Indonesia: The Man of the Moment

B. J. Habibie
B. J. Habibie; drawing by David Levine


Imaduddin was a lecturer in electrical engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology. He was also an Islamic preacher. So in the 1960s and 1970s he was unusual: a man of science, one of the few in independent Indonesia, and at the same time a dedicated man of the faith. He could draw the student crowds to the Salman mosque in the grounds of the Bandung Institute.

He worried the authorities. And when, on the last day of 1979, I went to Bandung to see him, driving up through the afternoon along the crowded smoky road from coastal Jakarta to the cooler plateau where Bandung was, I found that he was a man more or less on the run. He had not long before finished fourteen months in jail as a political prisoner. He still had his little staff house at the Bandung Institute, but he was not allowed to lecture there. And though he was still being defiant, giving his courses in Islamic “mental training” to small groups of middle-class young people—holiday groups, really—he was, at the age of forty-eight, getting ready to go abroad.

He was to spend many years abroad. But then his fortunes changed. Going back to Indonesia more than fifteen years after that meeting with him in Bandung, I found that Imaduddin had money and was famous. He had an Islamic Friday morning television program. He had a Mercedes and a driver, a reasonable house in a reasonable part of Jakarta, and he was talking of moving to something a little better. The very mixture of science and Islam that had made him suspect to the authorities in the late 1970s now made him desirable, the model of the Indonesian new man, and had taken him up to the heights, had taken him very nearly to the fount of power.

He had become close to B.J. Habibie, the minister for research and technology; and Habibie was closer than anyone else in the government to President Suharto, who had ruled for thirty years and was generally presented as the father of the nation.

Habibie was an aeronautical man and his admirers said he was a prodigy. He was a man with a grand idea. It was that Indonesia should under his guidance build, or at any rate design, its own airplanes. The idea behind the idea—as I had read in some newspapers—was that such a venture wouldn’t only deliver airplanes. It would also give many thousands of people a high and varied technological training; out of this would come an Indonesian industrial revolution. Over nineteen years almost a billion and half dollars—according to the Wall Street Journal—had been given to Habibie’s aerospace organization. One kind of airplane had been built, the CN-235, in collaboration with a Spanish company; it hadn’t been commercially successful. But now something more exciting was about to fly, the N-250, a fifty-seat…

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