Indonesia’s fourth president, the late Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, was never short of a quip.
“First president (Soekarno, who had nine wives) was crazy about women. The second (Soeharto, who allegedly stole US$35 billion) was crazy about money. The third (Habibie) is just crazy.” Assessing himself, Wahid added: “I just drive people crazy.”
That was also an attribute of Bacharuddin Jusuf ‘Rudy’ Habibie who died last week.
The former aeronautical engineer ran the world’s most populous Islamic country from 1998 to 1999; as vice-president he took over when Soeharto was forced by student riots and the economic crisis to end his 32-year dictatorship.
The Indonesia media has been treating Habibie’s passing as though he was a soldier hero of the 1945 revolution against the Dutch, when for much of his 83 years he was more a distant figure of bemusement and failed grandiose dreams.
He was born in Sulawesi and spent many years in the Netherlands and Germany, studying and working for Messerschmitt; he eventually designed a commuter turboprop for his homeland called the IPTN N-250. This never took off.
He was much smarter than the thick generals who ruled Indonesia last century and still flick backroom switches. To them he was Dr Strangelove, an Indonesian version of the mad scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic film, but had to be tolerated because he was protected by Soeharto.
A Sydney Morning Herald backgrounder once reported: “Habibie is short, speaks shrilly and gesticulates wildly, has a decidedly Teutonic manner from his German education, has the ear of his president, and wants to build aircraft, rockets, ships and nuclear power plants.”
Between 1978 and 1998, when Habibie was Minister for Research and Technology, his weird theories were tagged ‘Habibienomics’. He argued for up-down interest rates plus heavy government involvement in technology rather than encouraging private business to invest. When Soeharto made him vice president – knowing he’d be no personal threat as he wasn’t a Javanese general – the rupiah crashed to 17,000 against the US dollar after being pegged at 2,500. It’s now around 14,000.
Jealous of the business clout of the mainly Christian Chinese community he created the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ Association.
Among his errors was buying the East German Navy in 1994. One of the 39 warships sank on its way to Surabaya where the rest rust for want of parts. Tempo newsmagazine exposed the scandal and was banned.
But when Habibie became president he used his 17 months as a reformer, giving the media back its freedom, releasing political prisoners and clearing the way for democracy. Most curiously he ordered a referendum on the future of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1975.
One version has Habibie getting a letter from the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggesting a decade of autonomy for the province; the idea was to remove ‘the pebble in the shoe’ that had long irritated relationships. Habibie, furious at what he saw as foreign interference in a domestic issue, went one-better and called a vote.
Some wonder why the all-powerful Army didn’t stage a coup and oust Habibie for threatening the Unitary State. The generals hesitated because they were confident the Timorese loved Indonesia and would vote to stay in the Republic. This belief was based on ‘intelligence reports’ from the field claiming no support for independence. Which is what wise folk say when questioned by men with guns, holding clipboards and noting names.
The four-to-one result threw the military into a fury, taking revenge by scorching the earth, killing and plundering. Their hate for Habibie was boundless, but he was soon replaced by Wahid.
Apart from his late social reforms Habibie was till recently thought more a harmless boffin, remote from the serious gamers who carry swagger sticks.
Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor met him in 2013 and heard him say that his duty was to ‘build a just, open and democratic society’ after Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship. “In some respects Habibie’s greatest weakness was his intelligence,” said Taylor. “An incredibly clever and articulate thinker, Habibie was perhaps too advanced for most people, including me. He found it difficult to work at a level that was connected to the common person. Yet he was in every respect a visionary with a brilliant mind.”
In the last few years Habibie’s egghead image has been cracked through two biopics about his courtship of high school sweetheart Dr Hasri Ainun Besari. The 48-year union was apparently marked by genuine mutual respect and depicted as a grand romance. After his physician wife died in 2010 Habibie reportedly visited her grave daily. He is now buried by her side.
Habibie’s engineering and political career won little acclaim, but the Rudy and Ainun love story has gripped the public’s attention and admiration. Indonesia’s third president is being remembered less as a Dr Strangelove, more as an advanced feminist in a culture that’s still largely patriarchal.
Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.