A man who works to build Indonesia into a technological `Japan'

To some in Indonesia, Yusuf Habibie is a genius. To others, he is a dangerous waster of valuable development funds. But no one doubts the energy and enthusiasm of the man who almost single-handedly has brought this nation of 160 million to the forefront of technological development in the third world.

Professor Habibie, only 48 years old, has a dazzling array of posts. He is Indonesia's minister of research and technology. He runs the state aircraft and shipbuilding industries, state railway construction, and enterprises which stretch into electronics, telecommunications, the manufacture of sophisticated energy equipment and weapons systems.

He is also in charge of a multimillion dollar free-trade zone development on Batam, an Indonesian island just off Singapore. A devout Muslim who made the hajj to Mecca last year, Habibie's fame has spread outside Indonesia and he is increasingly seen as a symbol of Islamic progressiveness.

Habibie himself has straightforward views on what he is doing.

``I am building a nation,'' he said in an interview. ``And you can only build a nation if you work very hard, not talk very hard.''

His rather un-Indonesian directness probably comes from the years he spent in West Germany, where he still has a home and close business links.

Ten years ago he returned to Indonesia and persuaded President Suharto -- a longtime acquaintance -- to give him funds to start P. T. Nurtanio, Indonesia's state aerospace company.

Now the company has a site of more than 150 acres on each side of the airport runway in Bandung, up in the west Java hills. The plant produces a variety of helicopters under license and is just completing the development of the CN-235, a 35-seater turbo prop proudly referred to as Indonesia's own airplane.

But Habibie insists that he is not merely building airplanes and helicopters. ``Now there are more than 12,000 people working at Nurtanio,'' he says. ``And the average age is only 23. I am building for the future of Indonesia.''

President Suharto seems to agree with Habibie's vision and has authorized investments of millions of dollars in the aerospace program -- investments which do not appear to be controlled by any government department.

Some are less than happy with the situation, citing the need to deal first with Indonesia's economic difficulties. Behind the scenes, the armed forces express dissatisfaction at the way they are pressured to buy Nurtanio equipment.

Sitting at a 15-foot-wide desk piled high with model planes, Habibie grows agitated at the mention of such criticisms. ``I don't care about my critics. They say I am just playing. They say I should buy planes. But if we did that, then we would never have trained people -- people you need to build a modern Indonesia.''

Just over 5 feet tall, Habibie punches the air as he makes his points. ``If you listen to your critics, you go crazy. You see those all the time at functions, but not me. I have no time. I just do my work.''

Most of his close associates were with him when he worked in Germany. He calls them, in language more reminiscent of the East bloc, ``my cadres.''

But Habibie has been accused of taking too much on and not delegating enough. He admits to being a tyrant sometimes. ``I delegate but I control,'' he says. Others feel he is just too ambitious and that someday what's often referred to as ``the Habibie bubble'' will burst.

In particular the critics point out that Habibie's enterprises depend very much on his relationship with the President. If the President should leave office, or if Habibie falls into disfavor with the government in power, then the whole technological edifice could collapse.

Again, Habibie dismisses such charges. ``If I did not think all these could succeed'' -- pointing to the various models of his projects -- ``then I would not start.

``Indonesia can and will be another Japan. You will see.''

His eyes open wide as he talks of Indonesia's past and its future.

``We Indonesians were a victim of the world powers who cut us into pieces to get our tobacco, our oil, our spices. Now that is over. What we have done in the last 20 years is more than the Dutch colonialists did in the 350 years that they were here.''

A new generation is coming, says Habibie, that knows exactly what it wants.

``I know at least what I want. The transformation of a country,'' he says confidently.

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