Book Review: Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia

Authors: Borsuk, Richard; Chng, Nancy
Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (June 09, 2014)
Paperback: 400 Pages

The book is a biography of Liem Sioe Liong, the master mind behind Salim’s group, one of the largest business conglomerate in Indonesia. The book was well-written in a journalistic and documentary style. It tells how the combination of Liem’s connection with Suharto, serendipity and personal charm propelled him to become one of the wealthiest tycoon in Southeast Asia. The book features exclusive input from Liem, who died in 2012, and his youngest son, Anthony Salim. It traces the founder’s life and the group’s symbiosis with Suharto, his generals and family.

Liem’s footsteps in Indonesia could be dated back to 1938, where the poor boy from a Chinese village arrived in Java to look for opportunities. The book tells the story of how Liem built the Salim Group, a conglomerate that in its heyday controlled Indonesia’s largest non-state bank, the country’s dominant cement producer and flour mill, as well as the world’s biggest maker of instant noodles.

The book also explained how Anthony Salim was able to turn-around the company’s severe condition in the 1998 Asian economic crisis. After the tumultuous 1997-98 Asian financial crisis sparked Suharto’s fall and a backlash against the strongman’s cronies, Anthony staved off the crushing of the debt-laden group.

The history of early post-independence Indonesia was well-written in the book. The book tells how the partnership between Liem and Suharto played such an important role and had molded Indonesia’s history & economy. After Suharto gained power in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, he stayed as the country’s president for more than three decades, helped by the powerful military, hefty foreign aid and support from a coterie of cronies, one of which was Liem. The fact that it was published outside Indonesia also give another perspective on what’s going on in the country in New Order era.

One interesting subject to be learnt from the book was how the business networks worked during the early stage Indonesia, and how the business culture they bring has developed in Indonesia over the past decades. The book also focuses on the role played by Chinese businessmen and the “guanxi” business culture they stand for.

The book is recommended for business executives, students and anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia’s largest economy who want to understand better the country’s modern history.

Definitely worth reading.