Former President of Indonesia Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie (1998-1999)
Tarek Masoud, Associate Professor of Public Policy
Watch a Video Recording of the Event
Earlier this June, the Ash Center’s Indonesia program played host to former President of Indonesia Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie for an event entitled “Democracy and Pluralism: What Can we Learn From Indonesia.” Having held office for two years in the late 1990s, Habibie oversaw Indonesia’s post-Suharto transition from an authoritarian state to an emerging democracy, which HKS Professor and Ash faculty affiliate Tarek Masoud called “one of the world’s most improbable democracies.”
“It is not the kind of place where we expect democracy to endure, survive, and indeed thrive.”
Masoud, who has written about the accountability of Indonesia’s public institutions explained, “It is, for example, a very poor country. Its level of per capita income is lower than the kind of magic level we think is necessary for democracies to survive. It is also ethnically heterogeneous, constantly under the pull of centrifugal forces that threaten to pull it apart, and have pulled apart other nations, and yet Indonesia has remained whole… And it is one of the world’s few Muslim-majority countries that is democratic.”
“There is a great deal to be gained from the Indonesian experience,” said Masoud. “What did [President Habibie] do right in those tender months following Suharto’s overthrow? What are the secrets of democratic reform and could they be mimicked elsewhere? Because the Arab world is currently undergoing the same kind of process that Indonesia went through 16 years ago, these are not only questions of historical importance, but questions of urgency.”
An Engineer Assumes the Presidency
Habibie greeted the overcrowded auditorium and began by sharing stories from his early career as an aeronautics engineer. He was raised in Indonesia and educated abroad in Germany, earning a PhD in engineering from the Technical University of Aachen. Known for his innovative approach to design, Habibie had a highly successful career in Germany and was promoted to vice president of a large aeronautics company specializing in the manufacture of helicopters, airplanes, and missiles.
Habibie recalled the moment in 1974 when Indonesia’s longtime leader, President Suharto, recruited him to spearhead the country’s industrialization efforts. “[Suharto] asked me to prepare Indonesia to enter the next millennial,” said Habibie. “I protested– I told him there are much better people... I can only make airplanes. My bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD are all in making airplanes. Suharto disagreed. ‘If you can make airplanes’ he said, ‘then you can make everything.’”
Under Suharto, Habibie held several government posts in Indonesia, including Ministry of Technology and Development where he oversaw a variety of state-owned industries. In March of 1998, Habibie was elected to the vice presidency amid a period of great economic turmoil throughout much of Asia. Escalating inflation, rising unemployment, and mass protests precipitated Suharto’s abrupt resignation a mere three months later -- ending 32 years of authoritarian rule in Indonesia.
In accordance with the constitution, it fell to Habibie to assume the presidency and pick up the shattered pieces of Indonesia’s economy. “People’s basic needs could not be guaranteed, eroding confidence in the president and the whole political system,” said Habibie describing the political upheaval occurring as he took office.
1.3 Reforms Per Day
“Given my technical background, I was able to analyze the situation in a systematic and objective manner,” Habibie told the audience. He conceived the term “social vortex” to describe the upending of power occurring in Indonesia from a top-down to a bottom-up government structure where power lies in the hands of the people. “I needed to create [laws] to control this unpredictable social force,” he said.
Habibie ushered in seminal democratic reforms, including freedom of the press. He described his initial motivation for opening doors to opposition saying: “I received all the reports from the national intelligence party, the army, navy, air force, parliament, interior minister, and foreign minister. None of these reports matched and the result was chaos… How could I verify the quality of the reports? Who was to be trusted? …The people who demonstrate! Freedom to write [will lead to greater accuracy].”
During his 15-month term as president, Habibie also expanded international education opportunities, worked to stabilize the economy, approved the establishment of new political parties, and released political detainees. “Jails are only for criminals,” he said. “Not for those who have an opinion other than those in power.”
Despite intense opposition from members of parliament and the ruling class, Habibie continued to institute sweeping change– 1.3 new laws per day by his estimate. Speaking on leadership in the face of conflict and chaos, Habibie told the audience: “I can only make progress if I dare to make changes.”
In October 1999, Habibie peacefully ceded the presidency to Abdurrahman Wahid, an influential Muslim religious leader, setting an important precedent in post-Suharto Indonesia.
Indonesia’s Democratic Future
Habibie, who has remained active in politics primarily through the Habibie Center, a think tank he founded in 1999, closed the discussion by outlining six important elements of Indonesia’s future, including:
(1) The adjustment of Pancasila [guiding philosophy of Indonesia emphasizing “unity in diversity”] to account for globalization and the rise of technology.
(2) The development of accurate and timely data collection.
(3) The strengthening of human resources with a focus on education.
(4) A reduction in unemployment.
(5) The growth of a larger, stronger middle class.
Habibie’s closing remarks that “Indonesia needs to become an important bridge between Asia and the U.S. and between Asia and Europe” are particularly poignant. As a Muslim-majority country with over 300 ethnic groups and sizeable religious minorities, Indonesia serves a model for how pluralism and democracy can coexist.
Former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is the author of two books: