Friday, May 22, 1998

On the Coattail of a Giant

New Indonesian President B. J. Habibie is known as a Suharto loyalist and as a big spender, The Nation’s Andreas Harsono reports.

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, Indonesia’s new president, made his first mistake on being inducted. Instead of delivering a speech, Habibie simply slipped away from the room, following Suharto and leaving behind puzzled journalists, high ranking officials and millions of Indonesians who watched the nationally broadcast announcement.

A television presenter said they were waiting for Habibie. But he left the scene. Military commander Gen Wiranto, who couldn’t hide his amazement, immediately took the initiative and read out a military statement. “I want to announce something else after that simple ceremony,” said Wiranto, referring to the six-minute transfer of power.

The odd occurrence was only one example of Habibie’s political clumsiness. And many Indonesians doubt whether the 61-year-old engineer-turn-politician will be able to see the presidential term through to 2003.

“Habibie is another obstacle. He should be replaced as soon as possible,” said Indonesian political dissident Arief Budiman of the Melbourne University, adding that a special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly should be organized soon to elect a new president.

“It’s not because Habibie is strong but that he can be easily used by other people, especially the Muslims, who might see a Habibie presidency as a chance to enhance their influence and power,” said Budiman.

Suharto’s hand-picked assembly approved Habibie as vice president in March despite the disapproval of military officers, ruling Golkar party executives, and some Muslim organizations and minority groups, especially the Christians, who mostly see Habibie as a sectarian figure, if not, a big spender and an unqualified leader.

But Suharto himself insisted on having Habibie by his side. The Indonesian rupiah instantaneously plunged to a historic low of 17.000 against the American dollar when the flamboyant politician was named as Suharto’s vice president in January.

Before becoming vice president, Habibie served as research and technology minister, where he surrounded himself with controversies by developing an ambitious aircraft making industry and proposing that earth quake prone Indonesia build nuclear reactors.

He also backed costly and high tech projects which ran against the spirit of austerity reforms that Suharto had signed under pressure from the international Monetary Fund. 

“He really a protégé of president Suharto. I think his political abilities are largely untested,” Australian National University scholar Hal Hill said.

A German trained aeronautical engineer, Habibie has built his career on excellent scientific credentials, but analysts said his unorthodox economic pronouncements nerved business leaders and investors.

“He was a brilliant student, got a PhD, had success in Germany, is very well trusted by the president and came back to Indonesia to a red-carpet welcome. But he has actually never proved himself to be able to produce benefits,” said television host and columnist Wimar Witoelar.

“Earlier, there was an image of him as a brilliant scientist, but events moved him as a brilliant scientist, but events moved him away from the realm of science in to production, industry and now politics, and in all those three fields I don’t think he has met with much success,” Witoelar added.

Habibie first met Suharto as a13 years old, when Suharto was posted as an army officer to Habibie’s home town on the island of Sulawesi. Suharto often visited and ate meals at Habibie’s family home and a lasting bond formed between the two. “They are like father and son,” a retired army general once said.

Habibie graduated with a doctorate in engineering from Rheinisch Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany. He latter spent 18 years working at German aircraft maker Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm as an executive before returning to Indonesia to launch a political career under Suharto’s patronage.

Suharto called him back to Indonesia, appointed him research and technology minister in 1978, and also entrusted him with key posts such as head of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ Association (ICMI), which critics have attacked for its sectarian tendencies.

Supporters, however, say that Habibie is totally different from his boss, Muslim leader Ahmad Sumargono of the Indonesian Group on International Muslim Solidarity said that it was Habibie who asked dissident generals and senior leaders to compromise with the Suharto government.

Habibie is said to be a democratic figure who has not hesitated to embrace government critics in the bureaucracy. But Budiman said it would not be unlike Habibie to recruit opposition leaders Amin Rais and Emil Salim to work with him to weaken the reform movement.

Habibie’s tight grip on the 10-state owned strategic industries making aircraft, steel, rolling stock, ships and weapons, has brought him flak for his opaque accounting practices and apparently unlimited access to state officers.

“To date, when he was gone public on issues outside of his expertise, he hasn’t looked to be highly  intelligent, both in a political or intelligent sense, and the most famous example is the zig-zag on interest rates,” said Hill.

Government critic George Aditjondro, who specializes on corruption investigations, even went further and said that Habibie is as corrupt as Suharto who has allegedly accumulated more that U$$40 billion from businesses run mostly by his cronies and children.

Aditjondro alleged that Habibie has also given sons and other cronies huge contracts to serve state owned companies under his supervision. Habibie recommended his younger brother, Fanny, to take over his position in the giant Natuna gas project in South Cina Sea

Habibie, who has two grown sons, also supported his wife in gaining controlling stakes in dozens of companies which became suppliers to state owned companies.

No comments: