Hugh Popenoe (352) 392-1965
GAINESVILLE — Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is charming and dapper, but it remains to be seen whether he has the political skills to hold his South Pacific nation together, says a University of Florida tropical agriculture expert who met the new Indonesian president 19 years ago.
“He wore a crisp white shirt and a linen suit while the rest of us were working in shirt sleeves,” said UF’s Hugh Popenoe in recalling his first encounter with the new president while advising the Indonesian government. “I was impressed by his sparkling dark eyes, how bright he was and how fluent he was in English.”
Habibie has a strong background in improving Indonesia’s economic infrastructure, said Popenoe, director of the Center for Tropical Agriculture in UF’s Institute of Food Agricultural Sciences.
Habibie was working in Germany as vice president of research and development for the industrial giant Messerschmit before outgoing President Suharto enticed him to head a new science and technology ministry in the 1970s, Popenoe said.
“Habibie is very Western and had worked his way up in Messerschmit. He would be quite competitive in any industrialized country,” Popenoe said. “Messerschmit manufactures airplanes, and Habibie brought an airline industry to Indonesia. That was important to Suharto because it helped connect the nation’s thousands of islands.”
Popenoe has visited Indonesia six times as part of U.S. National Research Council teams and met with Habibie on two of those trips.
Some of his interactions with Habibie raised questions in Popenoe’s mind about Habibie’s ability to build political consensus.
“He seemed more focused on the technical aspects of economic development than on building the social framework as Indonesia tries to resettle people from its overcrowded cities to its remote islands,” Popenoe said.
“He said, ‘leave the social issues to us.’ At the time, it seemed that Indonesia was doing a good job economically, and I think it was a matter of national pride to not want our advice on the potential political and social impacts of its policies.
“Recent events have demonstrated that political and social issues are just as important as technical ones.”
Indonesia adopted some of Popenoe’s recommendations. They included using more organic fertilizers and expanding the production of cassava, which does well in the poor soil of many of Indonesia’s islands. Cassava’s starchy root is harvested as food.
“We also helped the Indonesians appreciate the value of the water buffalo, which had been regarded as a poor man’s animal but in fact is very important in working fields and for meat,” Popenoe said.