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BJ Habibie, ex-Indonesia president who called S’pore a ‘Little Red Dot’, dies at 83

His influence was significant, despite being president for a relatively short time.

Sulaiman Daud | September 12, 01:13 am

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Bacharuddin Jusuf “BJ” Habibie, the third president of Indonesia, died on Sep. 11, 2019.

He was 83.

Habibie had been undergoing treatment for heart problems at a hospital in Jakarta since Sep. 1.

Free Malaysia Today reported that President-Elect Joko Widodo visited the hospital where Habibie was being treated, and described him as a “world-class scientist”, and the “father of technology in Indonesia”.

From VP to president

Habibie, who had a background in aerospace engineering, was picked by authoritarian president Suharto to serve as his vice-president in March 1998.

After Suharto’s rule over Indonesia ended just two months later in May 1998, amid a financial crisis and student protests, Habibie assumed power.

His presidency was destined to last the shortest since Indonesia’s independence, but it was full of change and upheaval.

According to AP, Habibie reformed Indonesia’s political system, freeing political prisoners, loosening restrictions on the press, and allowing free elections to take place.

Habibie was also noted for granting a referendum to the people of East Timor in 1999, in a choice between special autonomy or independence.

East Timor voted for independence in a landslide, but armed violence broke out.

Habibie later lost political support at home, and withdrew his name from nomination as a presidential candidate in October 1999.

Lee Kuan Yew on Habibie

In Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First, he described Habibie as “highly intelligent, but mercurial and voluble”.

Lee also shed some light on the politics behind the referendum:

“East Timor developments were driven by the Australian media and popular sentiment, by the Portuguese government getting the European Union to pressure Indonesia at every international gathering, and by the U.S. media, NGOs and congressional aides. They were constantly barking and nipping at Indonesia’s heels, making it an issue that dogged Indonesia at every international forum.

Habibie thought he could be rid of this burden by his proposal. But neither Australia, the European Union nor the United States had asked for or wanted an independent East Timor. Habibie did not realise that he would never be forgiven by Indonesian nationalists for offering a ballot that could only lead to independence.”

Little Red Dot

But Habibie might have been best known for coining a phrase that Singaporeans still remember today.

In an interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal, Habibie griped about Singapore sending him congratulations four days after he took office, and said:

“It’s OK with me, but there are 211 million people (in Indonesia). Look at the map. All the green (area) is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore.”

In his National Day Rally speech that year, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong touched on Singapore’s financial contributions to Indonesia, and added:

“After all we are only three million people. Just a little red dot on the map. Where is the capacity to help 211 million people?”

From what was seen as an insulting epithet, Singaporeans today view the term “Little Red Dot” as a mark of pride, to overcome our limitations and become an important presence on the world stage.

Top image by Muammer Tan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve and his favourite person is Jürgen Klopp. He also writes about film and pop-culture, which you are very welcome to read here.

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