Nothing in Liem's childhood gave any indication of how illustrious his future would be. He was born to farmers in a small village of some 600 people in Fujian province, China. Like many village children in China in those days, he lived a hardscrabble existence. His village was located in a region considered inhospitable for farming — surrounded by mountains and bordered by the sea, there was a scarcity of arable land. The soil, tainted by the sea's high saline content, allowed only hardy plants such as peanuts and sweet potato to be cultivated. There was no system of irrigation. Still, farmers coaxed rice to grow. (When Liem became wealthy and wanted to help his homeland, one of the early projects he initiated was the construction of a reservoir, feeding an extensive irrigation canal system. This enabled the entire area of Fuqing to develop and indeed, prosper.)
The disagreeable conditions of the region were pithily encapsulated by the local adage: “jiu nian han, yi nian zai”, which translates to “nine years of drought, one year of disaster [meaning floods.]” It was no surprise that many young men from the area left in droves in search of a better life elsewhere. Liem became one of them. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China. The weak and corrupt Kuomintang Nationalist government, facing a growing threat internally by the Communists led by Mao Zedong, were no match for the invaders. Law and order disintegrated in many parts of the country, with local warlords and bandits claiming power over many areas. By 1938, war had reached Liem's doorstep. He had lost his father the previous year, and now faced certain conscription. He was as reluctant to leave his recently widowed mother as she was to have her favourite son leave her side. Confronted with the realities, they agreed he should join his elder brother Sioe Hie, already in Java with their uncle. Thus began Liem's journey to become one of the wealthiest men in Nanyang, as Southeast Asia was then called.
Liem was born Lin Shaoliang, in 1917, the Year of the Snake, on the seventh day of the seventh month of according to the Chinese zodiac. Official records in Indonesia listed his birth as 1916, and the family used that to calculate his age.
Anthony Salim, once described by a journalist as a Ferrari-engined executive, has been helming the Salim Group in the post-Suharto era. He very nearly didn't get a chance to know his father. In 1949, just weeks before he was born, his father came close to losing his life in a car accident. Thankful to be alive, Liem named his newborn Fung Seng, literally meaning “meeting a life”. (Decades later, Anthony lived up to his name by resuscitating the conglomerate his father founded, preventing a neardeath of the companies under the Salim umbrella, in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis that also ultimately led to the overthrown of Suharto, Salim's main patron.)
Anthony's stewardship of the business group was a gradual process, at least in the eyes of the public. If indeed Liem noticed early that the youngest of his three sons was the brightest, the boldest and the hungriest to get into business, he would not acknowledge it to the world. It is a credit to Liem, though, that he was wise enough to break from the traditional Chinese thinking that the eldest son is automatically the heir apparent and thus entitled to inherit the business. In his early teens, Anthony often accompanied his father to his factories; when he returned in 1971 from his studies overseas, he was impatient to learn the ropes of Salim's growing stable of businesses. Nurturing his youngest son's curious mind, Liem frequently took Anthony along to meetings with Cabinet ministers, officials, other businessmen, as well as with Suharto. Those meetings gave the young man an opportunity to learn by observing. For a long time, Liem refused to be drawn into speculation about who among his children would take over the reins of the group. His older sons Albert and Andree were also assigned to Salim businesses, but Anthony showed keenness to get into every pie.
Asked in 1984 if Anthony was the group's “crown prince”, Liem was purposely non-committal, commenting: “All the children are the same. What's needed here is teamwork. Those who say that Anton will replace me are outsiders.” The year Anthony returned from a two-year course in the United Kingdom, Suharto officiated at the opening of the Salim's first huge industrial venture, Bogasari Flour Mills.
