NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

The diminutive old man waved his arms energetically as he explained his favourite recipe.

“After neutralising the chicken with ginger, I steam it to cook the meat. At the same time, I heat up the oil. And then…,” he pauses for effect, “Just when the oil is hot enough, I send the chicken into thermal shock.”

Habibie the engineer-cook smiled satisfyingly. His use of technical jargon in describing a recipe was characteristically endearing of the man. “Voila! And that is how you prepare the best chicken in the world – golden on the outside, white on the inside.”

I was at a loss for words. Had I not known any better, I would never have figured this humble, passionate and grandfatherly man to be the former head of state to nearly a quarter of a billion people.

One is immediately put at ease in the presence of BJ Habibie, third president of the Republic of Indonesia. Ever ready to regale his surrounding company with a tale or three, Habibie’s greatest strength is perhaps his ability to seamlessly weave together his multiple facets – scientist, technocrat, politician and now, elder statesman.

The former president was in town to deliver a speech at the Penang Institute’s invitation, during which he talked of aeroplanes (his pride and joy – the N-250 turboprop), pluralism (a celebrated concept in Indonesia but a foul word in Malaysia), love and respect (for country, culture and community), and what he thought was the greatest gift that the Chinese gave to Indonesia – the Islamic religion (long before the Arabs came, we were told).

However, no political leader is without his detractors, even one as genial as Habibie. I had expected his visit to elicit some critique and even the odd disparagement, but I was utterly shocked by what can only be described as a vengeful, intemperate and grossly personal attack by former Malaysian information minister Tan Sri Zainudin Maidin in his column on a national daily.

Without mincing his words, Zainudin labelled Habibie a “dog of imperialism” in a stinging piece that also likened the former president to a pair of “scissors in Suharto’s fold”, as well as a “traitor to the Indonesian race”. Habibie, he opined, is to blame for the “political chaos” that has enveloped the country on the count of the fact that Indonesians are now “split” into 48 political parties.

The shallowness of Zainudin’s arguments is not even worth pointing out. Exactly what is wrong in having 48 political parties in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country of 240 million people separated into 33 provinces spread across 17,508 islands? Is freedom of association not an expression of democratic rights? I suppose it would be asking too much to expect an ideologue from the very party which frowns upon freedom of assembly and speech to grasp the fundamental precepts of democracy.

In his article, Zainudin also cynically attributed Habibie’s short reign in office (one year and five months) to his decision to allow a referendum for self-rule in East Timor, presumably under the weight of Western pressure.

In other words, is Zainudin suggesting that Habibie is a traitor and imperialist stooge for giving a long-oppressed people the right to choose their own government? By the same token, would Zainudin also suggest that Palestine should not be allowed self-rule? Or that Malaysia should not have been granted independence because it would have been treacherous to the British monarchy to do so?

The fact is that the East Timor referendum remains one of Habibie’s proudest achievements. To his mind, he had righted a wrong. Historically, East Timor was not even a Dutch colony and should not have been part of Indonesia. Hence, to lay claim to the land was, in Habibie’s own words, akin to colonising them.

Zainudin, though, is correct on one point. Democratisation and decentralisation are indeed Habibie’s greatest legacies. After all, it was under his short-lived presidency that sweeping reforms were made, including the lifting of restrictions on the formation of political parties, the unconditional release of political detainees, the provisions for press freedom and the setting of a two-term limit for the presidency. Even more significantly, it was also by his decree that the terms “pribumi and “non-pribumi” were abolished from all official circumstances.

One can only wonder whether Malaysia would ever see such transformational reforms.

Having said that, it is also true that no one is perfect. Certainly, it is worth to note that Habibie himself had been a party to Suharto’s iron-fisted rule for over three decades, even if it were in a mostly technocratic role.

One can also say that he did not go far enough as president, but considering that he had come into office at a most tumultuous time, with an economy in free-fall, riots in the streets and a rebellious military descending upon him, it is not difficult to imagine that a lesser man would have yielded.

But not Habibie. For when the moment of history was thrust upon him, he did not disappoint. And that is the measure of the man. If he is to be likened to a dog, then let him be remembered as the hound who championed freedom.

Zainudin, on the other hand, has been revealed to be of a completely different pedigree. His legacy will forever be cemented by this salacious attempt at cheap propaganda.

Nevertheless, I daresay he has committed political hara-kiri, for not only has UMNO lost the support of moderate and sensible Malaysians, Zainuddin’s latest gaffe may have ensured that they will also lose the support of their phantom voters.