President Joko Widodo confirms former President B.J. Habibie as a founder of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences in tribute to the latter's contributions to the academy. (Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo)

Commentary: Can Indonesia Produce Another Habibie?


AUGUST 26, 2016

People know he is a national hero when parents and teachers alike wish their children and students to be the next Rudy Habibie. Standard expectations goes along the line of "study hard so you can be [immensely successful] like Pak Habibie.”

I had had this routine when I was little. I don't get to be like him unfortunately, not even close.

In fact, along his 80 years of life, Habibie becomes the towering figure in science with little competition. An aeronautics engineer by study, he is the father of Indonesian aviation, shipbuilding and defence industries. Recognizing the importance of talent and superiority in science, he is also the patron of mass scholarship for Indonesian youth since the 1980's. He has collected 46 global patents and has engineering formulas named after himself.

In January 1974, when first summoned by then president Suharto, Habibie was told that he was chosen to lead the country “to advance for the century of Indonesian brilliance.” He was eventually assigned to 20 years of ministerial posts managing Research and Technology as well as Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT). He started at 37-years-old.

Indeed, there were political shortcomings and his fierce critics often portray him as a scientist blinded by technological ambitions that eventually cost the nation heavily. Yet it is under his tutelage that Indonesian science and technology gained a new prominence it never acquired before.

His technologically heavy industry approach has prompted the birth of a new engineering generation. Habibie estimated the Indonesian aeronautics enterprises (PTDI) alone created 46,000 Indonesian engineers. If one Habibie could help us attain so much in technological advance — imagine what we can do with more. As naive as it may sound, will this country have other technological wizard of his calibre?

While many believe Habibie is a born genius, his life story shown that education is the defining factor to his journey. It was his departure to Germany that highlighted his intellectual superiority. The rigorous academic challenge in Germany had nurtured his intellect as well as his network. Habibie attained the title of a diplome-ingineur (an equivalent to Master’s) in airplane construction and stayed to conduct his research until he earned a doctoral degree summa cum-laude.

Germany also provided an opportunity to connect directly with the industry as he landed a coveted job at Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB), then a large German aerospace manufacturer producing helicopter, airlines components and fighter planes. Not only did it provide a stable source of income, an important factor for his young family with two children, it also allowed him to further challenged himself of technical issues on aeronautics manufacturing.

As he quickly climbed the structural management ladder of the MMB, he started to enlist more and more Indonesian engineers under his wings. A biography of his mentioned 40 Indonesians have enjoyed the opportunity to work, research and collaborate with other scientists while Habibie was an MMB executive.

Even before he resigned in 1978, his immediate concern was to build an airplane manufacturer in Indonesia — what later would be known as PTDI. The sheer audacity of this project and its notorious demand for funding were soon to be a major source of criticism and discontent: Indonesia has up to that point never built a bicycle from scratch, either several parts or the whole bike needs to be imported. And suddenly it constructed airplanes?

Yet we, or rather Habibie, did. While the project was highly controversial — the airplanes, and later helicopters too, do fly. All along the while President Suharto shielded him and his expensive endeavours from harsh criticism and political attack. The International Monetary Fund eventually got the job done while Indonesia was frantically looking for a financial lifeline after the crippling Asian monetary crisis in 1997. Heavy subsidies f0r Habibie’s projects stopped.

Habibie's reign over strategic industries was over in a flash, but not without proving that Indonesians are capable of manufacturing airplanes, trains, ships, tanks, artilleries and even a nuclear reactor. One could thus argue that his biggest legacy would be a vote of confidence among fellow Indonesians — that "we can [do it], too."

It is then clear that the taxonomy of a science leader in Habibie demands at least several conditions - those are to be met if our concern is to cultivate the next generation of Habibies.

Among those conditions are, one: the highest quality education. Habibie spent 10 years at Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen, one of the best institutes to study aerospace engineering in the world. The length of time is necessary to instil the knowledge and prepared his academics to be tested in industry. It is during this period that his famous crack propagation theory was devised and perfected — a theory that is still taught throughout aeronautics engineering classes today.

Secondly, scientific collaboration. Some scientists could be reclusive individuals and in fact, many Nobel laureates are avid lab workers who dedicate a lifetime to cracking one specific question. However, to be able to excel in their respective fields, collaboration is a far easier mode and indeed is warranted in any subject.

Indonesian scientists needed to plunge into collaborations and started to deliver scientific contribution. From RWTH to the years of MMB, this is what Habibie did. He scored more points by inviting Indonesian engineers to work at MMB and thus enlarged the base for an Indonesian technology diaspora. As studies have proven, diverse diaspora fosters a nation's scientific advancement — as is evident with the fast-paced science progress of Brazil, India and China.

Finally, the support of decent funding and infrastructure back home. One account of funding to Habibie's strategic industries in 1993 amounted to $2 billion, a giant amount even at the current standard. That era of science funding may be long gone and will never return, nonetheless one thing is certain: science is not cheap. Reducing funding means crippling science — Indonesia's slow progress in science the last couple of decades proved that.

So does Indonesia's current science structure support these demands? The arrival of the next Habibie may well depend on it.

Dewi Safitri studied Science Technology in Society at University College London and currently works for CNN Indonesia