Habibie: A reformer and a democrat

  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 16 Sep 2019

Man of peace: A filepic of Habibie gesturing during an interview with European journalists at the Bina Graha presidential office in Jakarta. — AFP

Although some believed he was betrayed by his own party, he was a gentleman politician unfazed by all the lobbying and jostling around him. Hopefully history will be kind to a true Indonesian patriot.

I ATTENDED the 1995 annual meeting of Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals), better-known as ICMI, in Jakarta as an observer. Something dramatic happened the day before the historic event. The then president of Indonesia, Suharto, fired the Minister of Trade, Prof Dr Satrio Budihardjo Joedono from his Cabinet.

Dr Satrio was one of the founder members of ICMI when it was formed in 1990. Naturally, conspiracy theories about the firing took centre stage. Suharto could have waited after he officially opened the meeting to do so. The message, according to some factions, was loud and clear. ICMI can be a powerful association but Suharto was still calling the shots.

The person at the helm of ICMI was Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie or B.J. Habibie, Suharto’s deputy president who died last week. Unlike mass movements like Muhamma-diah and Nahdatul Ulama which claimed to have millions of followers, ICMI courted Muslim intellectuals who mattered.

Habibie was a bright star in Indonesian politics at the time. He was an engineer by profession, trained in Germany. It was Suharto who enticed him to come back in 1974. He was given the task to head a state-owned enterprise, Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN), that was supposed to spearhead the country’s technological advancement, particularly in the aviation industry.

By 1991, IPTN was involved in manufacturing helicopters and small planes. But things turned for the worse. Some of the projects were deemed commercially not viable. The government decided to scrap the entire enterprise later, much to Habibie’s sadness.

But Habibie had already made his mark as a politician. He was made the deputy president in 1998. Hardly two months later, when Suharto resigned amidst the chaos of the Asian economic contagion, Habibie was made the third president of Indonesia.

It was no easy ride for him. The economic turmoil took a tremendous toll on the government and the people. After many years of iron-clad rule, Indonesians had tasted freedom as never before. It took a superhuman effort to manage the country. His priority was to save the economy. The economic crisis had torn, among other things, the fabric of Indonesian society. He did what he thought was right. The result wasn’t stellar but Indonesia did not sink further into the abyss either.

And he freed the press. He reformed laws that shackled the press. Press freedom was a mainstay of his administration. Giving press freedom under such circumstances for many Third World leaders is a recipe for disaster. Freedom without discipline can be dangerous for any democracy. But he stayed the course.

In troubling times, the freedom that he guaranteed became a double-edged sword. Today, Indonesia is a shining example of press freedom in a developing country. More importantly, he lifted the Suharto-era restrictions on political parties. More dramatically, he even dissolved the Ministry of Information, ending decades-old censorship.

There is another legacy that Habibie left, the referendum he allowed for the people of Timor-Leste (formerly known as Timor Timur). Timor-Leste has a chequered past. The history of annexation by the Portuguese and later the Indonesians was one that was bloodied. The 1991 Dili Massacre became the tipping point. Despite the human cost among Indonesians to keep the territory, many, especially in the military, believed the territory was rightly theirs.

Even Habibie believed so. But he changed his mind, offering a referendum to the people of Timor Timur either to stay on with Indonesia or leave the republic. The referendum held on Aug 30,1999 was easy to predict. Soon after, a new country was born – Timor-Leste.

It was the final nail on the coffin. The relationship between him and the military was at the lowest point. The military accused him of not consulting them on the referendum.

Many years later when I met him, I asked him if he would have done it differently had he been given the second chance. He was adamant he did the right thing about freeing the press and allowing the referendum for the people of Timor Timur.

“The tide of change can’t be stopped, ” he said.

Many believed he was betrayed by his own party. He did not even seek re-election in 1999. But he was a gentleman politician unfazed by all the lobbying and jostling around him. He was more of a technocrat than a politician, naively believing that his party would at least remember him as an honourable transitional leader. Not surprisingly, his party put forth four other presidential nominees. He knew he stood no chance. He was a president for only 512 days, the shortest stint for any Indonesian president so far.

Hopefully history will be kind to a true patriot, reformist and democrat that he was.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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