Symbolic Power in a Technocratic Regime: * the Reign of B.J. Habibie in New Order Indonesia
Journal article by Sulfikar Amir; SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 22, 2007
Symbolic Power in a Technocratic Regime: * the Reign of B.J. Habibie in New Order Indonesia
by Sulfikar Amir
When Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie launched his memoir Detik-Detik Yang
Menentukan (Decisive Moments) in September 2006, a book based on his
daily notes taken during his short-lived presidency, it captured huge
public attention in Indonesia. With a relatively expensive price tag
of IDR 150,000, the autobiography nevertheless sold 5,000 copies in
less than a week, making it the best selling book ever written by an
Indonesian politician. It is possible that the short but controversial
account included in the book about how Prabowo Subianto, then head of
Army Strategic Command (Kostrad), subtly attempted to overthrow
Habibie (1) may have boosted its popularity. But how the book became
so popular is due less to the result of the controversy than to the
fact that Habibie remains popular among many Indonesians, particularly
Muslims. Some even think that Habibie, now running the non-profit
Habibie Center, did a much better job running the country than his
democratically elected successors. Whatever the case may be, Habibie
did play a pivotal role in moving Indonesia towards democracy after
This article offers a new interpretation of Habibie and examines how
he came to dominate the technocratic politics of the New Order,
particularly during the 1990s. The structure of New Order
authoritarianism upon which Habibie built his whole bureaucratic
career allowed him to benefit from certain peculiar relations of
power. This article seeks to unpack these power relations and to
identify the sources of Habibie’s power. This is important because the
whole modality of building high technology that notoriously
characterized Habibie’s development strategy for decades was produced
and mobilized within these power relations. More interestingly,
understanding Habibie is an entry point to comprehending the nature of
power under the New Order regime, and sheds light on how different
forms of power operate and are transacted between leading elite
groups. This article thus delves into the conjunction of authoritarian
politics, modern knowledge, and the obsession with modernity that
resulted in a network of power between a political leader, a
technocratic figure, and a religiously labeled group. It is intended
to complement studies on Indonesia’s New Order that put so much
emphasis on Suharto (for example, see Liddle 1985 and Vatikiotis 1993)
and understates the influence of satellite figures such as Habibie.
It may be true, as many observers say, that Habibie profited largely
from the centrality of power that Suharto possessed for over three
decades. However, this view fails to capture the significance of
Habibie’s scientific background, and how this provided him with his
own form of power. To grasp this, the present analysis draws on the
concept of symbolic power offered by French sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu (1991). Contending Marx’s materialist view of power, Bourdieu
emphasizes the notion that cultural capital functions as a valued
resource through the production of symbolic power. Cultural capital
encompasses a wide variety of resources including verbal facility,
cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, schooling system, and
educational credentials. Studying intellectual groups as the
dominating class in modern societies, Bourdieu explains that an
effective medium for domination comes into being, which exercises
symbolic power “only through the complicity of those who do not want
to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves
exercise it” (Bourdieu 1991, p. 164). The political implication of
symbolic systems emanates from its capacity to gain legitimacy for the
dominant class by encouraging the dominated to accept the hierarchy of
social distinctions that maintain the domination (Swartz 1997).
This concept of symbolic power allows us to see the operation of
cultural capital in a political structure that revolved around
patrimonialism (Crouch 1979) but was hinged to a technocracy (Amir
2004). Ample analyses on the New Order have uncovered the regime’s
power structure and shown it to be underpinned by coercive forces and
physical violence (for recent examples, see Anderson et al. 2001 and
Heryanto 2005). This article seeks to go in a different direction to
show how symbolic forms become the principal mode of domination, and
to focus on educational and scientific credentials as cultural
capital. An array of empirical data drawn from material such as
biography, books, mass publication, and personal interviews are studied.
Cultivating the Capital
B.J. Habibie (nicknamed Rudy) was born on 25 June 1936 in Parepare in
South Sulawesi. Together with seven brothers and sisters, he spent his
childhood there before the family moved to Makassar. When he was
thirteen, his father suddenly passed away, and he was sent by his
mother to continue his education in Bandung, West Java.
After finishing high school, Habibie attended the prestigious Institut
Teknologi Bandung (ITB). In 1955, he set off for Germany to study
aeronautical engineering at Technische Hochschule Aachen on the
recommendation of Muhammad Yamin, a nationalist figure who was then
Minister of Education. Five years later, Habibie obtained an
undergraduate degree and then pursued his doctorate at the same
university. In 1965, he successfully defended his doctoral thesis on
orthotropic collar flanges. With his degree in hand, Habibie joined
Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB) and was assigned design projects dealing
with Fokker’s F-28 and Dornier’s DO-31. A large portion of his work
was thus on basic research on aircraft construction. As such, Habibie
spent most of the time in the research laboratory struggling with
mathematical formulas, some articles about which he published in
respected journals in the field. As recounted in Habibie’s biography,
one of these formulas known among his colleagues as the Habibie Factor
became a standard for aircraft design in North Atlantic Treaty
Organization projects (Makka 1996, p. 87).
The merging of HFB with Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm (MBB) Gmbh in 1968
pushed Habibie to a higher position. Now he was responsible for
planning and supervising a major manufacturing plant for MBB, which
was then participating in the Airbus A-300B programme. While working
on this prestigious project, Habibie developed a formula to predict
crack propagation behavior in aircraft structure at the atomic level,
an achievement that earned Habibie the nickname of “Mr. Crack”. This
breakthrough turned out to save both time and in aircraft designing.
Given this success, Habibie was named vice president and director for
technology application in 1974, the highest position granted a
foreigner in the history of MBB. Habibie held this position until
Suharto appointed him State Minister for Research and Technology in 1978.
Habibie was directly experiencing the post-war rebuilding of Germany,
and what he understood to be the important processes involved would
through him come to have an impact on Indonesian modernization. When
he arrived in Aachen in 1955, Germany was going through its economic
miracle (wirtschafiswunder), a profound change that saw German
industrial capability revive itself to new heights after World War II.
Through economic reforms and full financial backing from the European
Recovery Program, more commonly known as the Marshall Plan, West
Germany’s market-based economy expanded quickly. This resurgence
affected how Habibie perceived economic development and its social
effects. Coming from an undeveloped society, Habibie was highly
impressed by the social and cultural transformations taking place in
Germany. He came to believe that the German experience provided a way
for Indonesia to achieve modernity and usher in prosperity and welfare
for society at large. Drawing largely on his German experiences,
Habibie formulated his concept of accelerated social transformation in
which technology plays a crucial role in turning traditional societies
into modern ones. (2) During his tenure at MBB, Habibie hired a small
number of Indonesian engineers, mostly former fellow students, and
envisioned a circle of technological experts working with him to
realize his dream of modernizing Indonesia by following the track
record of post-war Germany. When he finally did return to Indonesia,
Habibie placed these engineers as key persons in technological
projects and bureaucratic structures under his control. (3)
Habibie’s childhood experience, together with the lessons he learned
from studying Germany development, contributed to the cultural capital
that he put to work to facilitate his technocratic career in
Indonesia. There are two kinds of cultural capital Habibie
continuously accumulated. One is that which Habibie inherited from his
family milieu. Habibie’s father was a well-paid agricultural expert
educated at the school of agriculture in Bogor, while his mother was a
Javanese aristocrat. Having parents from the priyayi class, (4)
Habibie and his siblings lived comfortably and enjoyed relatively high
social status during the colonial era. As Bourdieu pointed noted,
cultural capital relating to family origins has a strong correlation
to academic success later in life (Swartz 1997, pp. 75-76). The
priyayi status of the Habibie family conferred young Rudy with
cultural capital without which he would have moved along a totally
different path. Such cultural capital permitted Habibie to enjoy
educational opportunities given few Indonesians during that time.
Furthermore, this cultural capital was the resource that Habibie made
use of to attain another type of cultural capital, namely, scientific
and professional credentials. The latter was gained during his
doctoral study and assignments at large aircraft manufacturing
corporations in Germany. Through it, Habibie placed himself in the
German elite class within which he managed to establish a network of
With ample cultural capital, it was not difficult for Habibie to
attain a high position in the New Order structure. His acquaintance
with Suharto no doubt provided good chances for that to happen.
However, the Suharto factor would not have come into play without the
cultural capital Habibie gathered throughout his life. What needs to
be underlined is that the value of Habibie’s cultural capital was
multiplied when placed within the Indonesian context. According to
Bourdieu, cultural capital follows economic logic in that it commands
an exchange rate and its currency varies according to market
conditions as configured by national contexts (Swartz, 1997, p. 78).
When Habibie returned home, the New Order elite class was heavily
overwhelmed by modernization agendas. Since modernization required
access to Western technology, the New Order as such constituted a
market that highly valued educational and scientific credentials.
Habibie’s capital was going at a high price, and the kind of
educational and scientific credentials he possessed were scarce at a
time when demand was high. This enabled him to gain tremendous profits
from trading his cultural capital for other forms of capital that the
A Privileged Protege
Habibie was known to Suharto long before the New Order regime was
born. The friendship of Habibie and Suharto dated back to 1950 when
Suharto, then an Army Lieutenant Colonel, was sent to Makassar to
suppress the rebellious movement there. Heading the Garuda Mataram
Brigade, Suharto and his army happened to headquarter just across the
street from the Habibie residence. As Suharto recounted in his
autobiography (Suharto 1991, p. 78), he became close to the Habibie
family, especially 13-year-old Rudy who greatly admired Suharto and
his soldiers. One night, Rudy’s father Jalil suffered a heart attack.
The sons rushed to Suharto across the street to seek help.
Unfortunately, when they came back with a doctor, their father had
breathed his last. It was Suharto himself who closed his eyes. This
tragedy lived on as a sentimental memory in the young Rudy, who now
found a father figure in Suharto. From that point onwards, the
relationship between Habibie and Suharto grew stronger. During his
sojourn in Germany, Habibie maintained sporadic contact with Suharto.