1996 — the year before the financial crisis hit the region — could be called Salim's high-water mark. Everything was progressing smoothly — business was booming and the sky looked to be the limit. In July 1996, Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong put out its first annual list of people it labelled Asia's “Power 50”, and Suharto and Liem proved their potency — the president topped the list, while his leading cukong was Number 5 (and the highest ranking businessperson). That year, Salim published its first comprehensive corporate brochure, a forty-page full-colour production with a plain white cover featuring the group's logo — an embossed globe with the name Salim written across it. Chairman Liem's written message declared confidently that the group's “best years still lie ahead”. What lay ahead instead was a traumatic plunge from power for Liem and his patron. In retrospect, the bucolic days of 1996 for Salim were somewhat akin to the maiden voyage of the Titanic before it struck the iceberg: there was celebration and partying on board, and passengers envisioned grand dreams for the future. It was the prophetic calm before the storm. For Suharto, 1996 portended the calamity that would follow. Having ditched his close military advisors and at the apogee of power, Suharto continued dispensing favours for his children's ventures, and indeed, extended it to the next generation as well. That year proved to be a turning point for the president when his wife — his pillar of support, and some say, the possessor of his wahyu — died.
HONOURED IN PHILADELPHIA
For Salim, though, 1996 was smooth sailing. There was a high point for Salim's offshore vehicle, First Pacific. In July, the company was named a “component stock” of Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index. Being part of the index boosted interest in First Pacific, whose shares were more than ten times higher than in 1991. The magazine BusinessWeek declared: “First Pacific's mix of East and West may be a model for the future.” It was a nice birthday present for FP chief Manny Pangilinan, who had just turned fifty and celebrated it with a big bash at the posh Shangri-la Hotel in Manila — he was now the head of a certified blue-chip company.
Fifty years after he reached Java's shores from China in 1938 with barely more than the clothes he wore, Liem Sioe Liong was boss of Indonesia's biggest conglomerate and was showing up in magazine lists of the world's wealthiest people. This reflected how much the Salim Group he founded flourished during the long presidency of his friend and patron, General Suharto. At the height of his success, Liem sat atop a vast business empire, estimated by some to encompass 600 affiliated companies — Liem said he didn't know the exact number — and was a force in many strategic industries, including wheat-milling, cement-making and banking.
In the mid-1990s, more than 200,000 people worked for Salim companies in Indonesia and overseas. In 1996, the year before the Asian financial crisis hit Salim — and Indonesia — hard, revenue from group operations was estimated at US$22 billion, nearly three times as large as the second-ranked group, Astra. Liem noted in a Salim corporate profile published that year — the last one issued: “Today, our companies are intimately involved in the day to day lives of literally millions of Indonesian families.” Liem's Bank Central Asia grew to become the country's biggest private bank. Indocement, an agglomeration of Salim's cement plants, became Indonesia's dominant cement producer; Bogasari, its flour processing unit, expanded a Jakarta plant into the world's largest mill; and Indofood overtook Nissin Foods of Japan as the world's leading instant noodle manufacturer.
Liem himself didn't like to dwell on indicators of wealth — he was uncomfortable with portrayals of himself as the richest businessman in Southeast Asia (but he didn't object to rankings issued by the Finance Ministry showing him as the No. 1 taxpayer in Indonesia, as he wanted it be known that he paid his dues). In a country where the Chinese have historically been subjected to discrimination and periodic violence, the tycoon understandably preferred to keep a low profile. Liem liked to quote a Chinese proverb: “Tall trees attract the wind. We don't want to talk about how big we are; people get jealous.” Until a foreign journalist for the Associated Press mentioned Liem's Salim Group in 1971, very few people outside the country had heard of the man who became Suharto's most important business pillar.
One of the crown jewels in the Salim stable was Bank Central Asia (BCA). Its transformation to the country's leading private bank from one that was barely breathing in the early 1970s could be credited to the efforts of one person — Mochtar Riady, who Liem brought on board in 1975. Prior to Riady's entry, Liem's banks (including Bank Windu Kencana, co-owned with a Kostrad foundation) were in dire need of professional help. Both were nowhere able to offer fully fledged financial services. In 1973 Salim had two flour mills in operation and was constructing a cement plant. Big factories required huge funding, and Liem was one of the few individuals in Indonesia at that stage — still early in the New Order — who was able to line it up. His immediate rapport with Chin Sophonpanich of Bangkok Bank was critical for channelling seed money into his cement venture. Although he could tap into outside funds, Liem knew that gaining long-term strength hinged on developing his own banking capability. When Suharto came to power, Liem was already a “banker” in the sense that he partly owned banks, but this meant just possession of a licence, not any real accumulation of assets. In the late Sukarno period, Indonesia had scores of minuscule private banks, many of which were owned by politicians or their pals, but they were weak.
