Saturday, November 24, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 24, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

"Please wait, you are next, right? You are good people!" eminent scientist and former Indian president Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam reminds reporters, while giving the thumbs-up sign.

Kalam was in Jakarta last week at the invitation of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) to speak at its national congress.

Evidently he had overcome any residual jetlag from his long flight from India. During the two hours of interviews, his mood remained jovial.

"India is a free and democratic country, so we always deal with the media," he said.

Known as a visionary leader for India, Kalam introduced three great visions for his country: freedom, development and standing up to the rest of the world.

"If we are not free, no one will respect us," he once said.

Kalam, who was widely referred to as the "People's President" in India, said that after 50 years of being a developing nation, "it is time to see ourselves as a developed nation. We are among the top five nations of the world in terms of GDP. We have a 10 percent growth rate in most areas. Our poverty levels are falling; our achievements are being globally recognized today."

Kalam said of his third vision: "I believe that unless India stands up to the rest of the world, no one will respect us. Only strength respects strength. We must be strong not only as a military power but also as an economic power. Both must go hand-in-hand."

He is confident of India becoming a knowledge superpower and a developed nation by 2020, as set out in his book India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium.

Many consider Kalam's work on India's nuclear weapons program as a way of asserting India's place as a would-be superpower. As former head of the giant Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO), Kalam played a key role in the nuclear tests at Pokharan in the Rajasthan desert on May 11 and 13, 1998. Born on Oct. 15, 1931, in Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram district, Tamil Nadu, Kalam grew up on the island of Rameshwaram in south India, where his father had to rent his boats to pay his school fees.

Kalam said an elementary school teacher's drawing of a flock of seagulls had sparked his obsession with flight, which eventually led to his involvement in the development of India's guided missiles.

After graduating in science from St. Joseph's College in Tiruchi, Kalam enrolled in aeronautical engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology in 1954. He joined the DRDO, where he led a small team developing a prototype hovercraft, which never took off.

Kalam joined the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1962, and between 1963 and 1982 participated in the satellite launch vehicle team at Thumba next to Trivandram.

He later became project director for SLV-3, where he supervised the launch of the Rohini satellite into orbit in July 1980.

Returning to the DRDO as its chief executive the following year, he was responsible for India's integrated guided missile development program, which envisaged the launch of five major missiles.

Kalam later became scientific advisor to the defence minister and secretary of the Department of Defense Research & Development from 1992 to 1999, and was honored with the Bahart Ratna, India's highest civilian award, in 1997.

He became India's 11th president from 2002 to 2007. Kalam, who is a bachelor, vegetarian and teetotaler, is said to always have given full acknowledgment for India's success to his colleagues.

Also during his presidency he invented a development system called Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA), which involves creating a well-balanced habitat that displays great bio-diversity and greenery.

"Indonesia may have to design and develop more coastal and plain terrain PURA," said Kalam, who has received honorary degrees from as many as 30 universities.

When asked about one of his milestones, he cited his experience in the DRDO, when the very light material he and his team had produced was also utilized to make calipers, which weighed only 300 grams and were used for helping children with disabilities.

Kalam is a source of inspiration for many Indian youngsters, saying they are "the most powerful resource on the earth, under the earth and above the earth".

He said he was eager to share his experiences with Indonesia's best scientists because of the similarity between the countries in terms of diversity and plurality of ethnicity, religion, culture and language.

Kalam who recites passages from both the Koran and the Bhagvad Gita daily, once won a poll conducted by news channel CNN-IBN for India's best president.

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