Habibie was planning to return to Indonesia after completing his
doctoral degree in 1965. This did not happen. The 1965 political chaos
that spawned social rampage towards the communists compelled Habibie
to postpone his homecoming. Through his brother-in-law, who was
formerly Suharto’s subordinate in the military, he received a message
from Suharto advising him to stay in Germany until conditions were
more favorable. He only began planning for his return after he met
Ibnu Sutowo, one of Suharto’s most trusted patrons, in Dusseldorf in
1973. Sutowo, then head of the state-owned oil company Pertamina
delivered a message from Suharto, who was now the president of
Indonesia. Suharto suggested that Habibie prepare for repatriation. In
January 1974, Habibie landed on home soil at the time when the New
Order was bringing about economic development and modernization at an
unprecedented scale. With oil prices skyrocketing, the government
could afford financing capital-intensive projects.
The reunion of Habibie and Suharto finally took place in Jakarta on 28
January 1974. Being acquainted with Habibie’s technological
experiences abroad, Suharto asked his old friend to use his
technological knowledge to enhance the country’s development efforts.
Suharto had one condition: Habibie’s activities must not result in any
social upheaval (Makka 1996, p. 148). Habibie did not consider this a
problem since he did not nurture any obvious political ideology. His
only passion was technology and development. Yet, being a pragmatist
did not mean that Habibie was oblivious of politics. His biography
emphasizes his nationalist commitment as the sole factor motivating
him to return to Indonesia and to leave prestigious positions and
other advantages he had had in Germany. Notwithstanding the potential
truth of this claim, Habibie, trained as an engineer, was certainly
aware that for a machine to work, power was required. Thus he realized
that his desire to build an aircraft industry required tremendous
resources, and only Suharto could supply them. No doubt, Habibie
needed to be sure that the president would politically and
economically back his plans, but at the same time, he appeared to have
made his own judgement about possible losses and gains in giving up
lucrative seats at MBB. As history tells us, his decision to join
Suharto boosted his career as technical expert, but also as politician
in years to come.
An astonishing feature of Habibie’s technocratic career is the
unmatchable number of high positions he held in the Suharto
government. Already in 1978, Suharto named him State Minister for
Research and Technology as well as head of the Agency for Technology
Assessment and Application (BPPT), a body formed to rival the National
Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS). Habibie occupied these
positions for twenty years, making him the longest serving ministerial
level bureaucrat under the New Order. Along with these positions,
Habibie simultaneously chaired over ten government agencies,
industries, and social and political organizations, such as the
National Research Council, the Batam Industrial Development Authority
Board, the National Standardization Agency, and the Counseling Board
of Indonesian Defense Industry. Habibie was also chairman of the
Agency for Strategic Industries (BPIS), a “holding company” that
controlled ten state-owned manufacturing industries ranging from
transportation, telecommunications, and heavy equipment to weaponry.
Three of these including the aircraft industry were under his direct
supervision as chief executive officer. This enviable situation
enabled Habibie to create a network of engineer bureaucrats
effectively shaping the New Order as a technology-oriented regime
Being a technological enthusiast, Suharto was also a technological
enthusiast, was strongly supportive of Habibie’s plans. With this
blatant support, Habibie was able to build capital-intensive research
and technological infrastructures. Of Habibie’s pet projects, the
Indonesian Aircraft Industry (IPTN now PTDI) was the most
controversial, absorbing billions of dollars into its operations.
Founded in 1976, it became the icon of technological nationalism and
the symbol of the New Orders success in delivering modernity to
Indonesia (Amir 2004). However, IPTN did generate accusations that it
violated proper procedures of public accountability. (5)
Why did Suharto show so much faith in Habibie? A hasty observation
underlining their close relationship from earlier times would not
provide a satisfactory explanation. Machiavellian in nature, Suharto
had a good instinct for whom to trust or distrust. Having a proximate
connection to Suharto did not necessarily secure one’s position in the
regime, and many politicians who were once close to Suharto were
eventually alienated from the circle of power. Hence, it is not
sufficient to suggest that Suharto trusted Habibie because they had
known each other a long time. What needs to be considered is that
Habibie seemed not to have had any political agenda that challenged
Suharto’s authoritarian power in any way. Habibie knew well enough how
to sustain Suharto’s trust by showing persistent obeisance. He learned
Javanese philosophies, spiritualism, and politics from Suharto for
which he once called Suharto “my professor”. In turn, such unabashed
loyalty won him positions of power within the regime.
National Stability Disturbed
To understand Suharto’s apparent fondness for Habibie, we need to look
at one specific controversial affair that began with a presidential
letter dated 3 September 1992 in which Suharto assigned Habibie to
purchase thirty-nine used military ships from the German government.
Thanks to his acquaintance with high-level German officials, Habibie
managed to attain a price considered lower than the going market rate.
The project turned awkward when the influential weekly Tempo reported
that Habibie had proposed a budget of US$1.1 billion, which was much
higher than deemed reasonable. Most of this money would be spent on
modification and delivery costs, Habibie explained. (6) The case
stirred up more controversy when one of the modified ships, KRI Teluk
Lampung, was caught in a storm in Biscay Bay off northern Spain on its
way to Indonesia. Though the ship survived, the incident caused public
anxiety about the reliability of the fleet Habibie had purchased.
