityland with 100 parks (she previously led the city’s parks department).

Indonesia’s second-biggest city, Surabaya, drew global attention last month for the shocking use of children in Islamist terrorist suicide attacks against three Christian churches and a police headquarters, in which 14 people were killed. While the attacks have raised questions about religious co-existence in the city, they will hopefully only temporarily overshadow Surabaya’s emerging status as an exemplar for urban renaissance in a developing country. Following the radical devolution of power away from Jakarta since the turn of the millennium, Surabaya’s renovation of its infrastructure and social services under its formidable female mayor, Tri Rismaharini, has made it a role model for what can be achieved.

Once Java’s illustrious trading hub, Surabaya might have hoped its gradual loss of stature to Jakarta and dowdy modern reputation would make it a less obvious target for Islamist terrorism. But some analysts say the tightening of security in Jakarta and Bali after past terrorist attacks may have made the “City of Work”, as one recent history dubbed it, more vulnerable.

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