By Tian Yuan
Recently, a stone statue of a weathered gentleman holding up a model plane was erected in Gorontalo, Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is the likeness of Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie (1936-2019), who was the third president of Indonesia, from May 1998 to October 1999, and passed away just about 100 days ago. An engineer before becoming a politician, Habibie was a bold reformer and innovator as well as a pioneer of Indonesia-China friendship.
I had my first conversation with the man during a break in a Jakarta performance by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016. I nervously introduced myself and asked to arrange an interview. “Are you a Chinese journalist?” he asked, lighting up. “So nice to see you!” He gestured for me to sit by his side. “My granddaughter loves learning Chinese, and I miss my Chinese friends so much!” Although our conversation was short, we managed to touch on topics ranging from Western classical music to traditional Chinese culture and from Indonesia’s multi-ethnic civilization to the common dreams of Chinese and Indonesian youth.
Habibie was known as a dreamer, and many Indonesians immediately associate him with airplanes. When Habibie was very young, he dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot to defend the country. When he was studying aerospace engineering in Germany, he dreamed of making profound contributions to his motherland at a young age. When he became Indonesia’s state minister of research and technology, he dreamed of building a domestic Indonesian aviation industry from his design of the first Indonesian plane, the CN 25 Gatot Kaca. He eventually became known as Indonesia’s “father of aviation.” How did Habibie dreams evolve when he took the office of president? I think he had dreamed of guiding his country out of crisis and onto the runway for a take-off.
Habibie’s unique technocratic background and overseas experience inspired the term “Habibie economics” to describe the three pillars of innovation, productivity and human capital with emphasis on change and added value. In 1998, Indonesia was enduring multidimensional political, economic, social and diplomatic crises including the Asian financial crisis, riots against ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the fall of the Suharto regime. In such circumstances, Habibie was elected president and introduced a series of major policies to address the volatile situation.
He defined the Asian financial crisis as a trust crisis and prioritized regaining the trust of investors in his administration. He relieved Indonesia’s central bank of its governmental functions and designated it an independent monetary policymaking and enforcement agency. He organized timely strategic restructuring of the national banking industry and established four state-run banks. He founded Bank Mandiri, which is now Indonesia’s largest bank. He enacted laws and regulations including the Law Concerning the Ban on Monopolistic Practices and Unfair Business Competition and the Law on Consumer Protection to reshape the business and investment environment. Habibie also established and improved government departments such as the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) and the Indonesian Debt Restructuring Agency (INDRA) and reorganized state-owned industries including aviation, shipbuilding, communications and arms.
Under his leadership, Indonesia emerged from national bankruptcy via economic growth rebounding from -13.1 percent to 0.8 percent in a year. To consolidate achievements in economic recovery, Habibie also seized the historic opportunity to launch a radical “decentralization” program of transformative significance to the Indonesian economy. By delegating financial power, he completely changed the roles and relationships of central and local governments while meeting needs for diversified development in a nation consisting of over 17,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. Habibie’s 17-month presidency is revered by Indonesians as “having triggered an era of great change.” He resisted pressure from the military and invested heavily in R&D and education. Generations of Indonesians have since firmly regarded technological progress as the catalyst for national transformation.
In his eulogy at Habibie’s funeral, Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke highly of the contributions of the “father of Indonesian technology” and “one of the greatest sons of Indonesia,” who will forever remain a role model for the nation’s children. Anhar Antariksawan, deputy chairman of the National Nuclear Energy Agency of Indonesia (BATAN), considers Habibie the person who led the agriculture-based country on the path of growth through scientific and technological progress.
Reform was a reoccurring theme of Habibie’s life. “Reform is not yet complete,” he declared from his deathbed. “All of us must carry on with the effort.” Against the backdrop of intensifying global economic turmoil, especially escalating trade friction, he suggested upcoming reform be people-centered to improve the quality and competitiveness of human resources because progress in production, society and civilization is inseparable from improvements in the quality of human capital. “Yesterday, we depended on natural resources for development. Tomorrow, we have to depend on human resources!” he proclaimed.
Habibie was involved in plentiful touching stories related to China. For example, he lifted the Suharto regime’s ban on the expressions of Chinese culture through language, religion and traditional festivals often practiced by ethnic Chinese Indonesians. Habibie’s love story with his wife Hasri Ainun was popularized in a book titled Habibie & Ainun which was adapted into a trilogy of films. His long love letter to his late wife was published as a bestseller of the year in Indonesia and later translated into Mandarin for Chinese distribution. In the summer of 2018, Habibie told me that Cinta Laura, an Indonesian-German actress who portrayed his wife in the films, had become a national treasure in Indonesia. “I admire this actress who has presented Indonesia’s most beautiful songs to Chinese people on the stages in China,” he declared. “I want to share all three Habibie & Ainun films with China. I’d also like to see the movie industries of our countries strengthen cooperation to promote interaction and integration of our civilizations.” In the summer of that year, the first joint production of a romance movie started shooting in Bali. Although Habibie’s health was deteriorating at the time, he insisted on attending a celebration dinner event hosted by the cooperation partners.
I took an opportunity to share a new recording from the film with him from my cell phone. “This is beautiful!” he said in response, gazing into the quiet Java night. “I feel like I’m flying!”
That was our last conversation. A few months later, I finished my assignment in Indonesia and returned to China. Half a year later, I learned of his passing. I was also informed that his last words for the Indonesian people were: “Reform—talk less and do more! Indonesia should not be the Indonesia of Southeast Asia, but the Indonesia of the whole world.”