Concerned with the Biscay Bay case and the large amount of public
money spent for the fleet, Tempo in its main report in the 11 June
1994 edition criticized the government for reckless planning. What had
happened, wrote Tempo, indicated a lack of technical knowledge on the
part of government officials. (7) Although not mentioned explicitly,
it was obvious that Tempo was holding Habibie responsible for the
technical risks taken in buying the old fleet. This accusation did not
bring disaster to Habibie, but instead to Tempo and two other national
news media, Editor and Detik. On 21 June 1994, Minister of Information
Harmoko announced that the government was revoking the publishing
licenses of Tempo, Editor, and Detik. In response to public uproar,
Habibie denied that he had anything to do with this move, which in
effect implied that the order came directly from Suharto (Makka 1996,
pp. 237-38). The shutdown was nevertheless unanticipated and ruined
the atmosphere of openness the New Order had recently started to
What was obvious in this train of events was that Suharto was trying
to protect his protege. Yet, it raises the question about why Suharto
was willing to go so far to save his research and technology minister.
The answer lies in the point Suharto had made that those discrediting
Habibie were encouraging distrust in the government, and that in turn
threatened national stability. (8) This reasoning showed how much
Habibie meant to Suharto in that he juxtaposed Habibie’s reputation
with national stability. He protected Habibie not because he was a
close friend. Rather, as explained in the following section, this had
to do with the fact that Habibie possessed something that Suharto’s
regime greatly depended upon.
The privileges granted him and the protection he received from Suharto
may suggest that Habibie’s influence were all drawn from Suharto.
Looking at the relationship between Habibie and Suharto, however, one
is reminded of what Benedict Anderson (1990) argues to be distinctive
features of power in Javanese culture. The aura of mysticism in
Javanese culture situates power as a natural force that exists
concretely and independently of social relations. Power is manifested
in every dimension of the natural realm and flows from generation to
generation. Anderson argues that the quantum of power, following the
law of thermodynamics, is constant. One corollary is that the
concentration of power in one place requires a proportional diminution
elsewhere. As such, “the ultimate goal of power relation is not the
exercise but the accumulation of power”. Using this definition, one is
inclined to believe that the power relation between the two men
centered on Suharto, with Habibie a mere satellite receiving energy
from the centre. This renders Habibie as powerless for all real power
was accumulated in Suharto who would not be inclined to share his
power because, since zero-sum principles apply, it would diminish his
power. This view ignores the political influence that Habibie enjoyed
in his own right, and assumes that if the link to Suharto was
eradicated, all of Habibie’s power would abruptly dissolve.
However appealing Anderson’s interpretation of the Javanese conception
of power may be, those using this approach to explain the power
relationship between Habibie and Suharto may risk problematic
simplification. Suharto no doubt resided in the spring of political
energy that spilled significant effects to Habibie. Yet, Habibie was
by no means passively reflecting Suharto’s power. A careful analysis
reveals a two-way power relation in which both Habibie and Suharto
drew great advantage from each other. Their power accrued
simultaneously so that an increase of one’s power enhanced further
that of the other. The acknowledgment of the symbiotic mutualism
between the two men allows for the interesting observation that an
increase in power for Habibie did not diminish Suharto’s power.
Rather, the greater Habibie’s power the greater his master’s, and vice
versa. This will become more obvious later when we look at the rise of
the Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association (ICMI), and how it
placed Habibie at the centre of political Islam.
This alternative view debunks the widely held assumption that Habibie
was a mere dependent of Suharto. In practice, their thoughts and
actions formed an interdependent relationship. On the one hand,
Habibie was keen to follow Suharto’s teachings on Javanism while
Suharto, on the other, enthusiastically embraced high technology based
on Habibie’s ideas of social transformation inspired. To comprehend
how such interdependence emerged and acted as a substitute for the
centric structure suggested in Anderson, we need to go back to
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. Swartz notes that one
significant contribution Bourdieu makes to the sociological study of
power relations is that different forms of capital are interchangeable
(Swartz 1997, p. 80). I would like to extend this idea of interchange
to suggest a mechanism that permitted the transaction of different
forms of capital between Habibie and Suharto. In this transaction,
Habibie harnessed his cultural capital effectively in exchange for
political capital from Suharto. Suharto was willing to enter into this
transaction because he highly appreciated Habibie’s educational and
scientific credentials. (9) Growing up in a modest farmer family in a
poor Javanese village, Suharto never went to college. He could only
complete high school before joining the military. On the contrary,
Habibie not only earned a doctoral degree from a university in an
industrially advanced country, but also had an outstanding career in a
large corporation that dealt with sophisticated technologies, an
achievement very few Indonesians, if any, could boast of at the time.
The inequality of cultural capital between the two resulted in the
respectful manner with which the powerful general treated the
Takeshi Shiraishi (1996) argues that Suharto was passionate about high
technology because it provided him with a way by which he could
elevate his esteem and override the powerful image of his predecessor,
Sukarno. Indeed, in his biography, Suharto explicitly emphasizes the
significance of science and technology: “We have to make a long-term
plan to anticipate the future determined more and more by our own
mastery of modern science and high technology” (Suharto 1991, p. 453).
This phrase expresses Suharto’s strong conviction about the
indispensability of technology to the success of his regime, which
made Habibie’s cultural capital even more precious to him. Suharto
relied on Habibie to pursue what his New Order regime promised to
deliver to Indonesians.
The interdependence between Habibie and Suharto had produced
centrifugal effects in Indonesian politics by the 1990s. By then, the
New Order had matured into a stable political economy. Habibie’s
technocratic influence was felt across the technological, economic,
and industrial sectors. After years of training with “Professor
Suharto”, Habibie moved into politics, a terrain he once considered
taboo. His political career started in 1992 within the New Order’s
party Golongan Karya (Golkar) where he served as regular coordinating
deputy to the counseling board headed by Suharto. A year later he
became the regular coordinator, bypassing military officials dominant
in the party since its inception. Habibie’s political influence began
to grow when he successfully made Information Ministry Harmoko the
first non-military chairman of Golkar in 1993, and overcoming tough
competition of the military camp in the process.
Of Habibie’s many political roles, the most crucial was his connection
to the Muslim modernist group. Political Islam stemmed from the long
struggle of Muslim modernists to establish an Islam-based state
ideology. (10) Under both Sukarno and Suharto, the political
aspirations of Muslim modernists were marginalized, and Islam was even
treated as an enemy of the state.
Political Islam gained momentum when the Indonesian Muslim
Intellectuals Association (ICMI) was founded by Imaduddin Abdurahim,
who was once an engineering lecturer at ITB where he founded the
pioneering campus-based mosque in Indonesia, Masjid Salman. After
returning from graduate studies at Iowa State University in 1986,
Abdurahim aspired to unite Indonesian Muslim intellectuals under one
umbrella. This coincided with the activities of five students from the
University of Brawijaya at Malang who had organized a national
symposium on the role of Muslim intellectuals. Since the forming of an
Islamic-labeled organization would easily elicit suspicion from the
government and cement his reputation as a critic of Suharto, (11)
Abdurahim urged the Brawijaya students to gain the patronage of a
well-placed regime official. He proposed Habibie despite the latter’s
unpopularity among Muslim activists.
Abdurahim had actually been impressed by Habibie, and had heard that
Habibie was a pious Muslim who consistently conducted five-time
prayers and fasted every Monday and Thursday, a tradition inherited
from Prophet Muhammad. Additionally, Habibie was best known for his
technological credentials. Being an engineer himself and a preacher as
well, Abdurahim was convinced that those two traits would make Habibie
a good leader for the Muslim community (Assiddiqie 2002, pp. 51-55).
Abdurahim and the students had already approached Habibie in August
1990, and it took no time for Habibie to detect opportunity in
Abdurahim’s proposal. After Suharto granted him permission, Habibie
started to work on the creation of ICMI. In December 1990, the
national symposium of Muslim intellectuals was held in Malang, and was
officially opened by Suharto. This event gave new momentum to the rise
of ICMI, swinging the pendulum of politics towards Islam and at the
same time paving the way for Habibie to emerge as a Muslim leader.
The rise of ICMI under the auspice of regime officials sparked
controversies and criticisms from other Muslim groups. Alleging that
ICMI was a sectarian group, Nahdhatul Ulama leader, Abdurahman Wahid
formed Democracy Forum (Fordem) to challenge the proliferation of
ICMI. Having Suharto’s backing, ICMI stood firm, and with money
flowing in from the government, it formed the Centre for Information
and Development Studies (CIDES), a think-tank to rival the influence
of the Christian-founded Centre for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS). In addition, ICMI started publishing the daily
Republika to compete with the Catholic-owned Kompas. For years,
Republika ould function as a promotion outlet for Habibie’s
The intimate relationship between ICMI and New Order leaders gradually
dissolved the image of Islam as a potential threat to the state. Islam
now became a new source of social and political energy for the regime.
Such a cultural effect brought about self-confidence among the Muslim
community at large. “After ICMI, we are proud to be Muslims,” said
Alamsyah Ratu Prawiranegara, former minister of religion affairs.
Though presenting itself as a non-political organization, ICMI
triggered a penghijauan (greening) phenomenon, with a wave of Muslim
activists entering parliament after the 1992 election. In March 1993
Suharto announced the formation of Development Cabinet VI. This was
filled by several ICMI officials in key ministerial positions.
Considering the prolonged confrontation between Muslim modernists and
the state, the unprecedented rise of ICMI in politics has intrigued
observers as to why Suharto was suddenly willing to accommodate
political Islam. Political observer Adam Schwarz (2000) writes that
ICMI was born out of power intrigues in which Suharto sought a new
base of support to pre-empt growing opposition from military leaders.
While Schwarz might be right in observing anxiety in the military
elite, this paper is inclined to follow an alternative explanation
offered by anthropologist Robert Hefner (2000) who explains that
Suharto had in fact softened towards Islam in the 1980s after seeing
that all major Muslim organizations had embraced the state ideology of
Pancasila. Since the Islamic resurgence came about with an agenda for
cultural renewal, Islam no longer appeared as a threat. At the same
time, Suharto became seriously interested in learning about Islam, and
Habibie, aware of this change, was Suharto’s counterpart in
understanding Islam. Seen from this perspective, the rise of the ICMI
was the inevitable consequence of the cultural shift in Muslim community.
