The passing of President Habibie

Our Indonesia director Kevin Evans shares a personal tribute to the late former president Habibie, reflecting on his role in Indonesia’s development and highlighting the enduring legacy of his courageous commitment to democracy.

Growing towards the presidency

Some people are born to greatness. Others make it themselves. The late President Professor Dr Ing Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie was one of these others. He was born in the port city of Parepare in South Sulawesi and educated briefly at ITB in Bandung before heading off to Germany to complete studies in engineering. As a young PhD he was recruited into the German aeronautical company Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) where he developed new approaches and designs still used in Airbus aircraft today. He was promoted to vice president of MBB at the age of 38.

His political career formally commenced when he was appointed Indonesia’s state minister for research and technology in 1978. He held this position until he was elected vice-president in March 1998. During his 20-year ministership he became famous for his big dreaming and big-budget technology leapfrogging ambitions for Indonesia. His portfolio of initiatives expanded steadily in both civil and military areas. His very close relationship to then President Soeharto was a critical factor in ensuring his development programs were in many ways insulated both from the ‘penny pinchers’ in the economic ministries and from the military establishment who were not used to having civilians playing a role in ‘their’ areas.

By the end of the 1980s his persona as the embodiment of the modern educated Indonesian, coupled with his very close relationship to the then strongman Soeharto, made him the natural, even if somewhat surprising, choice to lead a new organisation – the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). This offered him a platform to engage in a wider political life beyond the world of engineering and technology.

B.J. Habibie with Najwa Shihab on her TV show. (Source: Instagram/@najwashihab)

Prelude to the downfall

The Asian Financial Crisis struck Indonesia most profoundly. For example, imagine Indonesian shares valued at USD $100 at the start of the crisis in July 1997. By the time the dust had settled a little over a year later these ‘shares’ were only worth $9. Compare that to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea where they would still be worth $25, or Australia where values fell only to $70. By the middle of 1998 the spectre of hyper-inflation began to emerge with prices rising 30 percent by April. In 1998 the economy imploded by 15 percent – an unprecedented collapse for a modern economy. At around the same time, in 1997, the country confronted one of its worst El Nino caused droughts, producing crop failures and huge forest fires.

As these economic events unfolded, the pressures on the ossified political system began to mount. Despite this, the incumbent President Soeharto was re-elected dutifully in March 1998 by the National Assembly. He also had his preferred candidate, Professor Habibie, elected vice-president, much to the chagrin of economic technocrats who had long harboured grave concerns about his economic credentials. Soeharto’s final Cabinet was in many ways the last straw for many groups – it included his golfing buddy and daughter. The outrage generated by these appointments saw the press go feral, giving front page coverage to demonstration after demonstration, disregarding government warnings and threats about doing so. Tensions continued to rise until the shooting and killing of several student demonstrators at Tri Sakti University in Jakarta. I recall writing a briefing note at the time titled Game Over. I believed that all hope was lost for a regime that takes to shooting the sons and daughters of the polite middle class in the capital city in front of cameras. Desperate efforts by Soeharto to save his presidency failed as, one by one, key groups withdrew support. Muslim leaders rejected his overtures and his promised reform. His economic ministers resigned on mass a couple of days later. The speaker of the National Assembly called for him to resign (rather than face the prospect of having the Assembly reconvene to remove him).

Within four days President Soeharto resigned and, to Soeharto’s eternal consternation and disappointment, Vice-President Habibie stood up, correctly, in any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, to replace him, rather than resigning with him.

The constitutional nature of Indonesia’s Reformasi was demonstrated further when the then commander of the armed forces, Wiranto, declared immediate loyalty to the duly inaugurated President Habibie. As these events were unfolding I walked along the eerily empty roads to the Parliament where students continued to sit on the roof of the building declaring nothing had changed as the military watched on and housewives brought them all food and drinks.

As we attempt to reflect on the record of B. J. Habibie as president, it is well to recall these atmospherics and dynamics that confronted him as he assumed the reins of power.