BCA started life as a textile company called NV Semarang Knitting Factory. Curiously, its articles of association allowed it to conduct banking activities. As the company was not doing well, Liem and a Hokchia friend named Tan Lip Soin purchased the licence in 1957 from the owner, a businessman in Semarang named Gunardi. Liem wanted the company for its banking licence, and changed its name initially to Bank Asia N.V. and subsequently to Bank Central Asia. He also moved its operations to Jakarta from Semarang. Liem, who was not yet an Indonesian citizen, installed his good friend Hasan Din as a director. When Suharto tapped Liem to be his cukong, he assigned Liem to cooperate with his generals at the Kostrad Foundation (Yayasan Dharma Putra Kostrad) that he headed. Bank Windu Kencana had been incorporated in 1954, but in 1967 it was reconstituted with several of Suharto's financial generals on its board. Liem and his two brothers were listed as co-owners.
The partnership that became the most powerful business group during Suharto's time started from very modest premises. In the late 1960s, when the four men — Liem, Sudwikatmono, Djuhar Sutanto and Ibrahim Risjad — began working together, their office was a non-airconditioned room measuring 8 × 6 metres on the top floor of a nondescript building in the heart of Jakarta's Chinatown. One had to hoof it up four storeys to get to the austere office at Number 20 Jalan Asemka, as there were no elevators. Initially, the room had only one desk and two chairs. There was a single telephone, and even that line was shared with another office. Sudwikatmono, or Dwi, as he was often called, recalled that in the early days, when the four partners had their meetings, two of them would be standing while two sat. Dwi remarked that the highly superstitious Liem was always reluctant to make changes that might affect his luck or disturb the good feng shui of a room or building.
IN THE BEGINNING
The conglomerate that arose from those humble beginnings, usually simply called the Salim Group, was essentially a Suharto creation. At the very least, he played the role of midwife in its birth. After all, he put Liem together with Dwi, and suggested Liem team up with Djuhar. Match-making business partners seemed to be an activity the new leader liked to make time for. He got his financial generals working on ventures with Chinese businessmen. In 1967, a Sukarno-era trading company, Hanurata, got new shareholders — two of his yayasans, Trikora and Harapan Kita. Liem Sioe Liong provided the capital and was asked to run it. Suharto also installed his brother-in-law in the company and arranged for his cousin Dwi to be there. The successful pairing of Liem and Dwi was a Suharto initiative, but other business match-making propositions did not work out so well.
Liem Sioe Liong was a relative newcomer to the Suharto inner sanctum; as mentioned earlier, two other Liems preceded him: Jantje Liem and Liem Oen Kian (Djuhar Sutanto). Suharto suggested that the three Liems joined forces. They tried but it didn't last.
Liem Sioe Liong never read Dale Carnegie, but for his ability to make friends and win the trust of influential people, he could have been a poster boy for Carnegie's best-selling work How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936, two years before Liem set foot in Java. Although he was not fluent in the language and knew little about Javanese culture, within a short time of his arrival, Liem was able to attract customers with his winsome smile and charming ways. As a supplier first to the independence fighters in the foothills of Central Java, then to the Diponegoro Division commanded by Suharto, Liem impressed his customers with his honesty and reliability. Among his Hokchia clansmen, he had a reputation for being trustworthy and discreet. Within a few years of his arrival in Java, he was entrusted with the responsibility of harbouring a political fugitive hiding from the Dutch when they were asserting their claim on the country after the Japanese surrender. It turned out that the fugitive was Hasan Din, a father-in-law to the republic's first president, Sukarno. Liem and Hasan Din became friends as well as business associates, of which more would be written about later.
Thirty years after Liem set foot on Java, he was scouting for big money to fund plans for his first huge venture, the flour milling business. Soon after, he needed fresh funds for the planned cement manufacturing. For this, Liem had to go beyond the country's shores to obtain it. Two overseas Chinese tycoons played important roles in channelling funds as well as expertise. For flour, he turned to Malaysian Chinese Robert Kuok; for cement it was Thai-Chinese banker Chin Sophonpanich, a self-made tycoon who knew a thing or two about the importance of having powerful patrons. But to get to that stage, where he could undertake the role of the country's first industrialist, he would have had to earn the trust of the country's new leader Suharto, who became full president in 1968. Although Liem and Suharto had been acquainted since 1949, the Chinese businessman did not have steady contact with the general until after 1966, when Suharto seized power. For Liem's “anointment” into the privileged position of a cukong, he had members of the senior military men belonging to a group dubbed “Financial Generals” to thank.