As a political venue attracting interested individuals and groups,
ICMI gave enormous effective power to Habibie as the leading figure
bridging political Islam and the regime. Situated at the centre of
renewed New Order politics, Habibie was definitely aware of the
potency of ICMI for his own political and technological agendas. In
heading an organization representing Islamic interests, Habibie had
the chance of cultivating support among the Muslim community in
general and Muslim modernists in particular. Moreover, Habibie and
Muslim modernists shared views on industrial modernization and
Both Schwarz and Hefner observe three different constituents in ICMI,
namely bureaucrats, intellectuals, and activists, each of which held
different political interests and agendas. (12) Where Habibie was
concerned, they agree that he was the figure best placed to voice
Muslim interests in politics. More importantly, these groups were
convinced that Habibie’s agendas of technological and economic
development would greatly benefit the Muslim community. (13) It was
this strong conviction that enabled Habibie to mobilize massive
support from all factions in ICMI.
Iptek and Imtaq
Seen from an anthropological perspective, Habibie’s power was
entrenched in a terrain of symbols. For a long time, Indonesian
Muslims, vastly superior in numbers to all other groups, had been
waiting for a resurgence of Islam. For most of them, the rise of
Habibie as Muslim leader was a clear sign of that happening.
Habibie’s symbolic power was reinforced by two juxtaposed concepts put
forth to champion Muslim cultural development agendas: iptek and
imtaq. Iptek stands for ilrnu pengetahuan (science) and teknologi
(technology), while #ntaq refers to iman (faith) and taqwa (devotion).
Habibie first coined these terms and their amalgam in his opening
speech at the Istiglal Festival held in Jakarta in February 1990.
These terms have since become widely used in the discourse on Islamic
modernization in Indonesia.
The blend of iptek and imtaq is grounded on an assumption that the
teachings of Islam conform to the spirit of modern knowledge. This is
drawn from the first word Prophet Muhammad divinely received from
Allah, Iqra, meaning “to read”. For Muslims, this is interpreted as
the summons of Allah for humankind to inquire into knowledge of both
natural and scriptural science. Since science is inextricably
intertwined with technology, Muslims feel obliged to acquire
technology in order to play their role as the Caliph on the earth.
Seen from this point of view, iptek and imtaq are prerequisite
elements for eradicating the cultural malaise that has for centuries
paralyzed the Islamic world. The obsession with mastering science and
technology without neglecting elements of faith and devotion entails
an idealized modernity within the Muslim community.
The discourse of iptek and imtaq in Indonesia at that time lent the
Muslims to a forceful ideologization that saw Habibie as the perfect
leader who had long been awaited. Such a messianic representation
could be found in statements by influential Muslim modernists, most
notably the Chicago trio, Nurcholish Madjid, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, and
Amien Rais. (14) The late respected modernist Nurcholish Madjid
entitled Habibie “the epitome of the advanced development of
Indonesia” (15) for having founded a balance between rationality
(iptek) and spirituality (imtaq). In a similar vein, Ahmad Syafii
Maarif considered Habibie “a symbol of the emergence of Islam” whose
fate is “to stand up at the frontline placing the Indonesian nation at
a respected position in the world”. (16) Even Muhammadyah leader Amien
Rais, known to be critical of Suharto, showed his respect for Habibie
by calling him a miracle maker after Habibie succeeded in creating a
locally made airplane. (17)
Madjid, Maarif, and Rais were among many highly educated Muslims who
praised Habibie and believed that the ICMI leader benefited not only
the Indonesian Muslims. For them, the blending of iptek and imtaq
would bring positive effects to the entire Muslim world. Lukman Harun,
a radical Muslim modernist, shared this view. Amazed by the N250
airplane that Habibie and his team built at IPTN, he proudly stated
“the success of Indonesia in making an aircraft is not only for us,
but also for the whole Muslim world.” (18) In the eyes of modernist
Muslims, Habibie’s achievements in high technology proved that Muslims
in the world were capable of mastering western science and technology
while still keeping faith in Islam. The belief of a possible
conjunction between modern science and technology and elements of
Islam strengthened Habibie’s symbolic power at a level unmatched by
any other figure in the New Order.
Trouncing the Economists
With his symbolic power, Habibie managed to dominate the technocracy
that characterized New Order policy-making. However, that dominance by
no means went unchallenged. No observer of the politics of
policy-making under the New Order could overlook the quarrel between
the Habibie-led group of engineers and a group of economists led by
Widjojo Nitisastro, a professor of economics at University of
Indonesia. Historically, these “modernizer” economists arose as
primary actors in New Order policy-making immediately after Suharto
took power in 1966. Among Nitisastro’s colleagues were Ali Wardhana,
J.B. Sumarlin, Emil Salim, Saleh Afiff, Subroto, and Muhammad Sadli.