Picking up steam

One of his first statements was to indicate that he expected to complete that current term in office, namely until 2003. After that created a storm of protest from the media and demonstrators he adjusted quickly to the new circumstances announcing that the scheduled elections of 2002 would be brought forward to 1999.

From that moment he set about negotiating the transformation of the political and institutional landscape of Indonesia. I very deliberately use the term negotiate. Perhaps not sufficiently acknowledged by many is that the Parliament of the day, despite containing the exact same MPs who dutifully, and without question, re-elected Soeharto two months before, would no longer be the paper tiger institution it had been for decades.

I had a remarkably unique and privileged vantage position through this time. While still working in the capital market during the day, I provided advisory and voluntary work for the President’s team, working as they did until 3am most days, during those first critical few months of the Habibie era. This including sitting with them in the Commission rooms of Parliament as they struggled to promote the President’s reform agenda. I saw that his team had to fight tooth and nail for every legal reform his Government was proposing. They won some battles but lost plenty of others.

By the end of his 17-month tenure the political system and institutional arrangements were dramatically transformed by wide ranging legislative and regulatory changes. He ushered in freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to set up political parties, free and fair elections, an independent central bank, an independent judiciary (independent from the executive branch of government), greater regional autonomy, a fair business competition commission and separation of the police from the military.

He reformed the civil service, foreign policy, anti-corruption efforts, consumer protection laws, the collection of zakat and the construction sector. He also liberated political prisoners, signed up to a range of international conventions on human rights, torture and labour rights, abolished the anti-subversion law and began the process of normalising the citizenship status of Sino-Indonesians. He also agreed to allow the people of East Timor to determine their future and accepted the verdict when it came.

The breakdown of the architecture of Soeharto’s New Order, however, was much more than changing the official leadership and replacing the vast array of legal instruments used to legitimise this system. The New Order’s parallel systems for controlling power, patronage and finance, from the capital right out to the villages, was parasitic, steadily asphyxiating the strength and resilience of the official state structures. These systems withered quickly once President Soeharto was gone. This left huge gaps and vacuums of power and authority, including locally. In many places around the country this vacuum created the circumstances in which long suppressed grievances exploded into social violence. The islands of the Moluccas and the hinterland of Central Sulawesi were the worst affected.

President Habibie’s downfall came at the hands of the National Assembly, elected by the first free and fair elections in decades. In the minds of many people his defining moment in the grace with which he relinquished power to his successor. In his post-presidential life he played the role of quiet counsel to any president who would seek his views.

His legacy

His intellectual brilliance was demonstrated right from his youth and in his early career success in a foreign country. That is surely beyond question.

As someone with such a long history in national politics, transcending the pre-democratic and democratic eras of government, including an especially close relationship to the strongman of the day, President Habibie’s legacy is nuanced. The Government decision to shut down major news outlets including Tempo, DeTik (now Detik) and Editor for their perceived biased reporting on issues close to then Minister Habibie remains a matter of controversy. His big-budget programs and ambitions to see Indonesia emerge as a major centre of technology during his 20 years as state minister of research and technology are seen invariably by his critics as pie-in-the-sky hubris, and by his supporters as inspiring platforms of great vision from which to seriously advance the nation. In many respects people perceive his legacy as minister more in relation to his big technological leapfrogging vision than his actual performance and output.

His initial foray into mainstream politics through his stewardship of the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals is seen by critics as having enabled and indeed legitimised sectarian sentiment. His supporters say that in this role he helped to bring the educated sons and daughters of the Islamic Modernists into the national mainstream – in social, cultural, political and economic terms. This group had been effectively ostracised since the end of the 1950s.

That Habibie has been a visionary figure who inspired generations of young Indonesians to look to science and technology and modernity is rarely challenged. As someone who lived in South Sulawesi in the 1980s I also saw how his elevation to the nation’s top job served as an inspiring demonstration that leadership of the nation was not restricted to the Javanese, but could also include people from Sulawesi.

His presidency was, however, quite controversial in its day.

It may be well to begin by reflecting on President Habibie’s economic legacy. As painful as it must have been to him personally, he had to effectively dismantle support for many of his long-term key projects and agencies to ensure compliance with the expectations of the IMF, and also rebuild a basis for long-term fiscal sustainability and stability. During his tenure the country avoided the danger of hyper-inflation and stabilised the macro-economic situation producing a modest economic expansion after the collapse of 1998. By the end of his term the rupiah had recovered significantly, appreciating by about 50 percent. Despite the economic crisis being the catalyst for the events that ultimately led to the political transformation he oversaw, little attention is paid to his stewardship of the economy at this difficult time.

On his political legacy, radical elements of society always saw him as an illegitimate interloper, an acolyte of the old strongman Soeharto who failed to hold the president to account for the state-capture scale of corruption of his era. Others condemn him for either allowing the ballot that enabled East Timorese separation from Indonesia and/or for his failing, as president, to prevent the post-ballot violence in East Timor. Others, however, credit him with great political courage in staring down powerful domestic forces in Indonesia to allow the ballot and then respecting the verdict and enabling the separation from Indonesia to take place.

Only the most vociferous of critics would deny the breadth of reform initiated during his tenure. Many of these detractors state dismissively that he had no choice. In this I believe they are naively incorrect. Experiences in so many other countries, which have sought to rebuild in the aftermath of a political and or economic collapse, are full of very unfortunate stories of very poor decisions made by transitional administrations, many of which sowed the seeds for regression and the violent failure of efforts at transformation.

Pak Habibie demonstrated a capacity and drive to push forward with an ambitious reform agenda. Twenty years on, and despite some recent backsliding on civil liberties, Indonesia remains the most secure democracy in the Southeast Asia region.

With his passing he is being eulogised as Indonesia’s Father of Democracy. My view is that this is a fully deserved affirmation. But I believe he was more than that.

Post presidency

Political figures are often judged by their final acts as leader. I recall meeting with a Pakistani colleague from the UN who attended the inauguration of Habibie’s successor President Wahid. After the event and as he tried to leave the Parliament he got lost and came to a long corridor at the end of which he saw two Indonesian gentlemen holding hands and chatting warmly. He suddenly realised he was watching President Habibie and President Wahid standing in front of their cars as the number plates were exchanged. He said he almost cried wondering when he could witness such a gracious change of national leadership in his own country. Even today President Habibie’s grace in departure remains the standard which his successors seek to reach.

About four days after he was replaced as president I had the opportunity to meet with him at his home for what I thought would be a brief opportunity to express to him a polite thank you for what he had achieved in his brief tenure. It ended up being an extraordinary three hour discussion. I found him truly remarkable. He explained these profound political developments with the mind of a pure engineer. As a person he was also totally serene and at peace with what had taken place just a few days earlier. Indeed I was forced to ask (I forget precisely how I expressed the question in Indonesian) but it was something like: “Don’t you feel a little peeved at how the National Assembly treated you?” He looked at me and explained earnestly that they had the big task of finding the best person to lead the nation, and said their collective decision was taken on that basis. So, of course, he accepted this without burden or concern and wished his successor every success. The story from my Pakistani colleague confirmed clearly his state of being.

President Jokowi farewells former president Habibie from Istana Merdeka. (Source: Tribun News)

A decade or so later in the heady days of the Arab Spring, I was invited to share Indonesian experiences on political transformation with the UN in Cairo. They wanted to conduct a big event with future Arab leaders on these issues. I convinced them to invite Pak Habibie as a key speaker. Fortunately they did. When I later asked them how it went, they said he was inspiring and the participants loved him and wanted to do more with him.

Last year when Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar was being inducted into the Indonesian Academy of Science, I had the chance to have lunch with Pak Habibie. We discussed the Cairo visit which had taken place over eight years earlier. He recalled the visit instantly noting that his key advice to them had been not to have a revolution. He told them that if they had wished to have an accelerated evolution, then that would be fine, but not a revolution. He explained, as only an engineer could, that a revolution created too many unpredictable factors that could see the whole process spin out of control. It seems this was advice he applied astutely during his presidency.

A remarkable man, a remarkable life and a remarkable impact on his nation. His shoes will be very hard to fill.

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