Oei Tiong Ham
Interview: Oei Tjong Tjay
Oei Tjong Tjay
Date: April 17 and 18, 1988
Place: Hotel Tiefenau, Zurich, Switzerland
Interviewer: Yoshihara Kunio
A Brief Profile of Oei Tjong Tjay
Oei Tjong Tjay is the last son of Oei Tiong Ham, born in Singapore in 1924. His mother is Ho Kiem Hoa Nio (or Lucy Ho), the seventh wife of Oei Tiong Ham. Oei Tjong Tjay received primary education in the Netherlands, and secondary and university education in Switzerland. He then went to the United States for graduate study in economics. He returned to Indonesia in 1948, and managed its operation for several years after his half-brother Oei Tjong Hauw died in January 1950. He left Indonesia in late 1957, but headed its board of directors until 1961 when the Indonesian government took over the Indonesian operation of Oei Tiong Ham Concern. In the next few years, he organized a legal defense to fight the confiscation in Indonesia. He now heads the Kian Gwan group in the Netherlands and lives in Switzerland.
During the Benteng Program, did you buy back some foreign exchanges allocated to asli traders?
No, because we phased out the fields reserved for them. A number of so called asli businessmen were simply briefcase businessmen. They sold the foreign exchanges they got from the government. Some Dutch trading companies and other Chinese trading companies which had been strong in textiles and general goods probably bought back foreign exchanges from them, but we didn't. And we gave managerial support to some asli businessmen who wanted to deal in those goods. For our own business, we went into more specialized fields, and here we did not have much difficulty in getting foreign exchanges. You know at that time inflation was going on. The money we got from sales was not enough to import the same amount of goods, so it was better to restrict the volume of trade to more specialized goods.
Did you start any serious program to train and develop asli management under nationalistic government policy?
We had some asli managers, but not many. We should have taken in asli directors for a facade, but we didn't. Here we might have made a mistake; Tjong Ie might have done better. As I told you, we approached people like Darmawan at Bank Indonesia, but we didn't succeed. Maybe, we should have made more efforts to appoint asli directors. But you know, it was difficult to work with asli, because once they were in, they would want to bring their relatives in.
You know what is going on in Malaysia under the New Economic Policy. All large companies have to reserve a certain percentage of managers and equity for Bumiputras. In the 1950s, did the Indonesian government come to you and say that you should take in asli managers and shareholders?
No. What they did was to reserve certain fields I told you about, like textiles, for asli businessmen. We could not get licenses in those fields. And in new ventures, like Api and Phapros, we had asli shareholders.
What did you think of asli businessmen and managers at that time?
There were very few good asli businessmen. People like Dasaad Musin and Hasyim Ning were good. Dasaad, for example, did business entirely on his own. I remember Hasyim Ning had close ties with PSI. Most of the so called asli businessmen were not good. Of course, you cannot blame them for this. I think the fault was with the Dutch. The Dutch are a very industrious people, but they are a bit small-minded. They like to do things very well. So, everything was done by the Dutch and the Eurasian Dutch. Even in the government, only the lower ranks were Indonesians. But in a British colony it is only the top strata who were Englishmen. They were too lazy to do many things themselves. So, most government work was done by Indians, Burmese, Chinese, etc. So, when the English left, there was a well-run administration. But in Indonesia it wasn't so. There were three to four hundred university graduates at the time of independence. But none of them was in business. The Dutch thought the Indonesians were not good in business at all, so they were not given any chance. So, all university graduates went into other fields, especially politics. Here, the Dutch made a big mistake. Even today, they say that the Indonesians were happier during their period: everybody had a bicycle and was well dressed, but Indonesia is now in a big economic mess. But I tell them, "Do that to your child. Give him a bicycle, feed him well, and give everything he wants. But when he grows up, he will curse you because you have not educated him and never given him a chance." The Filipinos said essentially the same thing: "We'd rather go to hell ourselves than go to heaven with the Americans." People want to be independent, and the Dutch have never realized this. So, the lack of business acumen among the Indonesians in the 1950s was the fault of the Dutch. But to be fair to the Dutch, I have to say it was partly the fault of the Indonesian social system.
Do you think the Benteng Program promoted indigenous entrepreneurship?
Yes, it did, but not in an efficient way. I would say if you put in 100, you did not get 100 back. Maybe, less than 30 or 20 even. In Indonesia, everything was done inefficiently. Look at its foreign exchange rate. It started out with one guilder to one rupiah. But you know what happened in the following years. The rupiah has been devalued a number of times, and now one Dutch guilder is worth several hundred rupiah.
After independence, did Kian Gwan become a target of extortion by politicians and military leaders?
I told you about the invitation from Sukarno to donate money for the sports stadium. I would say it was a kind of extortion. And just after I took over Kian Gwan, I think it was around 1951, a group came, saying that they were promoting haj. They had a letter signed by Sukarno and Hatta, saying that it was the exclusive honor of Kian Gwan to pay for the passage of a few thousand people going to Mecca. We first checked the signatures of Sukarno and Hatta and found that they were genuine. I talked with them for weeks and weeks. At that time, I did not speak Indonesian, so I talked to them through an interpreter. When we appeared reluctant to pay, they threatened us by reminding us that four people at our Redjoagoeng sugar factory had been kidnapped and killed and saying that that sort of thing would go on unless we cooperated. At first, they wanted donations in pound sterling, but I said that we could not get pound sterling since all foreign exchanges were controlled by LAAPLN (Lembaga Alat Alat Pembajaran Luar Negri), or the Foreign Exchange Institute. They did not know what LAAPLN was, but after doing some checking, they came back and said that donations in rupiah would be all right. But I said we could not pay that much and suggested a sum we thought reasonable as our share. But of course, it was too small a sum for them, and they became very nasty and violent. They finally told me to watch out when I was driving; they were threatening that I might get a car accident or get shot at. But fortunately, nothing happened.
Did the military come for extortion?
No, they did not.
How about your factories. Didn't you need military protection for them?
Yes, since our factories were in the countryside, where protection was needed from the military, we dealt with them, and made some contributions, but that was not extortion. And the amount of money involved was not that much.
Did they come and tell you that we could arrange protection if you paid contributions? This is what the racketeers do in the United States and some other industrialized countries. Some people say that the Indonesian military sometimes behave like a crime syndicate.
No, they did not do that. During the Revolutionary period, some local Republicans came to one of our offices for donation, but they really needed help. It was not extortion.
You had kidnap threats, didn't you?
