Former British ambassador to Indonesia, Timor Leste and ASEAN, 2014 to 2019
Bacharuddin “Rudi” Jusuf Habibie led Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Despite his close association with Soeharto’s authoritarian regime and opposition from many political and military quarters, he proved to be a courageous reformer. Whilst he struggled to secure popular support in power, he came to be seen as a father to his nation — a G20 country of 260 million people (the fourth largest population in the world), with the largest Muslim population and one of the most diverse, with 17,000 islands and more than 700 languages. He was an influential advocate for human rights, including minorities — and helped save the life of a Pakistani national on death row.
Habibie passed away on Sept. 11 at the age of 83. The people of Indonesia and friends around the world will miss the twinkle in his eye, his crooked smile, and his generosity of spirit. Others might well draw lessons from how much he managed accomplish in his short tenure as President of Indonesia.
Bapak Habibie and I first met on Jan.9, 2015. He had just returned from Germany where he spent some part of each year. On hearing that the new British Ambassador was a Muslim, he invited me to join him for Friday prayers and lunch. Over the next four-and-a-half years, we saw each other regularly, discussing political developments in Indonesia, the United Kingdom and beyond, sharing ideas on promoting human rights, tolerance, pluralism and educational progress, and exchanging our favorite foods — he particularly loved my wife’s English trifle and cakes.
The son of an agriculturist and a Javanese noblewoman from Yogyakarta, Habibie was born in South Sulawesi in 1936. He studied at one of Indonesia’s foremost universities, the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) before continuing his education in West Germany, gaining a PhD in aerospace engineering. He went on to work as a distinguished engineer helping to design the Airbus A300 among others.
In 1974 Soeharto persuaded Habibie to return to Indonesia to spearhead a drive for industrialization. Habibie subsequently served as minister of research and technology for almost 20 years. During this period, Habibie unveiled plans for the first Indonesian-developed aeroplane, the N250. In 1990, he founded the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), to promote science, technology and development. By 1994 the association had 20,000 members and had become an influential voice in society.
Many Indonesians never forgave Habibie for the break-up of the country. But its significance for the people of Timor Leste) was evident in a recent footage of former guerrilla leader and Timor’s first president Xanana Gusmaõ’s emotional embrace with Habibie in hospital in July.
In January 1998, with political clouds gathering around the presidency, partly spurred by the Asian financial crisis, Soeharto surprised the political establishment by nominating Habibie as his vice president. As students took to the streets and forced his resignation in May 1998, Soeharto further surprised many by allowing the constitutional process to run and handed power to Habibie rather than a military figure.
As president, Habibie struggled to secure legitimacy in his own right. But in just 17 months, he set Indonesia off on its post-authoritarian period of reformasi (reformation). He instigated unpopular economic reforms, apologized for past human rights abuses, liberalized Indonesia’s press and political party laws, agreed to presidential term limits, freed political prisoners, strengthened women’s rights, lifted discriminatory policies against the Chinese minority, reduced the role of the military in politics, instituted regional autonomy to counter secessionist voices in the archipelago and oversaw peaceful, free and fair parliamentary elections in November 1999.
As remarkably, with an increasingly intractable civil war flaring in the east — and in the face of opposition from the political establishment — Habibie courageously granted a UN-supervised referendum in 1999 to East Timor, the area occupied by Indonesia in 1975 after the Portuguese left. He expected that the Timorese would opt for autonomy. They chose independence instead.
Many Indonesians never forgave Habibie for the break-up of the country. But its significance for the people of Timor Leste was evident in a recent footage of former guerrilla leader and Timor’s first president Xanana Gusmaõ’s emotional embrace with Habibie in hospital in July. Habibie in turn lifted his head from his bed and kissed Gusmao on the forehead.
Unable to shake off his association with the Soeharto regime, and with strong opposition in parliament, Habibie decided against running for the presidency in October 1999. He turned his attention to building his political research institute, The Habibie Centre, and divided his time between Jakarta and Germany.
Habibie’s wife, Hasri Ainun, a medical doctor, passed away in 2010. Habibie would regularly remind friends that they were married for 48 years and 10 days. Habibie movingly celebrated his love for her through books, films and orchestral compositions. Every Friday, in an act of devotion and commemoration, he would wear Ainun’s white scarf and pray at her graveside. His devotion and love for his wife struck a popular chord with Indonesians.
With a succession of post-reformasi presidents struggling to deliver progress, Habibie’s short record began to look increasingly impressive, and he came to be revered as “father of the nation”. He was regularly consulted by Indonesia’s political leaders.
At our first meeting, as we attended Friday prayers, Habibie was mobbed at the local mosque by well-wishers. That sentiment followed him wherever he went in Indonesia.
Over lunch that day, he explained why democracy was suitable for Muslim societies. He saw the freedom to debate ideas and for citizens to choose their leaders as entirely compatible with Islamic values. And he was at pains to point out that Indonesia was not a “Muslim country”, rather a home for all Indonesians whether Muslim or not.
In 2016, Habibie declared his opposition to the death penalty when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had restarted executions as part of a “war against drugs”. In July, I visited him and discussed the case of a Pakistani national, Zulfiqar Ali. His case had been brought to my attention by a British NGO, Reprieve. Ali was on death row for a drugs-related crime, almost certainly as a result of a miscarriage of justice.
With Ali listed for execution, Habibie wrote to the president appealing for mercy. At the last minute, Ali was pulled from the line-up facing the firing squad. He died in May 2018 due to ill health, partly as a result of injuries sustained during interrogation. His family and supporters are still pursuing a posthumous exoneration.
I visited Habibie in hospital the night before departing Jakarta, having concluded my term of office. He found the energy to smile, reminisce, share news and to wish us well. He talked factually, without complaint, about his ailments. I promised to visit him in Germany this winter. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Habibie famously loved to talk. One evening in Ramadan, following taraweh prayers with friends at his home, he was handed the microphone. As his friends looked on lovingly, one guest lamented the fact that his granddaughter wasn’t present: she was the only one who could persuade him to stop. Eventually his son Ilham was persuaded to scamper over and explain that people needed to get some rest. Habibie and his guests laughed, bound together by a closeness of spirit, a shared vision for a better world, but one worn lightly with that twinkle in his eye. That is how I will remember him.
Habibie was buried on Sept. 12, in Jakarta’s Kalibata Heroes Cemetery beside his beloved Ainun. He is survived by his sons, Ilham Akbar Habibie and Thareq Kemal Habibie and six grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.