Former Indonesian president Habibie, who described Singapore as a 'little red dot', dies aged 83

Indonesia's third president B. J. Habibie died at an army hospital in Jakarta on Sept 11, 2019. PHOTO: GLOBE ASIA

JAKARTA (AP) - Former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who allowed democratic reforms and an independence referendum for East Timor following the ouster of the dictator Suharto, has died. He was 83.

His unpopular presidency was the shortest in modern Indonesia's history, but was transformative.

Mr Habibie's son, Mr Thareq Kemal Habibie, said Indonesia's third president died on Wednesday (Sept 11) at Jakarta's Gatot Subroto army hospital, where he had been undergoing treatment for heart problems since Sept 1.

Mr Habibie was tapped to lead Indonesia by General Suharto as the military dictator's 32-year hold on power crumbled in May 1998 during a student uprising and a devastating economic crash.

It ended after only 16 months, in October 1999, when he withdrew from contention in presidential elections.

An engineer educated in Indonesia, the Netherlands and Germany, Mr Habibie spent nearly two decades working for German aircraft-maker Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm, before returning to Indonesia in 1974 to help lead Gen Suharto's campaign to industrialise the economy.

As president, Mr Habibie apologised for past human rights abuses and outlined an eight-point reform programme "to build a just, open and democratic society".

He ordered the release of political prisoners, dismantled restrictions on the press and reformed politics to allow for free elections.

He lifted a three-decade-old ban on the speaking and teaching of Mandarin, as part of an easing of discriminatory policies against ethnic Chinese that was instituted by Gen Suharto after his anti-communist pogroms of 1965-66.

In 1998, Mr Habibie described Singapore as being no more than a "little red dot". Singaporeans have since embraced that nickname, using it to underline how the island nation has transcended size to take its place on the world stage.

Responding to international criticism of Indonesia's occupation of Portugal's former colony of East Timor, Mr Habibie surprised Indonesians by announcing in January 1999 a plan to hold a referendum under UN supervision on self-determination, offering a choice between special autonomy and independence.

Indonesian militias deployed terror tactics to intimidate people into voting for continued union, but East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to split from Indonesia, becoming the now-independent Timor-Leste.

In 2017, the young democracy held presidential and parliamentary elections that were the first without UN supervision since peacekeepers left in 2012.

Despite his reforms, Mr Habibie was unable to master the political tumult unleashed by the student uprising. He described the bloody riots that ended Gen Suharto's dictatorship as "barbaric", further alienating students who feared he was betraying their democratic revolution and staged violent protests against his presidency.

A failure to prosecute a long-time friend over allegations of massive corruption undermined his campaign to stay in power.

On Oct 20, 1999, Mr Habibie withdrew from upcoming presidential elections. Parliament was already moving to elect a new head of state after lawmakers rejected his "accountability" speech on the successes and failures of his months in office.

Born June 25, 1936, in the South Sulawesi town of Parepare, Mr Habibie was the fourth of eight siblings.

His father was of native Sulawesi descent and his mother a Javanese noblewoman from the ancient sultanate of Yogyakarta.

His wife, Mrs Hasri Ainun Habibie, a medical doctor, died in 2010.

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is on a working visit in Jakarta, paid his final respects to Mr Habibie and offered his condolences to the family on Wednesday.

Mr Teo wrote on Facebook: "He will be remembered for leading Indonesia during a difficult period, his love for country, passion for aircraft engineering and steadfast belief in public service."

(With input from The Straits Times)

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.