One hankered after power, the other after money, and when they paired up they made a potent team that kept them on top in Indonesian politics and business respectively for three decades. President Suharto and Liem Sioe Liong worked very closely together, building a symbiotic relationship that resulted in huge benefits for both. Liem, founder of the colossal business conglomerate known as the Salim Group, proved himself to be a reliable businessman and became Suharto's main cukong — a Chinese financial backer who is given protection by powerful political or military leaders. In his rise from an itinerant peddler to Indonesia's wealthiest businessman, Liem received patronage from several generals, but most importantly from Suharto himself. The strongman acquired unchecked and, for a long time, uncheckable power and until his shocking resignation in May 1998, was one of the world's longest-serving heads of government. In 1983, sycophantic parliamentarians conferred on him the title Bapak Pembangunan — “Father of Development”, which Suharto cherished, as he liked to claim that all his endeavours were for the good of the “common man”. But while he claimed to identify with the “wong cilik” (Javanese for “little people”), Suharto saw himself as possessing the wahyu, sort of a divine right, to be the country's ruler. An Indonesian historian once commented: “Like a Javanese monarch, Suharto always equated his selfcontrol and harmony in relation to the spiritual world with the well-being of the nation and the state.”
He surrounded himself with people who could serve faithfully and unquestioningly. To stay at the apex of power, Suharto relied on several pillars. One was the military — which the general used effectively. He used money to keep the armed forces loyal to him and used them to suppress political opponents — both real and perceived ones. The military had stepped in to run companies of the colonial Dutch that Sukarno, the first president, nationalized in 1957, and top generals became used to having opportunities to enrich themselves. They became an even bigger player in Suharto's New Order. Another crucial prop for Suharto was financial and other aid from the West. Indonesia was in dire straits when he came into power, and the way he and his team of Western-trained technocrats opened the country for foreign investment was vital for economic growth.
On the night of 4 September 1990, Jakarta bankers were stunned by a press release from the central bank unlike any they had seen. In a terse statement, Bank Indonesia announced that the board of supervisors — including the chairman — and the board of directors at PT Bank Duta had been fired by its majority shareholders following “operational mistakes” and foreign exchange losses. Bank Duta, widely considered to be Suharto's bank as its dominant shareholders were three foundations chaired by the president, was Indonesia's fifth largest privately owned bank. The dismissed bank chairman was Bustanil Arifin, Suharto's close ally and a good friend of Liem. Bustanil, a retired general, was Minister of Cooperatives as well as head of Bulog. And the losses incurred at the bank involved a senior bank executive, who happened to be Bustanil's son-in-law.
BANK DUTA: THE “FAVOUR-EXCHANGE” BANK
Bank Duta's “operational mistakes” turned out to be serious gambles on currency movements that caused the bank to lose more than twice its total capital. The Duta scandal encapsulated many elements of the murky and sometimes wild Indonesian business environment. Duta was a publicly listed company, yet there was a complete absence of transparency about its financial position as well as a woeful lack of prudent banking regulation. In the handling of the scandal, what showed to be functioning well was Indonesia's version of the “Favor Bank”, taking a term from American writer Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. One character in the book, a lawyer, declares that “everything in the criminal justice system in New York operates on favors. Everybody does favors for everybody else. Every chance they get, they make deposits in the Favor Bank… It's saving up for a rainy day.” People who make regular deposits in the Favor Bank, he explains, put themselves in position to ask politicians for big favors.
Suharto's Indonesia operated as a kind of Favor Bank. Liem, who had given 30 per cent of BCA's shares to Suharto's eldest son and daughter, was arguably the biggest “depositor” in Jakarta's version. In June 1985, when Liem was squeezed by cement overcapacity and debt, the president returned the favour. At times, Suharto needed to call in favours, and Liem responded, as did others in the case of Bank Duta. The Salim Group reaped good dividends for providing needed deposits.