Some of them, including Nitisastro, Salim, and Wardhana, gained their
doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, thus
earning them the notorious sobriquet “The Berkeley Mafia”. (19) During
the earlier days of the New Order, these economists served in the
Suharto cabinet and were economic experts that Suharto relied heavily
upon. After Habibie joined the New Order, these economists had
consistently opposed his ambitious ideas of developing high
technology. As former finance minister Ali Wardhana said, the high
technology that Habibie relentlessly promoted was not what the
Indonesian people needed. Given Indonesia’s limited capital resources,
Wardhana insisted that the government spend money more on public
sectors that benefit people at large than on expensive high
After two decades deciding economic policy-making, the economists
began to be challenged by ICMI-affiliated economists who criticized
the liberalist approach for causing two major predicaments. First,
ever since the economists made use of international financial
institutions, most notably the International Monetary Fund and the
World Bank, Indonesia had suffered from the weight of foreign debt,
making Indonesia one of the most indebted countries in the world. (21)
Second, Nitisastro’s market-based economic programs favoured large
corporations excessively. Their policies had only served large
conglomerates that had for years enjoyed various benefits from the
government, while hindering small- and medium-scale enterprises from
As the economists’ technocratic approach began to be questioned widely
in public, Habibie and his adherents brought up a new technocratic
paradigm wrapped with nationalist appeal that emphasized the use of
high technology to add value to industrial products. Economist Kwik
Kian Gie called this concept Habibienomics, (23) as opposed to
Widjojonomics–after Nitisastro’s first name. While the former was
inclined to utilize competitive advantages (e.g., high technology,
well-educated human resources, etc.) to boost the economy, the latter
relied more on comparative advantages (e.g., cheap labors, natural
In the 1990s, Habibie and his entourage of engineering-minded
technocrats grew stronger, becoming a powerful group determining the
path along which Indonesia would pursue economic development. At that
point, they had outdone the economists in gaining Suharto’s attention.
The triumph of Habibie’s group over Nitisastro’s reached a climax when
Suharto announced the composition of the Sixth Development Cabinet in
March 1993. A number of ministerial positions held for years by
Widjojo’s proteges were now taken over by the engineers. In the new
cabinet, the economists grabbed only three portfolios: the
Coordinating Ministry for Economy, Finance, and Development
Supervision, Governor of Bank Indonesia, and the Ministry of Finance.
Habibie, on the other hand, succeeded in placing his loyalists in
various positions while securing a fourth term for himself as the
State Minister of Research and Technology. Three ministers were
directly linked to him: Satrio Budihardjo Joedono (Trade), Haryanto
Dhanutirto (Transportation), and Wardiman Djojonegoro (Education and
Culture). (24) Joedono, Dhanutirto and Djojonegoro were among top ICMI
officials whose careers grew through their association with Habibie at
BPPT. Perhaps the hardest pill for the economists to swallow was the
loss of the office of National Development Planning, a post held by
them for many years. This portfolio now went to Ginandjar
Kartasasmita, an engineering-trained bureaucrat who sympathized with
Habibie’s ideas. Heading the powerful National Development Planning
Agency (BAPPENAS), Kartasasmita seized full authority in underwriting
every government-funded development project, which in many ways
benefited Habibie’s technological agenda.
The proliferation of Habibie men in the Sixth Development Cabinet
marked a shift in technocratic approach from the market-oriented
neoclassical to the quasi-Schumpeterian. Umar Juoro, one of Habibie’s
strongest defenders, explained that such a turn towards the engineer
camp was inevitable considering the speed of development needed for
proper utilization of technology. (25) Juoro’s claim is more
justification than explanation. Given the fact that the direction of
development of the New Order was more politically driven than
rationally formulated, it was more Habibie’s accumulated power that
enabled the engineers to trounce the economists.
The economic turmoil and political uncertainty of March 1998 gave
Habibie’s political career a further boost. Suharto named him
vice-president amid strong challenges from other leaders, most notably
economist Emil Salim, who had nominated himself for the position. Two
months later, social riots burst out in Jakarta and other big cities
following a brutal police attack on Trisakti University students. In
the face of massive student protests around the country, Suharto
stepped down on 21 May 1998. Consequently, in accordance with the
Constitution, Habibie became the third president of Indonesia, a
scenario many anti-Suharto activists could not have foreseen. For over
one and a half years, Habibie led a transitional administration that
had to deal with multi-dimensional crises left behind by the Suharto
regime. Despite his commitment to democracy and his success in
stabilizing exchange rates for the Indonesian rupiah, Habibie failed
to defend his presidency after newly elected members of the People’s
Consultative Assembly (MPR) rejected the accountability speech he made
in October 1999. Moreover, many politicians also blamed Habibie for
holding a referendum for East Timorese independence, which, as many
had predicted, later led to the separation of this small region from
Indonesia, an event that actually relieved Jakarta from years of
Albeit he is no longer in power, the image of Habibie as the symbol of
Islamic modernity and technological nationalism remains strong among
many Muslims. It is undoubtedly true that in many ways Habibie took
advantage of his personal relationship with the New Order leader. Yet,
subordinating Habibie’s position to the wide spectrum of Suharto’s
authority ignores the intricacies of power relations. The rise of
Habibie in politics and his dominance in technocracy were facilitated
by his symbolic power. According to Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic power is
gained from cultural capital that enables individuals to maintain and
enhance their position in society. Similar to economic capital, the
value of culture depends on the social circumstances in which it is
transacted (Swartz 1997, p. 75-78). As shown above, Habibie’s cultural
capital was drawn from the educational and scientific credentials that
he attained during his successful career as an engineer in a
technological advanced country. What transformed Habibie’s substantial
cultural capital into effective symbolic power was a post-colonial
Indonesia obsessed with modernity.
