The life and legacy of Indonesia's B.J. Habibie

14 September 2019 / Karim Raslan

He was a quintessential product of Soeharto’s ‘New Order’. He had been a loyal two decade-long Cabinet minister and a much promoted, admired and protected protege.

Nonetheless, from May 1998 for seventeen intense months, as Indonesia crumpled under the onslaught of the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) and political turmoil, Bacharuddin Jusuf (or BJ) Habibie as the newly sworn-in President blithely dismantled his mentor’s authoritarian legacy.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, one of his key advisors explains:

“Pak Habibie was not a politician. He was an engineer - a man of science. He designed and built things. He also built institutions. And as President at that time, he saw that it was his task was to get Indonesia out of what was a multi-dimensional crisis. To his mind, Indonesia, for too long, had depended on economics alone. Social and political developments had atrophied. This had to change.”

Born in 1936 on the eastern island of Sulawesi, Habibie would most probably have lived a quiet and relatively obscure existence as a successful aeronautical engineer in his beloved Germany had it not been for the fact that Soeharto - then a rising star in the military - had been sent to pacify Makassar (and the Andi Aziz Rebellion) in 1950.

The visiting general found a warm welcome in the Habibie homestead on Jalan Maricaya. The hospitality combined with a shared Javanese connection was to become the basis of a deep, long-term family friendship - so much so that whenever Soeharto was later travelling through Germany in the 70’s he often made a point of catching up with the young Habibie - by then an ambitious and talented engineering student.

Having graduated, Habibie went on to work at the well-known German aeronautical manufacturers Messerschmidt-Bolkow-Blohm (subsequently a part of Airbus). However, Pak Harto had not forgotten the dynamic young man and in 1974 Habibie was called back to Indonesia to helm the republic’s industrialisation - modernizing a slew of what are now key State-owned Enterprises (such as PT Pindad, the defence manufacturer and PT PAL, the shipbuilder).

Wittingly or not, he shaped vast elements of his nation’s identity. For example, his role at ICMI (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia - the Indonesian Association of Intellectuals) went a long way to battling the obscurantism prevalent in Islamic discourse.

His rise was spectacular.

In 1978 the diminutive Habibie joined the Cabinet as the Minister for Research and Technology. Whilst many have disparaged his achievements and criticised (not without some justification) the over-spending there is no doubt that in his quest to create an Indonesian airplane manufacturer, IPTN (now PT Dirgantara) he also created a phalanx of engineers. Sadly, with the AFC, much of this extraordinary engineering capacity has been lost - many left to work with Brazil’s Embraer and elsewhere.

Relations with the once all-powerful Soeharto family were never to recover from his embrace of the reform agenda during his Presidency. Indeed, the clan were conspicuous in their absence during the recent state funeral.

 

Habibie lived and died at the very centre of Indonesian public life.

Certainly, his seventeen-month stint as President was a whirlwind. Habibie stunned his critics as he initiated an unprecedented political ‘big bang’ - freeing political prisoners, relaxing press restrictions, addressing long-term ethnic Chinese grievances, setting up independent institutions (including an electoral commission), reconfiguring key constitutional bodies such as Parliament as well as pushing for decentralisation - leading in turn, in 2014 to the election of Joko Widodo, the former Mayor of Solo as President.

Of course, external pressures - a collapsing Rupiah and outbreaks of violence (from Ambon to Aceh and Kalimantan) across the archipelago - meant that such reforms were almost inevitable.

However, what many in the West viewed positively as the so-called ‘liberation’ of East Timor was to be seen domestically as his biggest failure - especially by the military and security community for whom Indonesia’s sovereignty has long been inviolable (or in Indonesian - Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia or NKRI Harga Mati!)

It’s important not to underestimate the anger and frustration at the time amongst the Jakarta elite and for many years after he left the Presidency, he was a shadowy presence, at best in the country.

Nonetheless, by the time of his death some twenty years later it’s hard to imagine a leader more universally loved and regarded. Certainly, history has been kind to his Big Bang political reforms but beyond that Habibie’s personality has made him a uniquely millennial hero.

Once again Dewi Fortuna Anwar best captures the man when she says: “He was warm. He was genuine. He didn’t care about image (or citra)” and it was this emotional authenticity, even vulnerability and ultimately his passionate devotion to his lovely wife Ainun - who predeceased him, passing away in 2010 - that anchored his contemporary reputation. Of course, having the heart-throb Reza Rahadian playing the on-screen Habibie didn’t harm his reputation in any way.

Habibie lived and died at the very centre of Indonesian public life. Everyone will miss his mercurial but always charming personality. Proof that in life there are always second and sometimes even third innings!