In the film The Year of Living Dangerously, a main character, Billy, falls to his death after unfurling from a high-rise window a banner declaring: “Sukarno, Feed Your People”. The message was similarly applicable to his successor Suharto, who in 1966 was in the process of easing the country's first president out of office. The new leader had yet to consolidate his power, but he was well aware that he badly needed to keep people fed if he was to be accepted. The country was seriously short of rice, the staple and the fulcrum of Indonesian life. The grain was the lifeblood of Indonesians, and at the time, soldiers and civil servants received part of their salary in rice. Inadequate food supplies were fuelling runaway inflation, which by some calculations topped 500 per cent. Supplying food to help prop the nascent anti-communist Suharto regime became an important part of a massive effort by Western nations, led by the United States. Suharto demanded huge aid, sending emissaries to Washington. In September 1966, after meeting Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik, U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey wrote President Lyndon Johnson:
Indonesia requires large amounts of rice and is attempting to obtain rice not only from the U.S. but also from Burma, Thailand and some from Taiwan. They need much more from the U.S., however, than they now have reason to believe they will receive … I suggested increased uses of wheat and bulgar (cracked wheat), but was told that there was a consumer resistance due to a lack of understanding and custom. Mr Malik agreed that it would be in the long-term interest of Indonesia for wheat and bulgar to be increasingly introduced… Mr Malik emphasized that his country's urgent rice and cotton needs were also essential to feed and clothe the troops. With the ending of confrontation on the Malaysian border and to keep the military from becoming restless, it was necessary to keep the large numbers of troops in Indonesia satisfied and occupied.
Washington donated some rice but Suharto kept pushing for more, given Indonesians’ attachment to the grain. The United States, however, wanted to promote wheat, of which it had stockpiles. Over time, Suharto signalled that wheat would be okay if there really couldn't be more rice.
To get away from the political wrangling and daily grind of Jakarta, Suharto liked to retreat to Tapos, his 700-hectare ranch near Bogor, south of the capital. Originally part of a Dutch plantation taken over by the Indonesian state, it was “provided” for Suharto's use in 1974 by the governor of West Java and managed by a company owned by the president's children. Set amid rolling hills and lakes, the ranch had an experimental station for breeding cattle and sheep. It even featured a go-kart track, where Suharto used to enjoy a few laps. He felt most relaxed there; as he wrote in his autobiography: “I feel very much at home in the environment of agriculture and animal husbandry.” He often invited friends on weekends for a barbeque and to chew the cud, so to speak. Liem, a frequent guest, recalled that steaks and sate (satay) were often on the menu. On one Sunday in March 1990, the tycoon was present at the retreat, but the atmosphere that day was not that relaxing, and the presence of quite a few corporate bosses indicated the occasion had an agenda beyond that of a social event. Liem and some thirty other business chieftains had been summoned to Tapos to hear the president outline plans to deal with an issue receiving increased media attention. It was the thorny subject of income disparity, or social envy — kecemburuan social in Indonesian. It was no surprise that those present, except for two, were Chinese. Adding to their discomfort was the fact that the event was telecast nationwide as Suharto lectured them, urging them to take concrete action to help narrow the income gap. His solution to share the wealth: Make conglomerates shift a chunk of their equity to cooperatives.
In 1990, Indonesia was on a healthy growth track, but there were also increasing signs that Suharto, turning seventy in June the following year, was getting more out of touch, and dangerously overconfident his path was the right one. (Two years earlier, he blackballed think-tank CSIS when its director Jusuf Wanandi sent a memo suggesting that Suharto consider planning for political succession.) At this stage, he was given to surrounding himself with people less likely to question his judgements. He was also less inclined to accept advice from his economic technocrats.
As Holdiko was selling pledged assets, Anthony was consolidating control over what was left of the Salim empire. Not one to sit around licking his wounds, he was already looking beyond the remnants of the group and exploring new growth possibilities. Through the first ten years after Suharto's fall, the Salim story featured twists and turns, low points and highs, as the group lurched ahead. One striking low point — rooted in First Pacific's expansion in the Philippines — was a bruising, public spat between Anthony and his long-time partner at First Pacific, Manny Pangilinan. Fortuitously for both men and for First Pacific, the relationship was repaired and the partnership flourished again. An important albeit low key high point was Anthony getting a document from Indonesian authorities called a “release and discharge” statement saying he had discharged his obligations from debts owed to the state in the wake of Suharto's fall. After receiving this legal all-clear, Anthony decided to become CEO of Indofood, so he was directly running a big listed company for the first time. Anthony's business interests expanded at home and elsewhere. Moves to grow on new turf did not always succeed, most clearly in an effort to get a beachhead in India, which went badly. But on the whole, the Salim Group — or what now should be considered the Anthony Salim Group — was again on the move.
