Former Indonesian president Habibie dies, aged 83

The presidency of former Indonesian leader Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, seen here in a 2010 file photo, was short but transformative.
The presidency of former Indonesian leader Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, seen here in a 2010 file photo, was short but transformative.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

JAKARTA • Former Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who allowed democratic reforms and an independence referendum for then East Timor following the ouster of dictator Suharto, has died. He was 83.

Dr Habibie was best known to Singaporeans for describing the city state as being no more than a "little red dot" in 1998. Singapore has since embraced that tag, using it to underline how the island nation has transcended size to take its place on the world stage.

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

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

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

As president, Dr 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 were instituted by Gen Suharto after his anti-communist pogroms of 1965 to 1966.

Dr Habibie surprised Indonesians by announcing in January 1999 a plan to hold a referendum under United Nations supervision on self-determination for East Timor - now known as Timor-Leste - offering a choice between special autonomy and independence.


East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to split from Indonesia.

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, Dr Habibie was unable to control the political tumult unleashed by the student uprising. A failure to prosecute a longtime friend over allegations of massive corruption undermined his campaign to stay in power.

On Oct 20, 1999, Dr 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 on June 25, 1936, in the South Sulawesi town of Parepare, Dr Habibie was the fourth of eight children.

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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2019, with the headline 'Former Indonesian president Habibie dies, aged 83'. Print Edition | Subscribe