Southeast Asia has had scores of rags-to-riches stories featuring a young migrant fleeing poverty or persecution in China and, by dint of hard work, becoming a tycoon in his adopted country. But few stories are as compelling as that of Liem Sioe Liong. As a penniless young man arriving in Java in 1938, he went on to become the wealthiest businessman in Indonesia, with direct and steady access for three decades to the country’s leader. He was a pillar of support for Indonesia’s longtime ruler, Soeharto.
The story of Liem and the Salim Group, the business conglomerate he established, is essentially a chronicle of Indonesian economic history under Soeharto’s New Order regime. Liem became Soeharto’s trusted “go-to guy” by supplying what the general needed and lacked in the early years of his regime: capital to supplement that given by foreign governments that wanted to ensure Indonesia stayed anti-communist, moved firmly away from the left-leaning policies of Soekarno and remained very friendly with the West. After years of being shut out, some Western firms were keen to tap into the country’s rich mineral and other resources. During Soeharto’s 31-year rule, his bond with Liem endured. The friendship generated hefty mutual benefits, with Liem gaining great wealth (and his Salim Group becoming Indonesia’s biggest conglomerate), and Soeharto reaping the substantial contributions needed to maintain power.
The story of Liem and the Salim Group could be summarized as a rise, fall (with Soeharto’s ouster in 1998) and revival of the conglomerate. But like many Indonesian stories, this one is not as simple as it might seem; it’s complex and nuanced. Nancy Chng and I have used the life of Liem, his bond with Soeharto, and the Salim Group’s history as a vehicle for a journey through decades of modern Indonesian economic, business and political history. The book “Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia,” (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2014, 574 pp) was published two years after Liem died at the age of 94.
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