V.S. Naipaul’s most recent visit with Imaduddin took place well before Indonesia’s economic collapse in December. What has happened to him and his patron Habibie now?
On a recent Sunday morning, I visited Imaduddin in his study. “I haven’t been well,” he said when I arrived. Thin and walking slowly, he guided me to a chair and talked of having had a heart bypass operation and of being in and out of the hospital during the past six months. He knows I’ve come to talk about what has happened to him and Indonesia since Naipaul’s visit. His heart may be failing him, he says, but he is very, very happy that Habibie, his patron, has now become the vice-president, chosen in March by the same assembly that reelected Suharto to his seventh five-year term. Habibie has thus become the presumptive successor—at least constitutionally—of the seventy-seven-year-old Suharto.
“This was my dream when I started ICMI,” he says, using the common nickname for the Association of Muslim Intellectuals described by Naipaul. “It was my plan that Habibie would be our patron and pave the way for us. Now we are one step closer and that is very good. But not everything is as I expected. There have been surprises, like our economic troubles. I did not plan for this.”
We are surrounded by his books, and, behind us, his desk is filled with pictures of him with his family, with Habibie, with President Suharto. His wife brings in fresh kiwi juice and a Mozart concerto plays softly in the background. Here in Imaduddin’s new house on the outskirts of Jakarta with his servants and his white Mercedes and blue BMW out front, it’s almost possible to forget the economic calamity in most of the country.
But driving to Imaduddin’s house from the center of the city one feels one is passing through a boom town in suspended animation, a steamy, tropical Los Angeles going bust. From the toll road—owned by Suharto’s eldest daughter, now elevated to being a minister in the new cabinet and put in charge of aid to the poor—you can see dozens of abandoned construction sites with their hulking concrete and steel girders looking like instant ruins rusting in the sun. With the fall in the value of Indonesia’s currency, many banks have failed and thousands of businesses have gone bankrupt.
There is no escaping the sense of dread in Jakarta. Several million people there are now out of work. Will there be enough food? How long will the recession last? How much strain can the system bear? There is no escaping, either, the sense of political rancor in the city. Suharto’s regime may be entrenched but it is widely despised. The opposition is weak and demoralized by its inability to put forward an alternative. Still, students persist in a nationwide protest movement that may have been symbolic when it started but has …