It’s not every day that you get a glimpse into the rags-to-riches success of someone like Indonesian Chinese tycoon Dr Mochtar Riady. So his English-language autobiography, Mochtar Riady: My Life Story (2017) “is a rare moment when he actually pauses and reflects on the past”, shared his grandson John, who described his 87-year-old grandfather as “a man of discipline, a man of principle, a man of dedication and…a man of the future” at the book launch in October.
Through engrossing anecdotes, Riady shares how he overcame living through hardship and political turmoil during his formative years. Readers learn about his foresight, strategies and Midas touch that enabled him to turn around ailing banks and eventually build his empire that is the Lippo Group. The business legend also charts the globilisation of his conglomerate, now one of Asia’s largest and most diversified, with investments ranging from real estate to hospitality, and telecommunications to digital technologies. The philanthropist also shares the values that have guided him and the people that shaped his journey.
The autobiography of Mochtar Riady was launched in October.
Here, he shares additional personal perspectives:
At the launch of your autobiography, you mentioned the proverb “Behind a successful man is a wise wife.” Li Limei serendipitously saved you from death when you were courting; she supported the family by learning to sew when times were hard; she advised you to return a gift of gold bars from a customer so as not to be beholden to him. You’ve shared your strategy of winning her mother over; But how did you win over Limei’s heart?
We met in Surabaya in 1946, when I was 17. We met in my great-uncle Li Yajin’s home where he had gathered all those who had the last name Li. I suppose it was love at first sight because the moment I met her, I thought she was beautiful and so intelligent. I don’t recall having a specific strategy to win her over but I do remember that I just tried as hard as I could to make her reciprocate my feelings.
Apart from your wife, you also dedicate the book to your father Li Yamei and your teacher Luo Yitian, who both had tremendous influence on your values as a man and human being. Your book also mentions your friendships with Commander Imam Soekarto, your great-uncle Li Yajin and investment expert Huang Keli, who would become your advisor and introduce you to Li Ka-Shing. Some of them were twice your. What do you think endeared you to them? And what advice do you have for young business people?
These were all men that I admired greatly in my youth and I always approached them just wanting to learn from them. They enjoyed sharing and discussing the pertinent issues of the day and I would just listen at first. But soon, I learnt what was important to them and would engage them on that. It really isn’t about age but about connecting with people on the things that matter. Now that I am old, I try to keep in touch with what the younger generation thinks. I think the very definition of a generation gap is when one generation stops thinking about the other — the young not considering the elderly and the elderly also not keeping in tune with the young. Either situation isn’t ideal.
Visiting Labuan Bajo in May 2016.
What activities do you enjoy with your family that help you relax and unwind from work?
I enjoy reading and taking some quiet time to think and contemplate life. Having discussions with my children and grandchildren, and playing with my great-grandchildren are among the things that bring me greatest joy. I enjoy posing a question to my grandchildren, allowing them to ponder over it and then just engaging them on the issue. Apart from time with my family, I also enjoy social gatherings where friends and associates come together to discuss global issues and trends.
Do you have a favourite holiday destination that you return to time and again?
The places I probably return to most are China and the US; China because I also see it as my home in many ways and the US, because it is one of the countries that have really come very far in the past half a century. Going back and seeing the changes that are constantly happening and its technological developments are a good way to keep up to date.
I heard you made a recent visit to Labuan Bajo. Can you share a little about that?
Labuan Bajo is one of the hidden treasures of Indonesia and [my son] James was the first in our family to really fall in love with the place. I’m always open to exploring new places and he really wanted to take me and my wife May so we went. I try to keep up with my children and their interests to avoid a generation gap.
In the preface to Mochtar Riady: My Life Story, you mention a 106-page transcript that a Christian friend made of your conversations, which was the seed of your book. What was the subsequent process of writing the book?
Over a span of six to seven months, I would write for an hour every morning. I still enjoy the process of writing everything down rather than typing on the computer. I wrote everything in traditional Mandarin originally. Generally before I write anything, I always have a framework in my mind. In this case, I thought about my life in the five separate time periods and within those periods, the significant things that I wanted to talk about. From there, I began to write stories that fell within the time frame and the topics of that period. After I had “filled in the blanks” of that framework, I went back and put in anything I had missed out. Having a framework really sped up the process of writing.
SIX INSPIRATIONS FROM MOCHTAR RIADY
He didn’t give up
Riady lost his mother when he was eight and grew up in uncertainty, including the Japanese Occupation of Malang when his father was thrown into jail. “If people like Pak Mochtar had given up…Asia wouldn’t be where it is today,” said Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, at the book launch.
He dreamt big
Riady’s fascination with banking began when he was in primary school and living in poverty. It was his mentor and principal Luo Yitian who explained to the young Riady what a bank was.
He would roll up his sleeves
It wasn’t just the big picture that Riady would look at. He would drill down to the nitty gritty if necessary; for instance, finding a solution to managing one bank’s chaotic filing system to improve efficiency and hence, profits.
His solutions are creative and beneficial
Riady tapped on the national mania for Indonesia’s lottery and came up with a plan that resulted in Bank Central Asia collecting more deposits than the government’s central bank had managed in 10 years — while bringing about real social benefits.
His values are inclusive
Riady’s early exposure to Confucian and Taoist philosophy and more recently, Christianity, influence his humanity and responsible stewardship to the community. He has a heavy interest in healthcare and education, which include building hospitals and schools for the needy in remote parts of Indonesia, and funding scholarships.
He looks to what’s ahead
A cancer centre and an institute for nanotechnology that bear Riady’s name are just a few of the physical manifestations of his diverse interests in future technologies that continue to propel him and his family into the new age.