Hary Tanoesoedibjo: Does Indonesia need its own Trump?

Photo: Partai Perindo/Facebook

One of Indonesia’s richest men says he is considering throwing his hat into the ring for the next presidential election. He believes his business sense and strategic friendships could do great things for the country’s biggest problems. 

By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by Holly Reeves

Hary Tanoesoedibjo, President Trump’s Indonesian business partner, has set his sights on his own country’s presidency.

Tanoesoedibjo was first connected with Trump in August 2015 when he met the businessman in person in Manhattan to sign a contract on a massive redevelopment project. The result was an agreement to manage a six-star luxury resort and residential complex in Bali. A month later, there was a second deal to reposition and rebrand the Lido Lakes estate and build a luxury resort and golf course in West Java. Was this a meeting of similar minds, capable of similar success?

Tanoesoedibjo has been an ambitious developer

These business ties give Tanoesoedibjo established access to one of the world’s most influential men, though the new American president says he is stepping back from personal business interests for the duration of his term of office. Tanoesoedibjo, meanwhile, says he is working hard on new projects, including a racetrack, a residential complex, a factory outlet, and a theme park on the scale of Disneyland around the Lido Lake.

Tanoesoedibjo is cautious about drawing connections between himself and his powerful business partner but the parallels are clear. “I have to underline that it’s a business relationship,” Tanoesoedibjo said in an interview before Trump’s inauguration. He added that he does not mind being a conduit between Trump and current Indonesian President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo if required.

Is running for the presidency now the natural next step after business success?

Tanoesoedibjo said Trump is an inspiring role model and he wishes to follow in his footsteps. A Catholic Indonesian of Chinese origin, born in Surabaya in 1965, Tanoesoedibjo is the founder of the MNC Corporation (PT MNC Investama Tbk), And like Trump, a billionaire.

MNC Kapital Indonesia produces a broad range of consumer financial products, and MNC Land is one of the largest property groups in Indonesia, focusing mostly on acquiring, developing and managing commercial and residential properties in Southeast Asia. “Our background is similar, ” says the entrepreneur, “Mr Trump is a businessman, he also started from small and grew big and then all of a sudden he decided to move into politics and then became the president of the US.” He adds, “From that perspective, yes, so I hope I can follow his footsteps.”

As of January 2017, Forbes estimated Tanoe to have a net worth of over US$1 billion thanks to his commercial empire that engages in financial investments for huge returns. Its tentacles reach across the country and into strategic fields such as media, financial services, and property. The media arm, for example, has a 40% audience share, effectively monopolising the national industry. Tanoesoedibjo says, “If there is no-one I can believe who can fix the problems of the country, I may try to run for president,” not for himself, but for Indonesia. He already has his own political party, “Partai Perindo,” or Indonesia Unity.

His business skills could be useful in tackling his country’s significant challenges

Tanoesoedibjo’s resilience and enterprise could be a blessing for Indonesians as the country’s leader. He faces a difficult task transforming from the son of a local businessman to the head of his diverse and populous country, but his business success suggests he already has the shrewd personality and sharp eyes required.

He is also well aware of the problems plaguing Indonesia – widening wealth disparity, poverty, and an inadequate education system. He says this is evidence of the need for businessmen to rule. Indonesia needs a man who can make decisions fast to reach a win-win scenario, just like in a business setting where the cost-benefit analysis is king.

Tanoesoedibjo also points out that when endemic corruption and legal uncertainties weigh heavy, the super-majority does not understand anything. Instead, they blindly follow ivory-towered elites who rule with power and money. His solution is to have a leader with integrity and strong leadership that can direct and initiate a change to the system. This is very similar to the rhetoric which swept Trump to the White House and might ring true to an increasingly restless Indonesia.

He has a slim chance at the ballot box, despite great wealth and status

His problem may be that he does not have a “clean” reputation at home. He was previously embroiled in a tax evasion scandal with a telecommunications company he owned. He later wriggled out of the responsibility by blaming his directors. Public perception of him is also affected by his association with some of Indonesia’s most infamous and sketchiest politicians, Setya Novanto and Fadli Zon.

Tanoesoedibjo does have the edge over other potential candidates as politics in Indonesia has historically been largely driven by patronage, and the billionaire has many friends in many fields of business. However, it is highly debatable whether a business-like approach to national politics would be as effective in winning over voters as it has been in the US. Neither can Tanoesoedibjo capitalise on minority resentment like Trump did, after all, he is from the minority Chinese group himself.

Trump might be more of a hindrance than a help

Trump’s step back from business means interaction between him and Tanoe will fall drastically, further reducing the possibility of economic ties spilling over into political ties in the next few years. At the same time, Trump’s fervent anti-Muslim rhetoric will not sit well among the world’s largest Muslim population and could taint the power of being closely associated with him.

Jokowi might be slow in realising his promises and bringing about immediate change, but his humble and down-to-earth aura appeals to the people. His remarkable rise to the top signifies hope, which is why the people appear to be patient with his lack of progress. Despite Tanoesoedibjo’s social status and wealth, Jokowi remains the people’s man and streets ahead in the race for power.