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 become a serious threat to Suharto’s regime. On May 12, after increasingly violent confrontations between students and soldiers, the first demonstrators were gunned down in Jakarta, with six Trisakti University students confirmed dead.
Even Imaduddin’s colleagues in ICMI are split between those, like him, who stand by their patron and those who want to defy Suharto and the regime he has built. In early May, for example, some members of ICMI decided to add their voice to those calling for an extraordinary session of the Peoples’ Consultative Assembly to push forward reforms.
The morning I visit Imaduddin, newspapers have reported that Habibie’s grand scheme to build the N-2130 jet was “under review.” Whether adequate funding would be available was “unclear,” a government official tactfully explained; the IMF bailout plan, not so tactfully, has explicitly barred the use of any more public funds to finance the plane. Indonesia, it seems, can no longer afford to bankroll many of the projects of Habibie’s industrial revolution.
Yet in his study Imaduddin says his belief in Habibie and his technological vision remains unshaken, and, furthermore, he is not worried about Suharto. The financial mess, he insists, will be temporary. It is partly the result of trying to carry out Habibie’s vision of industrialization too quickly, without enough mental preparation. Outsiders, speculators, and those who want to see Indonesia fail are also to blame. But Suharto will be fine, Imaduddin says, for in the end no one is capable of challenging him.
“Suharto is the master of Javanese politics. He knows how to handle these problems and how to handle his critics. It is because of Subandrio that I understand this: Suharto will win,” he says.
Imaduddin says his thinking has not changed, and it is clear to a visitor that in his account Naipaul describes his cast of mind with great acuity. Islam remains Imaduddin’s guide. Suharto has been good for Islam and so he still supports Suharto. It is because of Suharto that Habibie is vice-president, and that is good for him, for ICMI, and for his dream of the Islamic ascendancy in Indonesia.
“The real fight has always been and still is between the Islamists and the secularists,” he continues. “We have to win. Islam has to win. We have to support Suharto because he will win. And then Habibie will be president.”
Imaduddin’s unchanging line of thinking—that since the government serves the faith, he can serve the government—sounds more rigid in this time of crisis. It’s as if the political calculation, the concern with power, now has taken on added weight.
What, I ask, about the students, some of whom have burned Suharto’s effigy and claim he and his cronies and his kleptomaniacal family are ruining the country?
“The students are confused. I will go and speak to them and tell them Suharto has been good for us,” he says.
What about ordinary Indonesians—of whom 87 percent are Muslim—who are now suffering?
“Most Muslims think material things are secondary. Islamic principles are most important. Suharto is a good Muslim and the people know this.”
What of those of his Islamic associates, most prominently the religious leader Amien Rais, who claims the government no longer serves the faith? Like Imaduddin, Amien Rais studied in the US. He used to liken ICMI to an escalator to power; now he warns that it may be an escalator to nowhere and says that Suharto and Habibie represent the ancien régime. Amien Rais is attracting a national following, especially among young people, by saying that Indonesia’s problems do not spring from Javanese culture or from a cleavage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Instead, he says, Indonesia has an underlying political problem: an authoritarian regime that must be changed.
Imaduddin chuckles. “Amien Rais is my close cadre. We have the same vision. What he is doing is what I call a political game. He makes loud noises and does nothing. Muslims must be united or else it will be a disaster. Muslims must be united or else the army will take over.”
At this point, a group of visitors arrive. After Imaduddin greets them and they sit down, he returns to our conversation. “I’ll never forget what Subandrio once told me. He said that the Javanese traditionally wear their daggers in the back of their sarongs. If you catch the dagger, you catch the man, Subandrio said. Habibie is Suharto’s dagger. Trust me. We have Suharto’s dagger.”
Then he says: “I will collect all these criticisms and soon I will take them to Habibie. He will listen to me. He has democracy in his heart and he will do better when he is in charge. Then Indonesia will be the second superpower after China. It will be an Islamic superpower.”
Imaduddin smiles and folds his hands in his lap. He has finished speaking. The visitors nod their approval. With Indonesia’s crisis deepening by the day, and with army leaders calling for reform, one can’t help wondering just how many other Indonesians think Imaduddin is right.
—May 14, 1998
June 11, 1998