Kavi Chongkittavorn, Andreas Harsono
JAKARTA, 6 October 1998 -- Indonesian President Bacharuddin Habibie has the grand vision of his country becoming a democratic nation which respects human rights and can synergise with the world community.
Habibie, in an exclusive interview with The Nation and iTV on Saturday at the Merdeka Palace, said he wanted to see Indonesians free to do "what they think is good for the country".
The president, who was an aerospace engineer, said his people were expressing themselves with new openness. "In the past 120 days, we have had 84 registered political parties. In the past, we only had three parties," he said. "People must be given a chance according to the UN charter."
Habibie has been credited for freeing the press in Indonesia. For starters, banned magazines have been reopened. Tempo magazine, which had been forced to shut down by the previous government, reappeared on the newsstands on Monday.
With democracy, Indonesia can generate a positive synergy with other Asean countries and allow them to tap into each other's resources, he said.
Asked if an open Indonesia would influence the future of Asean, he said each country would use what is best taking its culture into consideration.
In a bizarre analogy, he likened the calorie intake of a human with the concept of human rights. "Like human rights, a 1,500 daily calorie intake for a human is universal but the way you take it is not," he said with a broad smile.
"I am not allowed to tell you how to take your 1,500 calories. I am concerned about what I can do if you don't get enough calories. I am also concerned that if you take 3,000 calories a day you will get fat and die, " he said.
The president, who had just postponed a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said he stood by the principle of non- interference, which has been the pillar behind Asean's code of conduct.
He said he did not see Indonesia as the only leading force in Asean because every member was a leader. "Each one of us has to play its role, " he added.
However, the president said his country, the fourth largest nation, will continue contributing to the region's peace and stability, adding that bilateral trade in Asean was the key behind close cooperation.
He said the assistance given to Indonesia during the time of its crisis by its neighbours including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, had been much appreciated.
Habibie spent nearly an hour discussing Indonesia's future, his plans to save the economy, his vision for Asean, on how the ethnic-Chinese community suffered from the race riots and his feeling towards the sacking of Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, whom he described as a good friend.
Habibie, always at ease with journalists, has never been hesitant in answering questions. Since there were no advance questions, the quick expressive replies from the president, who succeeded Suharto in May, were the highlight of the interview.
Since he took over the presidential seat, Habibie has spoken to more than two dozen foreign journalists from various parts of the world. His aides say this represents a new openness in Indonesia which he has been trying to promote via a freer press. His predecessor seldom spoke to journalists. During the interview with The Nation, he credited Suharto for being the father of the nation and for his dedication in improving the lot of the Indonesian people. Suharto stepped down from his presidency after the May riots and Habibie, the then vice-president, took over. Habibie still holds his position as the vice-president.
When asked if he had ever consulted Suharto after taking office in May, he said no. "I have never seen him and have had to do the work myself," he said.
He added the government's top priority was to restore the supremacy of law and order and ensure that there was no anarchy in the future. Indonesia, he pointed out, needed good laws implemented in a professional way.
The president said he wanted everybody in the Indonesian society to have the highest level of professionalism. He later explained that he was referring to the military, government officials, businessmen and journalists.
The growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots along with the pressing social issues resulting from the austerity measures have raised fears that the nation might turn into a state of anarchy. It is estimated that nearly 50 million or more remain unemployed.
With regards to the six-million Chinese community, Habibie said the government treated them like Indonesian citizens. "They have the same rights, the same responsibility like the rest," he said.
The president was compassionate when talking about Anwar, saying he was concerned about the former deputy premier's fate and that the Malaysian public be wise enough not to forget Anwar's contribution in the past.
"I am very concerned about how my friend Anwar Ibrahim has been treated. I'm concerned because people should not forget that Anwar Ibrahim has contributed a lot to his country," he said.
He said he was saddened by his arrest. "I think it is not good. You should not introduce bad things. It's bad enough if you just forget and delete [Anwar's contribution]."
Anwar has a sizeable following in Indonesia, where he befriended Muslim leaders and intellectuals. With their new-found freedom, the Indonesian press, while criticising Mahathir for his actions, has been openly sympathetic with Anwar. Last week, former Malaysian deputy prime minister Ghafar Baba, during a visit to Jakarta, lashed out at the Indonesian press for their criticism.