Book Review: Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group. The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia, written by Richard Borsuk and Nancy Chng

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Marleen Dieleman National University of Singapore

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Richard Borsuk and Nancy Chng, Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group. The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS, 574 pp. ISBN 9789814459570. Price: USD 52.90 (paperback).

In writing this book, the authors embarked on an ambitious project: to narrate the history of Indonesia’s most prominent, yet reclusive tycoon, Liem Sioe Liong (alias Sudono Salim), and the role played by his Salim Group in the Suharto era. The book succeeds in meeting high expectations—it tells the story of the late Liem Sioe Liong’s rise in the business world in a subtle yet colourful manner, presenting many new facts and anecdotes. It also achieves something far more important—the rewriting of Indonesia’s economic history with the personal story of Liem woven into it. As the book’s cover picture suggests, this is really the story of how Liem and Suharto operated together and came to have a profound effect on Indonesia, and it paints an intimate picture of a reciprocal relationship that lasted right to the end of Suharto’s rule.

Liem started out as a small immigrant trader in Java, but eventually managed to build up an impressive collection of successful businesses that was second to none in Indonesia. He was able to achieve this partly through his intimate ties with Suharto, who remained in power for 32 years. At its height, the group touched the lives of virtually all Indonesians through providing their daily food, entertainment, financial services, properties and transport. Due to the group’s ‘crony extraordinaire’ status, a post-Suharto fall-out was almost inevitable, but by the time this happened the Salim Group was too large to fail completely. It did come close to collapse in the aftermath of the 1998 political and economic crisis, due to the failure of its bank, BCA, after a run on the bank and the discovery that it had violated lending rules. The bank had to be rescued by the government and recapitalized, with the government passing the bill on to the Salim family. The family was able to recover by handing over assets to pay its debts, a difficult task for which Liem’s son Anthony deserves credit. Despite much criticism of the perceived ‘crony’ status of Liem’s empire during the tumultuous post-1998 period, even its enemies would concede that the Salim Group had created better businesses and handled its debts in a more honourable fashion than many others. Liem’s retirement was brought forward by the fall of Suharto and the 1998 crisis, and he eventually died in 2012.

In contrast to other works on the Salim Group, which deal mainly with the development of the business, this book has a stronger focus on the personal history of Liem and the people around him. Liem Sioe Liong and his Salim Group had until now a policy of non-engagement with the media, thus little was known about Liem’s personality, views on politics, business strategies, or why he took certain decisions. Based partly on unique interviews with Liem himself, his son Anthony and many of his old associates, including Sudwikatmono and Mochtar Riady, this book provides much of the missing information. The interviews are skilfully supplemented by in-depth research of all available sources, many hitherto unknown. While bringing the reader close to the Liem family, at the same time the authors succeed in analysing the story from an independent perspective.

The book reveals many interesting facts and anecdotes that change the prevailing image of the Salim Group and transform ‘Om Liem’ from a silent face in the newspapers to an interesting and talented person with strong principles. In the early Suharto period especially, the authors introduce many new facts and nuances. They describe, for example, the extensive role played by Suharto in the making of Liem, including giving him his Indonesian name—Sudono Salim—and bringing together the four-way partnership that would achieve such great business successes. In the later chapters that tell the story of the Salim Group and its handling of the Asian crisis, in which Liem did not have a dominant role, the authors successfully draw on their extensive experience as journalists and on their interviews with Liem’s son and successor Anthony. The authors’ in-depth knowledge enables them to critically examine the group’s decisions and place these within the wider economic and political context of the chaotic post-1998 period.

The emerging picture of Indonesia’s Suharto era, and Liem’s considerable role within it, illustrates the power of serendipity. A combination of political uncertainty and luck brought a number of characters to the fore, who subsequently seized opportunities that were greater than anyone could have predicted. The authors brilliantly narrate the twists and turns in the fortunes of a great nation influenced by a lucky few in very personal ways.

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