Shoeb K. Zainuddin
He was a giant of Indonesia’s business world, a confidante of former President Suharto and the founder of the Salim Group. Sudono Salim, also known as Liem Sioe Liong, died on Sunday in Singapore at the age of 95 after a long battle with illness.
Born in China, he came to Indonesia in the mid-1930s to join his brother in Medan, North Sumatra, where he diversified their peanut trading business into the clove market. While in Medan, Liem supported the Indonesian war for independence with medical supplies and other items.
It was during this time that he forged his lifelong relationship with Suharto, who was then an officer in the Army. Over the next 50 years, Liem built one of the most formidable business groups in the country, with interests in cement, banking, property, food products, automobiles and trading.
Among its assets was Indofood, the world’s largest producer of instant noodles, and First Pacific, a Hong Kong-based company that operates in more than 40 countries. The group in employs more than 100,000 workers in Indonesia and throughout the region.
During the New Order, the Salim Group received favored treatment from Suharto, but observers say it was Liem’s entrepreneurial skills that allowed his businesses to flourish. The bank that he founded, Bank Central Asia, grew as it served the needs of the business community, in particular small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Mari Elka Pangestu, the tourism and creative economy minister, said Liem provided the beginning for a number of industries.
“I met him many times and he was a very quiet man,” she said. “He was very loyal to his country and he loved Indonesia.”
As noted by lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, Liem laid the foundations for the country’s industrial development by investing in the cement and finance sectors. He also invested heavily in food products, and Indomie has become a staple for millions of Indonesians today.
“Oom Liem was a controversial figure, especially after the 1998 riots, but he is a pioneer of the nation’s industrialization and we need to appreciate that,” Lubis said.
Sofyan Wanandi, chairman of the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo), said Liem achieved his success through hard work.
“Even though former President Suharto helped Liem’s success in his business, he wouldn’t have been able to expand his empire without entrepreneurial skills,” Sofyan said.
Liem was Indonesia’s first industrialist, and his efforts helped build the country’s economy in the years after the anti-Communist purge. According to Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who is also chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), Liem was one of the few Indonesian business leaders who succeeded in building a global brand.
He was also a patriot, according to senior political analyst Soegeng Sarjadi, who knew him personally.
“He has been loyal to the leadership, the nation and especially the business community,” Soegeng said. “Loyalty to Indonesia, especially to business development, would be the best way to describe him.”
The 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Liem and the Salim Group hard. He was forced to hand over assets worth billions of dollars to the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency to help clear government loans to BCA.
Following the May 1998 riots, when his house was raided and ransacked by mobs, he went to Singapore, leaving the day-to-day running of the business to his son Anthony.
Additional reporting by Faisal Maliki Baskoro & Yanto Soegiarto