What could have been, the Barelang Bridge and BJ Habibie

It was a short-lived presidency but a transformational one.

Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands on 17th August 1945 immediately after the World War had ended (and before the Dutch returned to their colonial possession in Southeast Asia). Take a look at this Dutch documentary with new clips from the era that reported the Indonesia War of Independence as a riotous uprising that required peace to be restored.

It engaged in a four year armed conflict with the Dutch until 1949 when the latter recognized its independence under international pressure with a declaration that soverigty of the nation was handed over from the Netherlands to the United States of Indonesia (when you think about it, perhaps the best way for both nations to retain their dignity).

Right from the get-go, Indonesia’s political leadership was closely intertwined with the military. The leader of the Indonesian Resistance movement, Sukarno, became the first President of the country. Indonesia of Sukarno’s beliefs was (and is) a country of openness, tolerance and acceptance – written into its constitution is Pancasila, five principles that are inseparable to the country’s destiny. But this was a difficult task. Trying to tie a country spread over 3000 islands, with barely a shared sentiment of nationhood except a common colonial ruler was hard enough, add to that the with wildly differing demographics and cultures. How different were the cultures? Aceh in the west is strongly muslim and practices Shariah Law, 83.5% of Bali in the west is Hindu, and 83 % of the large island of Papua is Christian the Papua island was until recently the home to head hunting tribes.

Then there were the ideological differences. All these islands and cities were located within the largest muslim nation in the world with 227 million Muslims out of 260 million people (as of 2015). Within the country was a vast ideological spread from those who believed in a secular republic to those who wanted a muslim nation. The new nation was hence a politically complex place. Its first major election in 1955 saw 4 major parties winning broadly a similar proportion of the vote (from staunch Islamist party to a radical communist party) and 28 parties represented in parliament.

Sukarno hence brought a programme of guided democracy to the fore, to allow him to put in place policies he believed were important. His introduction of guided democracy was supported by the military, since the military had felt sidelined in the five years immediately after the end of the War of Independence. He governed for 22 years maintaining his power by balancing the opposing antagonistic forces of the army and the communist party (PKI), and building mega-projects and monuments. But things could not last. By 1965, Indonesia was suffering from hyperinflation, the economy was doing badly, something needed to change. Over the 22 years, the PKI slowly infiltrated all levels of government, a group of left-wing soldiers had almost made their way into the higher rungs of the military. The top of the military was however still under the control of the right-wing generals. Over Sukarno’s reign, the relationship between the left and right deteriorated, Sukarno’s balance scale was tilting to one side. Then in 1965 the soldiers struck, they took out 6 top military leaders belonging to the political right and attempted a coup d’etat.

But the coup was not successful. The coup attempt began in the wee hours of 1 October 1965 with the aim of protecting Sukarno from an assasination attempt by the CIA, but was put down the next day by a new general who took control of the army, Suharto. Sukarno was taken out of the country, the leaders of the coup were killed and the bodies of the generals were found. The new military leader, Suharto, and his team went on the air to explain that the coup was an attempt at a take over by the PKI, the PKI and its affiliates were subjected over the next few months to purges and weeding out an event known as the genocide of 1965-1966.

Suharto established his leadership of the country in 1967 and ruled for 32 years. Attempting to contrast himself with the leadership of Sukarno, Suharto described his leadership as the New Order. The 30 years of Suharto’s rule saw the lives of Indonesian’s improve as a whole. Poverty was down, incomes were up, the country was recording economic growth, people were living longer (from 47 years life expectancy in 1967 to 67 years in 1997). As the country improved however corruption, nepotism and collusion began to increase with it, a new group of elites – ethnic chinese businessmen and Suharto’s family members were benefiting instead of the old elite, the military. By the 1990s, the military that once supported Suharto was wavering in its backing of the man. Suharto had to cut the military down to size and decided to court the Islamic vote including performing the haj in a very public way and taking on the name Haji Mohammad Suharto. He also appointed civilian politicians to his cabinet including BJ Habibie. His courting of the Islamic vote base meant that racist extreme sentiments within that base were emboldened to carry out attacks on local Chinese (despite their small population the Chinese in Indonesia had an oversized representation in the higher economic brackets of society and were not always liked in that part of the word. See Lee Khoon Choy’s Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix for a more detailed analysis of the Chinese people in southeast Asia).

This prompted a mass exodus of Indonesian Chinese.

The economy came crashing in 1997 and with it public support. The elections that year were rigged and his party won the elections, he proceded to continue to appoint his family and other close associates into position of power, he was not responsive to change. That led to anti-Chinese riots (collateral damage since Suharto had many Chinese cronies around him) in many parts of Indonesia and later on a student led protest against his rule in 1998.

The protests had violent consequences with students killed by the military. Suharto tried all the tricks in the political playbook (shift play, stall for time, appear to give in to demands) but the demands for his removal did not stop.

Desperate he ordered a military takeover of the country like he did in 1966 but this time the general in charge refused to obey his orders. Out of options, he resigned as president on 21 May 1998.

Into this chaos, stepped in BJ Habibie.

Here was a man, who had no popular support, was now President by default, was tainted by association and had to govern a country on the brink of collapse. He stabilised an Indonesian economy in freefall, amended the constitution to place term limits on Presidents (2 terms of 5 years per term), instituted free and fair elections and enshrined freedom of the press. But his efforts were no use, he did not have enough friends in high places to keep him in the highest part of the nation. And so 17 months after he took over, he handed over power.

I mentioned this back story because of the bridge that we saw in Batam. We were there for seafood when we saw the bridge. Named the Barelang Bridge, the name of the bridge is an amalgam of three major islands within the Batam – Batam island, Rempang and Galang island. The idea was to build these bridges to create a large industrial area in Riau, to take advantage of the proximity to Singapore and develop in this area an engine for growth for the Indonesian economy.

This was a bridge that was pushed for and opened in 1997. This was the ambition of the man, before he took over as president. This was the dream for Batam in better times. A dream that did not come to pass. The Barelang Bridge is more of a tourist site today than it is a key transportation node within the city.

Who knows how far the Batam dream would have gone if he had taken over the Presidency in less chaotic times…



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