Yes, but the military did not have anything to do with that. I think it was the Chinese who were behind most kidnapings. We had the policy that we would not pay for the kidnaping of our staff. And we had this policy announced all over Indonesia. Our Surabaya director once said that that was not fair, so I told him: "Then, resign from the company. We will publish in papers that you do not have anything to do with us anymore, so you will not be kidnapped as an employee of Kian Gwan." The father of our tax advisor in Semarang got kidnapped. He came pleading for money. He wanted loans from the company, but I told him that the kidnapers would not know that the money was a loan and so they would simply assume that the company paid. So, I told him to show his tax returns and let the kidnapers know that he did not have the money they were demanding. They finally came to a settlement for a smaller sum, and our tax advisor paid it in 12 months' installments.
Did you seek a patron among the major political or military leaders?
In the pharmaceutical company, Phapros, for example, we had the vice chairman of PNI, Hadisubeno, Mayor of Semarang, as director.
But this did not help us much in preventing the confiscation or in our fight against it. When the confiscation started, the government wanted to try us in Semarang. In order to try us in Semarang, they had to show that our shareholders were residents of Semarang. When Hadisubeno was summoned to the court to prove the government contention that we were residents of Semarang, he was out of town. So, the vice-mayor testified that we were residents, which was obviously not true. None of us was living there when the confiscation came. Some had lived there, but when we left, we deregistered, so we were not the residents of Semarang. Hadisubeno, who was a friend of ours, did not want to give false testimony, but since there was so much political pressure on him, he probably had to be out of town when his testimony was wanted.
Maybe here, your brother Tjong Ie's criticism becomes valid to some extent. You needed a more powerful patron.
Yes, but the political situation was very fluid at that time. As I told you earlier, we had close tie-up with PSI. One third of the equity of Api was in fact PSI holding. It was not really Soedarpo's holding, but PSI holding. But I have to say that we chose the wrong party. All PSI leaders had lost political power by the time of the confiscation. Professor Sumitro, for example, was once powerful, but he was exiled abroad when the confiscation came. In fact, PSI had been banned by Sukarno by that time.
As PNI gained more power, didn't you try to develop closer ties with its leaders?
We first had ties with the moderate faction of PNI. Hadisubeno belonged to this faction. And we had ties with Iskaq, Minister of Economic Affairs in the first Ali Cabinet. But as PNI became radicalized, developing really close ties with PNI became difficult.
Did you think Indonesian politicians and government officials at that time were really concerned with national development?
When we talk about the Indonesian government at that time, we have to talk about Sukarno. The government became more and more dominated by him. Sukarno's ambition was not economic. Probably he did not understand economics. This is the tragedy of most revolutionary leaders who were born in the postwar period. Economics is always made secondary. Sukarno's great achievement was that he brought national political unity to the country. The Indonesians before were Minangkabaus, Ambonese, Menadonese, Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, etc., but now the Indonesians are Indonesian. If you ask them now what they are, they will not say that they are Minangkabaus, etc. Sukarno really created Indonesian identity. He crushed the Dutch-initiated Republik Indonesia Serikat (Republic of the United States of Indonesia); instead, he created one Indonesian state, Republic of Indonesia. And he crushed all separatist movements started by people like Ventje Sumual, and brought political unity to the country. So, now there are no separatist movements any more. He did a fantastic job in bringing about national unity, but he did it at the expense of the economy.
Did you have any dealings with BAPERKI (a Chinese political organization)?
We may have had some contacts, but we did not really associate with them. BAPERKI was a basically Chinese party, so we thought it was better to seek an affiliation with a really Indonesian party, such as PSI. But we misjudged the potentials of PSI, and PSI people misjudged themselves. PSI was essentially an elitist party for the Dutch-educated intellectuals and did not have the support of the grass roots.
In late 1957 the Indonesian government nationalized Dutch enterprises. Did you feel a big change in the business environment after the nationalization?
Yes, absolutely. I would say until 1957 the control of the economy by the Indonesians was not much: the Dutch had virtually all of the modern sector of the economy under their control. They considered the Indonesians inferior. I give you an example. One Saturday morning, the President of the Dutch bank, NHM, wanted to talk to Professor Sumitro, who was then Minister of Economic Affairs. When he called, his wife said that he was still sleeping. Then the President said, "Wake him up. This is the President of Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij speaking." Sumitro was the cabinet minister of a large independent country, while the Dutchman was simply the president of one private company. So, Sumitro felt very insulted when he heard from his wife that she was told to wake him up, and never wanted to talk to him again. But since Sumitro was Minister of Economic Affairs and that man was the head of the biggest Dutch bank, they had to communicate with each other somehow, so it had to go through us as the intermediary. The British attitude toward former colonies and the people there was much more rational. For example, Nehru was put into prison during India's struggle for independence, but after independence, he was invited to London as Prime Minister of India. But for the Dutch, Sukarno was a bandit since he was in jail during the colonial period, and they never thought of inviting him to their country. The Dutch were a very poor loser, and this created bad sentiments among the Indonesians after independence. The Dutch did not understand that they were no longer the rulers but the guests of the country. They simply did not adjust to the reality that Indonesia became an independent country.
But how did the nationalization of Dutch enterprises and the change in the business environment affect you in a concrete way?
The whole business surroundings became suddenly Indonesian-controlled. Purely money-wise, we were affected favorably, because the efficient competition of the Dutch suddenly disappeared and all we had to deal with were the inefficient state enterprises which took over the Dutch companies.
Did the business environment become more socialistic and anti-capitalistic after the nationalization of Dutch companies? Until the nationalization, the Indonesian government seemed somewhat hesitant in scrapping capitalism.
The whole socialistic atmosphere started in 1955 with the Ali Sastroamidjojo Government. Just before that, the Indonesian government sent a mission to Geneva to negotiate on Irian Barat with the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luns, but they were treated so arrogantly by the Dutch. Luns later became the Secretary-General of the NATO for some time. He is an extremely arrogant person. He is a very tall person, and Soetan Sjahrir of the Indonesian delegation is a small person. So, Luns not only mentally but also physically looked down upon him. In general, he had this arrogant attitude towards the Indonesian delegation. So, the Indonesians came back very frustrated, and more leftist nationalistic leaders gained control of the country. The Ali Sastroamidjojo Government was the first government reflecting this political change. The nationalization of Dutch companies was the result of the leftist nationalistic trend which started then. From then on, the trend accelerated.
After the nationalization of Dutch enterprises, did you emphasize international diversification as a precaution?
Long before that, we started our international diversification. In 1950, our import manager, a Dutchman, opened an office in Australia. In 1952,1 went to Brazil with my brother to look for the opportunities of international diversification. We could become big only in a country where we could be accepted. In Brazil, there was no discrimination; we were accepted. In Thailand it was the same thing. We were accepted, and stepped up our operation there, too. There was practically no discrimination against the Chinese there. Singapore was, of course, a congenial place for us, being a Chinese-dominated state. In these countries we were fully accepted. In Brazil, if you are a Brazilian, you are a Brazilian; in Thailand, if you are a Thai, you are a Thai. But in Indonesia, even if you are an Indonesian, if you are a Indonesian Chinese, you are discriminated. Every form you have to fill out asks your father's name. Then they say, "Ah, you are an Indonesian with three initials." It will take a few generations for this to disappear. We could not wait that long.
Where were you when the confiscation came?
My brother Tjong Tjiat of Amsterdam died in December 1957, and to settle the complication which arose from this, I left Indonesia. After this, as I told you earlier, my nephew Ing Swie was appointed as President Director of Kian Gwan Indonesia because he was an Indonesian citizen, though I headed the three-man board which supervised the Indonesian operation. Ing Swie, however, had also left Indonesia in the middle of 1957, in fact before me, since we had not got along very well in Indonesia. He first tried to get hold of Kian Gwan New York, but when he found it was not interesting and profitable enough, he moved to Amsterdam and took control of Kian Gwan Amsterdam. So after I left Indonesia, the day to day management of Kian Gwan Indonesia was left to Tjoa Soe Tjong. If you say that the shareholders abandoned Indonesia, I cannot argue against that. In 1958, in the Netherlands, we started a court case against the other group of our family, and another court case against the Amsterdam branch of Bank Indonesia. These two cases went on until 1960, and when these were settled, I went to Bangkok. So when the confiscation came in July 1961,1 was in Bangkok.
Could you explain about the family dispute concerning Kian Gwan Amsterdam?
When Tjong Tjiat died in 1957, he handed over Kian Gwan Amsterdam which he had been managing, to his brothers in New York, Tjong Yan and Tjong Ik. It was not his personal property. It was owned jointly by our brothers and one nephew, but since it was registered under his name, it was purely legal under the Dutch law for him to transfer ownership to his brothers in New York. But since they were not very business-minded, they let Ing Swie manage our Amsterdam office. But since it belonged to all of us, at the risk of disclosing some sensitive information, we had to fight their claim on the Amsterdam office.
Could you explain about your court case against Bank Indonesia?
In the prewar period, Kian Gwan Indonesia deposited a big reserve fund in guilders with Javasche Bank, which was the central bank of the Netherlands East Indies. After independence, Javasche Bank became Bank Indonesia, and the reserve fund remained in its Amsterdam branch. The Indonesian government wanted us to bring the money back to Indonesia, but at that time, the official exchange rate was three rupiah to one Dutch guilder, while the black market rate was many times more (immediately after the exchange rate became one to three, the black market rate was about eight times more), so we wanted to keep the money in Amsterdam. The Indonesian government told us to bring back the money to Indonesia to operate our sugar factories. We maintained that they should give us bank credits to operate the sugar factories because the peak financing of the sugar factories could be done reasonably only by bank credits. They often threatened us, and at one time, we had a strike at one factory. We thought we might have to close the factory. We preferred closing the factories to bringing back our reserve fund, but ultimately, we got credits from Bank Indonesia. Then, Kian Gwan Indonesia incurred debts with foreign parties, including some of our Kian Gwans overseas and shareholders, but Kian Gwan Indonesia could not pay those debts. So, the creditors started a suit in the Netherlands to get the reserve funds Kian Gwan had with the Amsterdam branch of Bank Indonesia, and the Dutch court ruled in their favor. As a result, the Dutch government ordered the Amsterdam branch of Bank Indonesia to release the fund to the creditors. At first, they refused it. Then the creditors said that they would hold the directors of the Bank personally responsible if they did not obey the court order. So, finally the Bank had to release the fund, and the Indonesian government felt sore about it.
Since the government controlled Bank Indonesia, why didn't it simply bring back the foreign exchange deposits of all Indonesian-based companies without telling them in advance?
The government did not think about it until Professor Sumitro became Minister of Finance in the Buruhanuddin Cabinet (August 1955-March 1956). But it was not until after the nationalization of Dutch enterprises in late 1957 that the government started implementing it. We began the lawsuit in the Netherlands in 1958.
Do you think this led to the confiscation of 1961?
Yes, I think so. It was one of the three accusations against us. They said that it was done illegally, but our position was that it was done legally under Dutch jurisdiction, though it may not have suited the Indonesian government.
Who do you think masterminded the confiscation?
I don't think there was any particular individual who masterminded the confiscation. It was part of the socio-political developments taking place in Indonesia at that time. If there was any one person responsible for the confiscation, I would say it was Sukarno himself, since he was the vanguard of all these changes. Our confiscation was a sequel to the Dutch confiscation. Also, some other Chinese companies were confiscated.
What were the other Chinese companies confiscated?
Those of Liem Tjaw Bo, Liem Tjao Ying, and the Go family, for example.
Did you personally know the public prosecutor at that time, Gunawan, who, some people say, initiated the confiscation?
No, I did not know him personally. But I knew his reputation; he was violently anti-Chinese.
You know that he once worked in Semarang. Was there any incident which made him anti-Kian Gwan?
Maybe there was such an incident, but I don't know. You have to remember that the whole country was drifting towards communism. PKI's power was increasing, and Sukarno was getting closer and closer to Peking and Moscow. Political parties such as PSI and Masyumi were banned, and most of the people who had good economic sense, like Professor Sumitro and the former governor of Bank Indonesia, Sjafruddin Prawiranegara, had to flee the country.
You said that in a way the shareholders abandoned Indonesia, but didn't the confiscation cause a lot of trouble for you, since Kian Gwan Indonesia was the linchpin of your group?
Indonesia was the key point for Kian Gwan New York and Kian Gwan Amsterdam. All purchases of Kian Gwan Indonesia from the United States and Europe went through those two offices, and the sale of rubber, copra, and other Indonesian produce in Europe went through Kian Gwan Amsterdam. Kian Gwan New York first acted as the sales office of Indonesia in the United States, but it did not function very well. For Kian Gwan Bangkok, rice purchasing for Indonesia had stopped by that time. Nor was Indonesia important for Kian Gwan Malaya in Singapore.
Dutch trade with Indonesia stopped for a few years after the nationalization of Dutch enterprises by the Indonesian government. If Kian Gwan Amsterdam continued to trade with Indonesia even after that, how did it get around the Dutch ban on the import of Indonesian produce?
We channeled our business through our office in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Didn't your office in Singapore get rubber supply from Sumatra?
No. In the last year, they did not deal in rubber much. It was only in the earlier years that they dealt in rubber. But we were not very happy about what they were doing at that time. They simply made our offices in Sumatra under-invoice our rubber exports and drain money away from us.
Were you in a way prepared for the government takeover since you say that Indonesia was not that important anymore?
Yes, we took precautions, and shifted away some of assets abroad and to a couple of yayasan (foundations) in Indonesia. The only thing was it came quicker than we thought, so that most of the 30-odd yayasan we had wanted to establish had not been approved yet by the Ministry of Justice.
After the government confiscation, did you fight the government decision in court?
Yes, we did. The government case was based on three points. The first point had to do with the court case in the Netherlands. The second point was that the Oei shareholders who lived abroad should have registered their assets with LAAPLN, the Foreign Exchange Institute. And the third point was about the splitting up of the Oei Tiong Ham estate. The will of my father stipulated that the estate should be split among the eight (originally nine) shareholders. This was supposed to be done when I, the youngest heir, came of age in 1945, but because of the Pacific War and the revolutionary situation after the war, it was not done until my brother Tjong Hauw died in January 1950. The Indonesian government's position was that this splitting up was an act of allocating Indonesian assets to foreign residents so that it should have been done after getting approval from LAAPLN. But on the last two points, we got a letter from LAAPLN that no such regulation existed. The first charge could not stand in court since the release of the fund at the Amsterdam branch of Bank Indonesia was done in accordance with a Dutch court order, and so it was all done legally. There was no illegality about it.
The government brought charges in the Pengadilan Ekonomi (the court for economic crimes) in Semarang against our six brothers and our nephew Ing Swie (the number of our brothers had declined from nine to eight when Tjong Swan pulled away, to seven when Tjong Hauw died in 1950, and to six when Tjong Tjiat died in 1957). The government considered us as residents of Semarang and so tried us there, but this was ridiculous. Some of our brothers never lived in Semarang, and those who did deregistered when they left. So, the government could not prove that we were residents there. But we did not win the case in Semarang, so we appealed to the Supreme Court in Jakarta, Mahkamah Agung. We were represented by two lawyers, Ting Swan Tiong and Mohamed Soe-joedi.
The government confiscated our properties based on the law of economic crimes of 1955. This law, for example, allowed the government to confiscate a postal package belonging to an unknown person (a person whose address is unknown). Cities were quite economically independent then. You could not freely send a package from one city to another, for example, from Jakarta to Semarang, because prices were different. For example, textiles and other imported goods were more abundant in Jakarta, and if they were taken to Semarang, they fetched higher prices. So, people were sending those things to Semarang through the mail, but this was forbidden by the law of 1955. In order not to get caught, senders did not often write down their correct names and addresses. If the post office opened a package and found that it contained the goods forbidden, they did not want the package to be traced back to them. So, there was a stipulation in this law that the goods belonging to unknown persons could be confiscated by the government. This was applied to us. It was interpreted by the government broadly to mean that property belonging to unknown persons could be confiscated, whether it could be sent by mail or not. So, what the government now had to do was to prove that we were unknown persons, to justify the confiscation of our assets.
But if we were known to be residents of Semarang, we could not be unknown persons. So, we attacked this in the Supreme Court and were quite confident that it would invalidate the sentence of the Semarang court. But the government issued in August 1962 a law-substituting regulation clarifying the term "unknown person" used in the law of 1955. Under this regulation, a person became an unknown person if he failed to appear before a government agency summoning him after he was summoned by the agency, or if the summon was posted on the notice board at a court or published in one or more newspapers. And this unknown person was not allowed to be represented by a lawyer. Then, the government made this effective retroactive to 1955. This was simply a legal monstrosity. In particular, making a criminal law retroactive repudiates the rule of law. If that is allowed, the government can look at what you have done in the past and issue a retroactive law which makes one of your acts illegal and can imprison you. For example, if you wore a striped tie yesterday, the government can say all people wearing a striped tie are criminals and convict you by making it retroactive to yesterday. So, you see, what the Indonesian government did was simply a legal monstrosity.
We were informed that this government regulation was being prepared, so we tried to get the Supreme Court to decide on our case before the government issued the regulation. Once it was out, we knew that the court would not rule against it. It was to be signed by Sukarno, who was all-powerful at that time. No judge would dare to invalidate such a regulation. The then State Secretary, Mohamed Ichsan, who was a good friend of ours, simply couldn't do anything about it, either, once Sukarno signed it. The Supreme Court knew that the regulation had been in preparation and waited until it came out. Once it was out, it was easy for the Supreme Court to uphold the decision of the Semarang Court.
Couldn't you appear before the court? If you could, you would not have been an unknown person.
The trouble was if we went into Indonesia, the government could put us in prison. They had already imprisoned eight to ten of our top managers. For example, Tjoa Soe Tjong stayed in prison for about eight months. During this time, he got his lungs full of water. The manager of our rubber remilling plant in Palembang, Kwee Thiam Kiet, stayed in prison longer than Tjoa Soe Tjong, maybe about one year. He had been arrested once for the charge of rubber smuggling involving our Heap Eng Moh Steamship Co. Because of this previous arrest, he may have had to stay in prison longer than Tjoa Soe Tjong despite his more junior position. I think this was a false charge since we were not engaged in rubber smuggling. We sold all our rubber to the government agency. We had several thousand people working for us and had vulnerable large assets in Java, so we simply could not run the risk of smuggling, however profitable it may have been. At that time, I knew there were many rubber producers doing that. They sometimes collaborated with the military which needed money since the government did not give them enough budget or did smuggling with the connivance of the government export office. You might declare one hundred tons of rubber, but actually ship one thousand tons to Singapore, and keep the proceeds of the difference (nine hundred tons) in Singapore dollars there. My brother Tjong Ie in Singapore says that we should have got involved in this sort of operation with the help of the military, but as I told you, we had many people working for us and had large assets in Java where the military were not so much involved in smuggling. From the viewpoint of the central government, what was going on in Sumatra and Sulawesi was pure and simple smuggling.
When did the court case end?
The decision of the Supreme Court came on April 27, 1963, and this was the end of our legal battle.
What did the government confiscate?
Our businesses in Indonesia. Our trading company Kian Gwan Indonesia; the sugar company Algemeene Maatschappij tot Ex-ploitatie der Oei Tiong Ham Suikerfabrieken; and other businesses such as plantations, rubber remilling, and biscuit factories. Kian Gwan Indonesia had many offices in Indonesia. The sugar company was operating three sugar factories then. Krebet Baru was a joint venture with the government-owned Bank Industri Negara. Then we operated two sugar mills on our own, one in Red-joagoeng and the other in Pakkies. All these businesses were placed under the sugar company, which was the holding company for our Indonesian businesses, so by taking over it, the government took over all of our businesses. And they confiscated our private properties, such as lands, houses and everything in them. My house in Jakarta was confiscated. But instead of the government taking over it, a military man in our neighborhood, as soon as he heard about the confiscation, just moved into our house and occupied it and took all our belongings. I think he is still in there.
You say that you were operating only three sugar mills. In the prewar period, you were operating five mills. What happened to the other two?
During the Revolutionary period, the sugar mills in Krebet, Tanggoelangin, and Ponen were destroyed. As I told you, a bomb was also placed at the Redjoagoeng factory, but this was saved with the help of the Dutch army. We had also a tapioca factory in Krebet, but this was also destroyed at that time. In 1953, a new sugar mill was set up at Krebet as a joint venture with the government, but the tapioca factory and two other sugar mills were never rebuilt. At the time of the confiscation, among the three mills we operated, only the mills at Redjoagoeng and Krebet were running at full capacity. The cane-area for the mill at Pakkies was too small. I would say that from the very beginning, the mill was in a bad location. It never had enough land around it to make itself profitable.
Our major assets at the time of confiscation were sugar mills, but they were not making real profits. Sugar prices were controlled, and we were not allowed to readjust our assets for the inflation. So, on paper, we were making some profits, but we were in effect eating up our assets. The depreciation allowances and profits together were not enough to rebuild our mills. I took up this problem several times in the association of sugar mills, arguing that we had to get the government to agree to proper depreciation allowances. But the Dutch were not very interested. With high depreciation allowances, less profits would show on paper. They preferred bigger profits since they could send more money to Holland in this way, converting it to guilders through the official exchange rate of one guilder to three rupiah. They were prepared to write off their assets in Indonesia, but this did not work for us. One mill owned by the sultan of Yogyakarta and our mills were the only non-Dutch mills. Being a small minority, we could not get our voice heard in the association. So, at the time of the confiscation, since the sugar mills were not making real profits, their market value could not have been much.
Then, you were selling your sugar in the domestic market. Did you stop exporting sugar?
Indonesia was a top sugar exporter in the prewar period. It was exporting over two million tons in the peak time. But after the war, production dropped to eight to nine hundred thousand ton, just enough to cover domestic consumption. So, there was little sugar export after the war.
What was the market value of the houses the government took over?
We owned 700 to 800 houses; in Semarang alone, we had about 160 houses. But their market value was not much. The right of a tenant became strong after independence, and we eould not adjust the rent for the inflation which had been going on. We did not even bother collecting rents any more. We legally owned them, but we couldn't do anything about them. Mrs. Wellington Koo had a few houses. They were probably worth a few hundred thousand US dollars, but since they were rented and the rents were not even worth collecting, she could sell them for about only ten thousand dollars. I sometimes say as a joke that my house in Switzerland is worth more than the several hundred houses we had in Indonesia.
Didn't Kian Gwan Indonesia have a lot of assets?
Yes, it did, but we had borrowed a lot of money from banks against it, so its net worth was small at the time of the confiscation.
There is a rumor that as a revenge for the confiscation, one of Kian Gwan's overseas offices bought a large quantity of rice which was destined for the Indonesian government. Is this true?
Rice business was always a sore point. I told you about the head of secret service who summoned me for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, he said, "Yah, you are importing rice. You import inferior quality and sell it at high prices. You are corrupting and breaking our Indonesian economy." We were also publicly charged that we had imported rice unfit for consumption. There is a verification company with headquarters in Geneva called "Societe Generate de Surveillance," which was appointed by the Indonesian government to certify the quality of rice imported into Indonesia. So, those charges were completely false. After the confiscation, even if we had bought the rice to prevent Indonesia from buying, what would we have done with the rice? We would have subjected ourselves to market risks, being stuck with a huge quantity of rice to sell. This sort of thing just does not make sense.
Going back to your father's estate. I thought that your father did not want it to be split up.
No, it was an estate to be divided. He did not want his business to be split up, but he wanted the estate to be split up. So, instead of the eight (originally nine) brothers owning the estate together, he wanted it to be split up into the eight shareholders. This meant that one shareholder could sell his share in any way he wanted. After the splitting up, it would have become possible for him to give his share to his children; it would have also become possible for him to sell it to an outsider if he wanted to. There was nothing in my father's will to prevent that. So, our businesses did not have to remain under our family ownership for ever. My father could have stipulated that the estate be owned jointly by his heirs. Under such an arrangement, when one heir wanted to sell his share, he had to do so in consultation with the other shareholders. But my father did not want that.
When you split up, the simplest thing to do would have been to split up the ownership of your holding company, but you say there was no overall holding company. How were your family businesses split up?
For our Indonesian operation, Algemeene Maatschappij tot Exploitatie der Oei Tiong Ham Suikerfabrieken was the holding company. So, this was split up. I believe at that time the nominal capital of this company was 40 million rupiah. So, each shareholder came to own five million rupiah worth of the shares. The Singapore case was also clear. At that time, its nominal capital was one or two million Singapore dollars, and everyone got one-eighth of that. The capital of the other Kian Gwans should have been split up in that way, but we did not. For example, Kian Gwan Amsterdam was placed under the ownership of Tjong Tjiat. This created a lot of trouble later on.
How did you split up your houses?
We were setting up foundations (yayasan) and putting all of our houses under them. We came up with about 30 yayasan, and were then going to put each of them under the name of one of the eight heirs. But it took time for a yayasan to be approved by the government, and by the time of the confiscation, only two yayasan had been approved. The houses which had been placed under these two yayasan had not been confiscated.
Do you remember the Han-Harjono Affair of 1956? A wealthy Chinese businessman called Han run into a car owned by a high military officer (Colonel Harjono), and this caused a fight between them on the street. After this, Han's wealth was confiscated, and he left the country. Didn't this serve you as a warning to the confiscation which came to your family in 1961?
Yes, I knew Mr. Han's father very well. Eddie (?) Han did not run into the car. He passed a military funeral which was going very slowly, and they did not accept this. People were supposed to stay behind a military funeral or even convoy. So, a military officer, who may have been Colonel Harjono, came out, stopped him, and spat into his face. Han was a sportsman; I think he boxed a lot. And he was a very impulsive man. So, Han hit the military man. It was stupid of him. Whether he was right or wrong, he should not have hit a military man. This led to the confiscation of his motor company. He moved to Bangkok and started a new auto business there. I think he had the Fiat agency.
When you got to know about the Affair, what was your reaction?
I said to myself, "Just be prepared." One night, I was shot at right in front of our office in Jakarta. In the daytime, when we came out of the office, we had to go around a square in front of us, but at night, they blocked the area because they considered it as a place of military importance, so we had to drive straight at one place. But one night, the soldiers did not put a roadblock properly, so I was led into the wrong area. So, they shot at my car. My wife who was with me at that time immediately put up her white handkerchief and waved it. Then a man came out and said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "You do not have to shoot at us. You can just stop us. Why do you have to shoot at us?" Then he insulted us with all kinds of things. I just had to keep my temper. There was nothing I could do. But the Han you just asked me about, being an impulsive man, just fought back.
Your brother Tjong Ie says that if you had developed closer ties with the military, you could have avoided the confiscation.
As I told you earlier, the military leaders were not that important at that time. Probably, he would have developed closer contacts with them than we did, but I doubt that it would have been enough to prevent the confiscation. It came as a consequence of the whole political change which was going on at that time. And also, I have to say that my brother Tjong Ie was not very much interested in Indonesia. It was only after the confiscation that he developed interests there. He always told me, "Why do you waste your time in Indonesia? Let's abandon Indonesia."
Didn't he suggest at one time he wanted to take over Indonesia?
Yes, after I left Indonesia, it may have been 1958 or some time later, he proposed that he take over our Indonesian operation from Singapore. He did not want to live in Indonesia. But he said if he were to handle Indonesia, he would do it differently. He said he would handle Indonesia in his way, which was a rough and tumble way, not the legal and complicated way as Ing Swie and I had been doing. We discussed his proposal with our people in Indonesia. Several people had already suffered from his smuggling activity from Singapore, having been swept into jail, and they all said that they would quit if Tjong Ie were to head Indonesia. Tjoa Soe Tjong also strongly objected.
Who was involved in the decision against his proposal?
Ing Swie and I, supported by some other brothers.
If no Oei shareholders wanted to live in Indonesia, would it have been better to let him handle Indonesia?
I don't know how it would have turned out. He might have succeeded, but he once said if he went to Indonesia, he would not last even one month since he could not keep his mouth shut. On the other hand, he might have developed contacts with high military officials and become well protected. But we thought he was very inconsistent. Until that time, he was saying, "Why don't you abandon Indonesia? Not much asset is left anyway. Let me do smuggling with the discontented military. We can make more money in that way." But we did not like it, and decided that it was better to leave our Indonesian operation to the professional staff headed by Tjoa Soe Tjong.
Maybe, your Singapore brother thought your Indonesian operation had not been profitable because you had been operating through normal channels.
But we generated large profits for our overseas offices. On top of that, a large amount of money came out from Indonesia. The money was, however, absorbed and absconded in Hong Kong, New York, Brazil, and Amsterdam. That was not my fault.
He speaks good Indonesian, doesn't' he?
Yes, he does. He was in jail for a few years during the Japanese occupation period, and at that time, he must have spoken Indonesian a lot with his inmates.
Do you think the policy of phasing out Indonesia was wise, or do you think that your brothers should have made more determined efforts to save your Indonesian operation?
The Indonesian operation had to be eventually phased out in view of discrimination against the Chinese and the trend towards socialism at that time. As I told you, no brothers wanted to live there, and for a few years from my departure to the time of the confiscation, the management of our Indonesian operation was left to Tjoa Soe Tjong. We could have made more money there, but for what? We had to live there as second-class citizens, facing the threat of my family getting kidnapped, and kowtowing to the military people. That is not the kind of life I wanted to lead. I might have put up with all these for the sake of Kian Gwan, but what will happen under the next generation? No shareholder lived there, and knew much about Indonesia. What was then the use of continuing Kian Gwan? So, the only choice was to leave it to our managers.
If the Indonesian government had not confiscated it, do you think you could have developed Kian Gwan in Indonesia by leaving it to your professional managers?
That would have been difficult. We were fortunate in having people like Tjoa Soe Tjong who wanted to be a manager of a big company. He comes from a rich family in Surabaya, and had a large rice mill there, so he did not have to work for us for money, but he liked being our manager. But in general, many of our managers wanted to become independent once they had established the right contacts. They really did not need us; all they needed were connections. And they cheated you quite often. I had a friend who took up our idea of pharmaceutical business and had the right contacts in Indonesia. He opened a big pharmaceutical outfit there, but he got cheated so much by local people, and died of a heart attack. If a manager comes and says that he needs to pay several million rupiah to a military man, how do you know that he will actually pay that amount? The environment is not congenial for leaving everything to professional managers. Business modernization often talked about there is not just the problem of the owner family being old-fashioned; the environment is not conducive to that.
6. After the Confiscation
How was your international operation reorganized after the confiscation?
You are probably asking this question, believing that Indonesia was the key point of our international operation, but Indonesia was no longer important at the time of the confiscation. At that time, there were a sterling area and a non-sterling area in the world economy. One could not take assets out of the sterling area at that time. Singapore, where our biggest assets were held after the confiscation, was in the sterling area. I proposed we make one sterling block with headquarters in the Bahamas and one non-sterling block with headquarters in Switzerland. The plan for the sterling block was to set up a parent company in the Bahamas and transfer our ownership in the sterling block to the Bahamas. My brother Tjong Ie in Singapore had been obsessed with the high estate tax there. It ruined the Eu Tong Sen family, and it may have affected the Aw family (of Haw Par Brothers). The estate tax was very high in Singapore. The plan was to transfer our ownership there little by little and then avoid the Singapore estate tax. And the other plan was to transfer the assets in the non-sterling block to a holding company in Switzerland. It was an obvious seat for our operation, as proved by the the fact that almost all major companies have Swiss holding companies.
To this, my brothers said that since I have a Swiss wife, I wanted a holding company here. But my personal life did not have anything to do with that. It was just a logical seat for our operation. With that sort of arrangement, we could develop a better international setup. All operations could be put under the two parent companies, and their shares distributed to our brothers. We could have an annual shareholders' meeting to review the situation in the past year and make an overall policy decision for the next year. All offices were then to be managed accordingly. This was the only way to restore discipline and management control in our organization. Under the existing arrangement, the shareholders were powerless in the countries where they had no legal jurisdiction over the local Kian Gwan office. We were the directors of various independent Kian Gwan offices and simply did what we wanted. In effect, one office became the property of one brother, another the property of another brother, and so on. We did not have any overall financial policy; we had no overall dividend policy. In Kian Gwan New York, for example, I and the others had shares, but we were helpless, because there was no way to enforce our decision on our brothers who were managing the office. The situation was the same for all other offices. In the 1950s, in Brazil, before we faced trouble, I could feel that things had not been going well. So, I suggested to my brother that he should close some offices and cut down the scale of operation, but he did not want to listen and went on his own way until he went almost bankrupt. So, I proposed the new plan to pool our holdings and develop a system of international coordination. If we were to take a foreign agency in Southeast Asia, we should do that in Bangkok and Singapore. In that way, our bargaining position would get stronger. But my brothers did not approve it. As a result, we went on as before. Thus, our business empire got split up.
Then, do you still own shares in other Kian Gwan offices?
Not in all Kian Gwan offices any more. For example, I was a shareholder of Kian Gwan in Singapore until recently, but since there was nothing I could do there and I never received dividends, I asked my brother to buy me out. I am still a shareholder of our Brazil business. I told you I went there to take care of our trouble, and although we pulled out from trading, we went into real estate with a new infusion of money (I remember I raised about one million dollars for this new venture) and our operation became a big success. My brother Tjong Hiong acknowledges that I have a share there, but I have never received dividends.
Have you made further attempts to restore coordination?
No. To do so became more and more difficult over time, but at the same time, I was wondering what would happen in the next generation even if I succeeded in rebuilding our organization. As long as it remained as a family company, the problems we faced in our generation would become aggravated in the next generations, with family members who do not know each other. They are spread all over the world, in such places as Brazil, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United States, etc., and they hardly see each other. They would never come to cooperation. The only way out is to go public, but what good will it do for our family? We will lose control of the organization eventually. The Aw family in Singapore started Haw Par Brothers International, but they lost control of it a long time ago. The only solace for us in going public would be that the name Oei Tiong Ham or Kian Gwan would be perpetuated. This might be better than nothing, and maybe, we should have gone public, but my brothers did not want that.
Going back to coordination among your brothers. Couldn't the co-chairman arrangement set up in the early 1950s be reestablished and restore international coordination?
Tjong Tjiat, who was elected as co-chairman from the other side, died in 1957, and the two brothers left were not very business-minded. The son of the brother Tjong Hauw, Ing Swie, did not command their respect. So, there was not much unity in the other group. Besides, as I told you earlier, the co-chairman system did not function very well in the 1950s. The co-chairmen had no idea of proper financial control and the delegation of power which were indispensable to managing an international company like ours which had operations in various parts of the world.
Did the basic problem stem from equal ownership among the eight brothers?
If Tjong Swan had stayed on, we might have come to a different solution. Even then, we should have installed a proper financial system. My brother Tjong Bo, who has a Ph.D. in economics, was the first one to point to this need when he joined our company just after the Pacific War. We had no annual financial statements. We had no dividend policy. So, if you were a shareholder of our company, since there were no dividends, the only way for you to get income was to become a director and get paid. But if proper dividends had been paid, some of the brothers who did not qualify very well as businessmen could have stayed out of business and done something else. But they were forced into business since no dividends were paid. And because there were no dividends, it was enough for our company to be able to pay the wages and salaries of our staff; in the meantime, our capital was used very inefficiently. All these criticisms were leveled against our brother Tjong Hauw, but even after he died in 1950, we did not change the system, so we made ourselves guilty, too.
With all the power he had, Oei Tjong Hauw could have built an integrated operational system, could he not?
Yes, he could have.
But he did not do that.
No, he did not.
Having read the past writings on your family and company, I have come to believe that Oei Tjong Hauw was a competent manager, but are you saying that he was not very good in developing organizational control?
No, he was not very good at it. There again, there should have been a division of work. Tjong Hauw was an excellent contact and public relations man, and someone else should have taken care of organizational control. We faced the same problem again after he died. Tjong Ie was an excellent contact and public relations man, but like Tjong Hauw, he was poor in managing and controlling an organization. It is not enough to make big profits in one or two years. You have to have some kind of belief, some kind of idea, and some kind of control.
In the Japanese business system, a company often has a president and a chairman. The president takes care of internal affairs, and the chairman of external affairs, especially playing the role of a high-level diplomat for the company and developing contacts with other businessmen and government officials.
Yes, that is the kind of arrangement we needed. Is it true that for example, in the House of Mitsui, a competent outsider could become a member of Mitsui?
That is what Tjoa Soe Tjong says in his article. In the history of the House of Mitsui, I do not believe that took place. In the modern period, they recruited a large number of competent people from top Japanese universities, and entrusted management to their professional staff. Ownership, however, remained with the House of Mitsui. All zaibatsu in prewar Japan had a large number of professional managers, but some new zaibatsu like Mitsubishi participated in management. However, the number of family members who were involved in management was small, often only one person, the head of the family, acting as executive president. In the case of older zaibatsu like Mitsui and Sumitomo, management was completely left to professionals. Of course, the owner family had a supervisory responsibility. But under normal circumstances, since the professional staff consisted of well educated, permanent employees, the management was a semiauton-omous body.
The management style of Mitsubishi may have had some relevance for us. What is important for the owner-manager is to know one's limitation and to compensate for that, get the right people and keep them satisfied. In my Dutch business now, I know that I am not good in the daily business activities, so I occupy myself with organization and personnel policy, especially with a reward system. I leave the actual, daily business management to my professional staff. Among our brothers, I felt Tjong Ie could handle external business matters such as making contacts, and I could take care of internal matters. But as I told you, he did not believe in the division of labor. In a large organization, especially with a geographical spread like ours, you must have the division of labor.
What did you do after the confiscation? Did you continue a career in business?
I was in Bangkok when the confiscation came. I stayed there for another year or so. By the time I left Amsterdam for Bangkok, we settled the dispute with the other group, but later, I realized that we had the same problem among us full brothers. So, coming back to Europe, I began developing my own business interests.
What does Kian Gwan in the Netherlands do now and what has been your role in the company?
I am engaged in various businesses. I had the biggest aerosol company in the country, a car battery factory, a plastic factory; right now, I am in the construction business, and I do rice business.
Are all these the extension of Kian Gwan Amsterdam?
Only the rice business. The rest are what I started myself after 1962 when I returned.
What happened to Kian Gwan Amsterdam after your brother's death in 1957?
As I told you, the brothers in New York legally inherited it from their brother Tjong Tjiat, who had been managing it. That was late 1957. We fought it, and got control of it in 1960. At that time, it was too large for our needs, so we cut our staff to about 20 percent of what it had been.
How does your nephew, Ing Swie, fit into this? You said earlier that he went to Amsterdam after New York.
He came to Amsterdam because his uncle was holding the legal title to the office. But he was not a real businessman. We bought him out, and he left Amsterdam around 1960. Since then, I have been managing the Amsterdam office. And over time, we transferred its ownership to a Swiss holding company. So, when I die, there will be no estate tax.
How is your Brazil office doing now?
As I told you earlier, we are not engaged in trading there any more. We are in the real estate business. The company's name is Esta. After we suspended trading in the mid-1950s, we bought a big piece of land, about 13 million square meters, and in the following years, used this land for real estate developments.
How many Kian Gwans are left now, then?
One in Amsterdam, one in Bangkok, one in Singapore, and one in Hong Kong. There is one in Australia, but probably it is not very active. The one in New York has been dormant for quite some time.
How long has the New York office been dormant?
Over 20 years now. It was first handling rubber from Indonesia, but this did not do very well. Then for a few more years, it was acting as the purchasing agent of Indonesian Kian Gwan, especially for X-ray equipment, but this stopped with the Indonesian confiscation. For another few years, it tried to survive by doing local business, but then it also stopped.
Were the two brothers who started the New York office not so good businessmen as your brother in Singapore says?
They had never left Semarang before they left for the United States. In Semarang, they were surrounded by competent managers, so they did not have to do much. Even if they tried a few things themselves, they had all the power of Kian Gwan behind them. The situation was different when they moved to New York. They first tried to do rubber business, but New York was the most difficult of all the rubber markets in the world. They simply could not survive.
Why did they go there?
Not for the reason of business at all. They just went to live there: they did not like to live in Indonesia any more. One of their wives told me that during the Revolutionary period, they saw some lootings and massacres. And every few years, a pogrom broke out against the Chinese at that time. These must have scared them so much that they just wanted to be out of Indonesia.
When they left for New York, fighting between the Dutch and the Indonesians must have been still going on, and many people must have thought that the Dutch would win. Did your half-brothers leave because they thought that the Dutch would lose and the situation become unpleasant under the Indonesians? What was the assessment of the war situation by the elite Chinese at that time?
My half-brothers left because they thought the Indonesians would win and violence start again. As to the elite Chinese in business at that time, they were, in general, pro-Dutch and were secretly hoping the Dutch would win.
Is Kian Gwan in Singapore still called Kian Gwan Malaya?
No. It was first changed to "Kian Gwan Malaysia," and then to "Kian Gwan Private Limited Co." I think it is a holding company now, and under it are placed Kian Gwan Engineering and Kian Gwan Real Estate. Their activities, however, have dwindled. Kian Gwan Bangkok is now a much bigger operation. We are putting up a second tower on Wireless Road. The building we have now is getting too old-fashioned, because a lot of new buildings are coming up. So, we are putting up a new one, and want to renovate the first one. The first one was put up in the early 1970s. We had fourteen floors to rent, and the Thai economy was not doing very well at that time. Then, Shell proposed to lease five floors for .ten years, on the condition that we name the building "Shell Building." We accepted this proposal. Then, when the lease ran out, they built their own building and moved out. So, we renamed it "Kian Gwan Building."
They have a big garage behind the present building on Wireless Road, don't they?
Yes, that was our own car operation, but it is now leased to Toyota. We once tied up with a Western auto company, and were engaged in car assembling. But that was killed by Japanese auto companies. They seem to have a different time horizon; they gave five or six-year credits for their car sales. No Western companies could afford it. Japanese companies must have a completely different financial backing. Because of this, they completely took over the Thai auto market.
Didn't you think of tying up with Japanese companies?
Kian Gwan Singapore handles Mitsubishi air-conditioners, and once did or is planning to handle Yamaha outboard engines. But in earlier years, a Japanese agency was out of the question. Once I proposed a Japanese agency, but my brother in Singapore, who was put into prison by the Japanese kempeitai during the war, didn't like it at all.
Who is in charge of Kian Gwan Hong Kong?
He is the son of my mother's sister. So, he is a full cousin of mine. He started as an outsider, and became a co-shareholder of the company. The real name is "Kian Gwan China." So, from a large international company, we became much smaller, but I would say that return-wise, we are much better now.
Does any Kian Gwan have a major business dealing with Indonesia now?
Tjong Ie used to do outboard engine business with Indonesia, but probably not anymore. I supply raw materials to the pharmaceutical company we started.
Did it become a state enterprise?
No, the government took over our share of the company, which was only about 15 percent. The rest is owned by private individuals, like lawyers and doctors. It is still being run as a private company.
Is there any Oei family member doing major business in Indonesia?
No. My nephew Ing Swie tried to do business in Indonesia for a while, but he did not succeed. Several years after he was bought out in Amsterdam, I think it was after Suharto came to power, he went back to Indonesia, and tried to do business there. But he overestimated his potentiality. What he could do as a private businessman was quite different from what he could with the backing of Kian Gwan. After three or four years, he got out of business.
Ing Swie acted as the intermediary between your brother Tjong Ie in Singapore and Humardani, didn't he?
Yes, he did. Tjong Ie tried to get our Indonesian businesses back, and talked to Humardani about it, I think. I know Tjong Ie spent 300 to 400 thousand Singapore dollars in trying to get back our assets. But when he went to see Humardani, he was received in a very discourteous way. Humardani was lying back in pajamas, and when my brother approached him, he dropped a pack of cigarettes to see whether he would stoop to pick up the pack and show servility to him. That was not the kind of thing my brother Tjong Ie would take. I think he gave up the idea of going back to Indonesia after that.
Didn't he propose an investment project in Indonesia?
No, he didn't.
Have you been back to Indonesia since the confiscation?
Yes, as a tourist to Bali three times.
Haven't you thought about restarting business after Suharto came back?
No. The country is beautiful, and people are wonderful, but if the bureaucrats and military people enter the picture, the whole thing changes. Especially so if you are a Chinese. If I were a Dutchman, I might have gone back and started a business. But we the Chinese who grew up there are always treated as an unwanted minority and fare worse than a foreigner. Especially if I am in business, I am exposed to the threat of kidnaping, extortion, and humiliation. I am happier here in Switzerland than as a second-class citizen in Indonesia.
But Chinese businessmen are doing very well now. Anti-Chinese feeling is much less now.
Yes, but it flares up from time to time.
Did many Chinese businessmen leave Indonesia during the Sukarno period?
Yes, many did. And even today, a number of so called Indonesian Chinese businessmen have their families in Singapore. For example, Tan Siong Kie has his family in Singapore.
Some Indonesians say that the Chinese are not very patriotic.
Yes, they say, "You have an Indonesian passport in one pocket, and a foreign passport in another. You have a lot of money abroad. You are always ready to leave." But I say, "Yes, but who must make the first step?" They say, "We made you all Indonesian citizens as the first step." But in practice, there is a lot of discrimination. Under this social setting, it is very difficult to make a long-term plan and carry out business modernization. But in Thailand, if you are a Thai, you are accepted as a Thai. Many leading Thais have Chinese background, but they feel Thai and are proud of being a Thai. But in Indonesia, the situation is very different. Your business may be confiscated; your children may not be able to go to university. So, you keep one leg abroad for survival. Who is to blame? Not the Chinese.
Does your brother in Bangkok feel comfortable there?
Yes, quite comfortable. He has now been completely assimilated. He does not speak fluent Thai. But he feels quite comfortable there. There is absolutely no discrimination against him.
Do you think your Bangkok office has good prospects?
Well, maybe so, but I am not sure. Now we are doing well. The NCR agency is our primary business in trading. Then, we are fairly big in real estate.
Doesn't NCR face Japanese competition and its agency business may decline as your auto business once did in the face of Japanese competition?
Our more immediate worry is NCR might want to do business by themselves. In a number of Asian countries, they have their own sales subsidiaries. You know NCR used to be a producer of mechanical cash registers, but they are now a computer company.
How many brothers are left now?
Our four brothers and one half-brother in New York, Tjong Ik. So, altogether only five are left now. Then, our nephew Ing Swie is still alive.