STRESS TEST AT FIRST PACIFIC
The severe backlash against Salim that began as soon as Suharto was forced to step down made the group relieved it had created First Pacific. However badly things went for Salim inside Indonesia, the Hong Kongbased company gave Anthony a tool away from home. First Pacific had cash, thanks to completion of the big sale of Hagemeyer two months before the May 1998 Jakarta riots. Some First Pacific shareholders fretted about the possibility of the Hong Kong-listed company being prevailed upon to come to the rescue of the sinking Salim ship in Indonesia. In mid-1998, they saw its biggest owner imperilled and Asia in crisis while First Pacific's most profitable investment, Hagemeyer, was gone. The May 1998 events pummelled First Pacific's share price.
Clove, the aromatic spice used to flavour the popular Indonesian kretek cigarette, may resemble a nail, but over this humble flower bud, wars have been fought, and fortunes made or lost. For Liem, it was trade in this spice that helped him lay the groundwork for the path to riches. Called cengkeh in Indonesian, cloves were found originally in the five remote islands in Eastern Indonesia known as the Spice Islands. In the late eighteenth century, some seedlings were smuggled to Africa, where they flourished in the soils of Madagascar and Zanzibar (today part of Tanzania). Ironically, cloves that were grown there yielded buds of a preferred quality for use in the production of kretek, the clove-infused cigarette beloved by Indonesian smokers. But importation for the spice was tightly controlled by the government, and suppliers had to be purchased from middlemen in Singapore and Hong Kong, making them immensely wealthy. When Indonesia was not producing sufficient quantities for domestic demand, politically connected companies were granted permission to import from the African countries, starting in the Sukarno era. In 1965, using a company founded by his partner, Hasan Din, a father-in-law of President Sukarno, Liem secured a one-time permission to bring in 3,000 tons from Africa. That single import helped ease his debt burden, and he became convinced there was big money to be made in this business.
Traditionally, kretek have been hand-rolled; the fragrance of the clove said to be further enhanced when rolled by young women using the sides of their hips. Kretek consumption surged in the 1970s following the introduction of machines to roll the sticks, bringing down price per stick. Around 90 per cent of the cigarettes consumed in Indonesia are kretek. From being an industry that was in doldrums in the 1950s, kretek manufacturing began its resurgence and in the last decade or more, the owners of the largest kretek manufacturers consistently rank among the wealthiest in the country. The cigarette industry is the largest contributor to the country's excise coffers. So addicted are Indonesian smokers to their kretek that at the height of the 1997–98 financial crisis, sales of the scented cigarette actually rose — an indication that people were willing to forgo other luxuries but not their puff, or that they felt they needed it more, to soothe their woes.
The end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945 was universally celebrated but brought fresh challenges. As the Japanese were surrendering, nationalist leader Sukarno proclaimed independence on 17 August, raising a red and white flag hastily stitched by his young wife Fatmawati. The declaration of independence, however, was not recognized by the Dutch, who were keen to reassert control over their colony and all its resources. The tussle between the colonial forces and the independence fighters went on until 1949. During this time, the Dutch tried to choke off supply lines to the revolutionary soldiers, imposing sea and land blockades. Suppliers had to sneak through Dutch controlled areas, turning them effectively into smugglers. For those willing to take the risks, smuggling was a lucrative activity.
For small itinerant traders like Liem, it was a chance to start recouping his lost income. His hard-earned savings in Japanese Occupation-issued notes — stashed in sacks — were wiped out overnight when it was declared worthless. As he recalled: “The new government compensated every household by the number of occupants living there: regardless of how much money you had, each person was entitled to only one rupiah. There were eight of us living in our house, and we received a total of eight rupiah. That was all. The Occupation ended but I had to start all over again.” Adding to his responsibilities as a family man was the arrival of his first-born, Albert, that year. Although he was back to square one, Liem was luckier than most; he was once again able to capitalize on the strong Hokchia kinship, borrowing capital from his clansmen to restart his business. There was even a new customer base — the independence fighters. He joined others in smuggling basic necessities to them, laying the groundwork for a role that would reach far beyond being just a supplier. It was during this time that he established important contacts that later helped put him on the road to riches.
STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
After the Japanese surrender, the Dutch, aided by British and other allied forces, waged a bitter war with the nationalists in their attempt to recover their colony.
At the time Suharto was solidifying the power wrested from Sukarno in 1966, Liem had little business outside Indonesia and was relatively unknown outside his Hokchia circle. Early in the New Order, though, Liem and his partner, fellow Hokchia businessman Djuhar Sutanto, established a beachhead for outside activity. On 31 March 1967 — less than three weeks after Suharto's handpicked assembly declared him acting president — Waringin Private Limited was registered in Singapore. Its principal activities, according to the registration, were “general wholesale trade” and “wholesale on a fee or contract basis (e.g. commission agencies)”. The company registration papers listed Liem Oen Kian (Djuhar's Chinese name), as managing director, and Liem Sioe Liong as director. (Much later, Djuhar's role ended. In 2006, Liem owned 120 of the unlisted company's 300 shares, or 40 per cent, while unidentified nominees in Vanuatu held the other 180.)
During the early Suharto years, the ability of Indonesian companies to export or import depended entirely on government licences. Dismantling stifling trade-controls was not an economic priority for Suharto, who had his focus on taming rampant inflation and getting money from the West. For sizeable Indonesian traders, it was good to have a presence in Singapore, whose port handled nearly all goods going to or from Indonesia. At this time, it was difficult for Indonesian traders to obtain letters of credit, a consequence of the economic mess the country was in at the end of Sukarno's tenure, and a Singapore firm would find it easier and cheaper to borrow from banks than an Indonesian one. In July 1968, Liem opened a second trading company in Singapore, Permanent Pte Ltd. That same month, he and others registered a textile business in Singapore, called International Spinning Mills Pte Ltd., to spin, weave and print yarns and fabrics. A co-shareholder was Indonesia-born businessman Henry Kwee, another Hokchia who later became a property king in Singapore. In the late 1960s, Singapore had a thriving textile industry but by the 1980s, the business had shifted to lower cost countries. Liem sold the Singapore factory plot and moved the machinery to Indonesia.
This project on Liem Sioe Liong and the Salim Group was undertaken as an independent venture — neither authorized nor financed by the group or the Liem family. The root was our interest to document the life and times of Liem, a pivotal figure in Asian business who founded a conglomerate that in its heyday was by far the largest in Southeast Asia. As Liem was Suharto's main cukong — a Chinese businessman providing funds for Indonesia's military and political leaders while receiving patronage and protection — his story provides an insight to how Suharto was able to stay in power for more than three decades.
There have been a few books published in Indonesian and Chinese about Liem, mostly hagiographies. Significantly, none included the tycoon's direct inputs. Given Liem's desire for a low profile, he had declined previous requests from prospective biographers. Historically, the Salim Group has been highly averse to publicity despite its very public participation in a wide range of businesses during the Suharto regime. Indeed, in many cases, the group chose to ignore inaccuracies in news reports and was content to allow errors in stories to go uncorrected.
Years after Suharto fell from power, we approached Liem's youngest son, Anthony Salim, and said we wanted to write a book on his father and the group. By the mid-2000s, Indonesia had found its footing in the post-Suharto period and Liem had long ago left the driving to Anthony. Currently CEO of the Salim Group, Anthony spent years after Suharto's fall working to avert a collapse of the group due to the massive debts incurred from events in 1997–98.
We requested Anthony and his father to help us tell as accurate and comprehensive a story as we could. We made it clear that we had to retain full control of the manuscript; it was clearly understood that the family and Salim executives could not see any of the text prior to publication. Keeping the writing project independent and credible was of paramount importance to us. Anthony agreed to our requests. His father talked to us between 2006 and 2007, whenever his health permitted. Anthony, who did not vet our questions to himself or to his father, spent many hours with us over a period of years.
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