Categories: Business

This is Why Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s New Ultra-Rich Powerhouse

Riddle me this: How much rich does it take for the rich to be uber rich? Well, if you can count what you have, you might be rich. Rich-rich at best. But uber rich… who knows? After all, we’re not exactly pulling pennies from under the sofa here. With business empires handed down generations, conglomerates that circle the globe and opaque corporate structures, the numbers we know are guesstimates at best.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation: In 2017, Forbes put the total net worth of Indonesia’s 50 richest at US$126 billion, a 27% jump from US$99 billion a year prior. What’s interesting is that most of this new wealth was repatriated under a tax amnesty given by the Indonesian government, an indication of just how much the nation’s wealthiest had stashed away mostly in neighbouring Singapore. But that’s hardly surprising of a country that’s making one of the most remarkable comebacks after tethering at the edge of financial ruin.

WRITTEN OFF as an economic basket case after the Asian financial crisis, this vast archipelago is now hailed as “the new ultra-rich powerhouse in Southeast Asia”. Data intelligence firm Wealth-X reported in 2012 that Indonesia’s total wealth catapulted by 40%. By comparison, Singapore’s total wealth that same year shrunk by 8.8%.

What we’re witnessing is Indonesia’s economic renaissance. Jokowi-era economics has seen it grow at over 5% annually, with rising incomes and jobs, stable prices, low government deficit and national debt at only 30% of gross domestic product. This trumps even the American economy that’s hovering around 4%. This cocktail of pro-business policies has propelled already prominent billionaires higher up the rich rankings.

Dynastic Indonesian families like the Hartonos – led by brothers Robert Budi Hartono and Michael Bambang Hartono – are the epitome of Indonesia’s old money. Scions of the generations-old Djarum kretek empire, they are indisputably Indonesia’s richest men worth US$32 billion and the region’s second wealthiest family, according to Forbes. With stakes in other industries such as communications and banking, they rarely give interviews except on crucial turns of business.

It’s no wonder that the media went into a tizzy this year when Michael Bambang Hartono announced he was competing at the 2018 Asian Games in its first game of competitive bridge. For years, the 78-year-old card aficionado lobbied vigorously behind the scenes for the Olympic Council of Asia to make it an official sport. “Bridge is a game of decision-making, just like business,” he said. “You gather information, analyse it and make a decision.”

Today, he’s an Asian Games bronze medallist for Team Indonesia with a whiff of future Olympian as bridge might be played at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It mirrors how Indonesia’s most wealthy are evolving to cultivate a different sort of persona – less reclusive, more media-friendly and entirely individualistic – giving the average man a peek into their lives and passions. It’s made them relatable.

BUT WAIT. There’s the other extreme that seems to have caused some backlash. A generation of nouveau riche whose children are building empires of a different currency as social influencers.

Chronicling their lavish lives in all its photo-filtered glory, the #RichKidsofIndonesia are unperturbed by controversy. Many, in fact, court it because that’s how social influence builds.

From front-row runway seats to ballin’ at Coachella, these next-gen socialites are sought after because, unlike models or actors, they are big spenders. Take, for instance, Ezra J. William, the 28-year-old son of an Indonesian real estate tycoon and fashionista with over 78,000 followers. William runs with Manhattan’s Snap Pack – a modern-day version of Hollywood’s Rat Pack – made up of Tiffany Trump (yes, that president’s daughter), Kyra Kennedy (JFK’s great-niece), Princess Olympia of Greece, Gaia Matisse (great-great-granddaughter of Henri) and others.

The New York Times describes the Snap Pack as a “young, wealthy and itinerant group… Instagram and Snapchat is not a way to memorialise a night out. It’s the night’s main event”.

Jakarta-born William, an NYU student, resides in a four-storey townhouse designed by Robert A.M. Stern. In a bit of humblebragging, William admitted in a New York Post interview this August that his “real estate moghul father would be ‘mortified’ at his conspicuous consumption”.

In particular, his extensive wardrobe of rare and off-the-runway pieces. The price tag to this student’s shoe and handbag collection? US$740,000. That’s 2,640% more than the average salary of a white-collar Indonesian professional. “I asked [a therapist] for medication,” he justified, “and they wouldn’t even give it to me. [Then] I wondered why I should spend money on therapy when I can spend it on [clothing]. I love going to Dior and Bergdorf’s. Bergdorf’s has everything: All the brands and a café you can go to when you get tired.” Overindulgent? Yes. Harmless? Not always.

DUL DHANI, son of rock-musician-turned-politician Ahmad Dhani, was just another 13-year-old driving his sports car – a birthday gift from his father – when he crashed into a minivan, killing seven people and injuring 11 others. Dul was found guilty but escaped punishment for an undisclosed sum in an out-of-court settlement. Indonesians called out the blatant double standard. When that failed, the people buried Ahmad’s political aspirations.

But such double standards are nothing new in a country where its legal system is nicknamed the “judicial mafia”. A prime example is Tommy Suharto, son of the late Indonesian president. The famed playboy was ranked No. 56 on GlobeAsia magazine’s 2016 rich list with a reported net worth of US$655 million. Time magazine in its Suharto, Inc. exposé revealed: “Like brother Sigit, he (Tommy) loves to gamble, thinking nothing of losing US$1 million in a single sitting. One gaming partner says he used to leave Jakarta on his plane with millions of dollars to wager in European casinos and stop in Singapore on the way home to deposit what was left.

Tommy Suharto at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Golkar Party at the Jakarta international expo pavillion in October 2014. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

“Tommy loves money,” says a former business partner. “And he always wanted it upfront.” In 2002, he was convicted of masterminding the murder of a judge who had previously sentenced him for corruption. An ordinary citizen would’ve been sentenced to death. Instead, Tommy spent four years in a spacious 8×3 metre prison cell that came fully furnished with sofa, sideboard, television, refrigerator, air-conditioner, kitchen, water purifier, laptop computer, mobile phones and butlers. When he could, he took helicopter rides for golfing trips in Jakarta. But most importantly, he had en-suite facilities. No worries about dropping the proverbial soap here.

COMEDIAN CHRIS ROTH once said in an interview: “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” If that were true, why hasn’t this disparity of wealth ruptured Indonesia, a nation where the four richest men own as much wealth as its poorest 100 million citizens, according to Oxfam.

The answer: Despite the outrage, many secretly aspire to be them. It’s a myth that the majority are turned off by in-your-face excesses of wealth. Asia’s most successful industrialists are still looked upon with awe and their faux pas are fodder for brunch gossip. For the most part, people read their stories, get inspired and follow their advice in the hopes that one day, they too can own that private jet, order that bespoke Rolls-Royce or buy that private Caribbean island.

Robert Frank, who jaunts with the wealthy as host of CNBC’s Secret Lives of the Super Rich, explained something similar: “Most Americans deep down don’t have these political issues in their head. They see these things [on the show] and they either think it’s ridiculous but it’s fun to watch, or they think it is inspiring and motivating. It’s hard to read that perspective in the press these days,” said Frank, “given a lot of the political issues around inequality.” Quelle folie? Mad but true.

Just look at the string of wealth voyeurism that’s on TV – Cribs, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Ultra Rich Asian Girls, Shahs of Sunset, Made in Mexico, Big Rich Texas. Are we fed this… or do we demand it? There’s no smoke without fire, no next season without ratings.

After 300 years of modern civilisation, if equality was every man’s goal, don’t you think we’d have it already? We can send a man to the moon but we can’t give everyone a Bentley? Truth is, we all want to be special and it wouldn’t be special if everyone else had it. If poverty is one of modern society’s greatest evils, then aren’t we all a little bit complicit in this pact with the devil?

Related: ASEAN: Is There a Point To It?

June See

Published by
June See

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