As this article has explicated, two intertwined power relations
provided Habibie with opportunities for utilizing his cultural
capital. One was his relationship with Suharto, a traditional leader
no doubt, but one who was obsessed with Western modernity. For a long
time, Suharto had strongly wished to make use of high technology in
national development, and thus found in Habibie’s educational and
scientific credentials the qualities his regime needed. In such a
reciprocal power relation, Habibie’s cultural capital was exchanged
for Suharto’s political capital. Another power relation was Habibie’s
association with Muslim modernists. Here, his cultural capital was
interpreted through their symbolic system as resources that they
needed in order to deal with the gloomy reality of their social,
political, and cultural life. In their obsession with an idealized
modernity that combined western technological superiority and pristine
Islamic spirituality, they saw in Habibie an ideal leader able to
unite the fragmented Muslim community. In the end, this created a
powerful image through which Habibie drew massive support that allowed
him to dominate technocratic practice and political Islam in Indonesia.
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* I would like to thank B.J. Habibie for granting me two interviews,
in New York and Jakarta, as well as Kim Fortun, David Hess, Ariel
Heryanto, Roby Muhamad, Timo Kivimaki, and two anonymous reviewers for
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(1.) See p. 82 in Habibie’s Detik-Detik Yang Menentukan.
(2.) Interview with B.J. Habibie, 6 July 2005.
(3.) Interview with S. Paramajuda, 2 July 2004.
(4.) Priyayi was a native elite class in the Dutch Indies (now
Indonesia) created to support colonial bureaucratic and industrial
(5.) Two controversial cases related to the funding of IPTN were open
to public view. First, in 1994 Habibie diverted US$200 million from
the forest replanting fund to support the prototype production of
N250, allegedly made entirely by Indonesian engineers. Second, after
the first N250 flight tests in August 1995, Habibie announced a new
jet airplane project worth US$2 billion to be led by his son. Calling
it gotongroyong, a traditional concept of mutual cooperation, Suharto
urged every Indonesian citizen to contribute to the project by
purchasing stocks of financial company DSTP, which exclusively created
to fund the project.
(6.) “Jerman Punya Kapal, Indonesia Punya Beban”, Tempo 4 June 1994.
(7.) “Habibie dan Kapal Itu”, Tempo 11 June 1994.
(8.) “Kapal Murah Dari Jerman”, Tempo 18 June 1994.
(9.) In an interview with the author, Habibie said that long before he
returned to Indonesia Suharto had been admiring his scientific
credentials. When Habibie first met Suharto, Suharto showed him a pile
of documents about Habibie’s achievements that he had collected over
the years. Interview with Habibie, 20 September 2006.
(10.) For a good account of Muslim modernism in Indonesia, see Deliar
Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942.
(11.) In one of his speech, Abdurahim compared Suharto to Egyptian
Pharaohs for building his tomb long before he died. As a result,
Abdurahim was jailed and fired from his teaching job at ITB.
(12.) See Hefner, Ch. 6 and Schwarz, Ch. 7.
(13.) This conviction was revealed in interviews with ICMI activist
Adi Sasono on 11 July 2004 and ICMI intellectual Dawam Rahardjo on 25
(14.) The late Nurcholish Madjid, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, and Amien Rais
studied at the University of Chicago where they received Ph.D. degrees.
(15.) Makka, 60 Tahun B.J. Habibie, p. 598.
(16.) Ibid., p. 286.
(17.) Amien Rais, “Ini Keajaiban”, Republika, 15 August 1995.
(18.) Makka, op. cit., p. 206.
(19.) This label was popularized by David Ransom in his piece “The
Berkeley Mafia and the Indonesian Massacre”.
(20.) Interview with Ali Wardhana, 29 July 2004.
(21.) See Rachbini, D.J., Risiko Pembangunan Yang Dibimbing Utang.
(22.) See Mubyarto, Ekonomi dan Keadilan Sosial and Sri-Edi Swasono,
(23.) Kwik Klan Gie, “Konsep Pembangunan Ekonomi Professor Habibie,
Kompas, 4 March 1993.
(24.) The appointments of Haryanto Dhanutirto and Wardiman Djojonegoro
were controversial. Dhanutirto was a pharmacy professor at ITB who had
no experience in the transportation sector. He was often blamed for
many transportation disasters occurring in Indonesia during his
service. Likewise, Djojonegoro who obtained a Ph.D. in transportation
engineering, and was more suitable for Dhanutirto’s position, was
instead given the task of tackling education and culture although he
had never held a teaching position anywhere.
(25.) Umar Juoro, “Teknolog, Teknokrat, dan Strategi Pembangunan
Nasional”, Kompas, 22 March 1996.
Sulfikar Amir is Lecturer for the Graduate Program of Development
Studies at the Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia.