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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Liem Sioe Liong: The Successful Immigrant

May 21, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, THAILAND — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

At the age of 75, Liem Sioe Liong has become the paradigm of the successful Chinese immigrant. With a personal fortune of between $1 billion and $2 billion, he is widely regarded as Southeast Asia's second-wealthiest man, after the sultan of tiny Brunei, who inherited a lot of oil.

Liem, however, eschews the usual trappings of vast wealth. When he travels, he is usually accompanied by a single aide, who helps him with foreign languages. He is married to an Indonesian Chinese woman he met during World War II.

Otherwise, he is generally unassuming and retiring. He is known for impeccable politeness that belies an often ruthless business sense.

As a youth, Liem emigrated to Indonesia, where he worked in an uncle's peanut oil shop before starting to supply coffee from his home.

But his big break came in the 1950s, when he began selling provisions to the Indonesian army in central Java at a time when a colonel named Suharto was in charge. The colonel eventually rose to be president of Indonesia, and Liem rose right along with his patron.

These days, Liem's Salim Group (named for his adopted Indonesian name of Sudono Salim) has an annual turnover of more than $8 billion and employs more than 135,000 people, with interests ranging from Singapore property companies to a bank in the United States.

Not only does Liem sit at President Suharto's right hand at public ceremonies but the president's foster brother, Sudwikatmono, also is a partner in many of Liem's business deals.

Although he claims to have never gained "privilege out of this friendship," Liem's political connections have allowed Salim subsidiaries to gain a special niche in the country's business life.

Liem's companies enjoy such benefits as a 100% monopoly on the import of wheat and milling of flour, and control of nearly half the country's cement production through what is reputed to be the world's largest plant, located in West Java. He also owns Indonesia's largest private bank, Bank Central Asia.

Perhaps because of his close ties to the president, whose succession is in doubt, Liem recently began diversifying overseas, buying a controlling interest last December in Singapore's United Industrial Corp. The purchase put Singapore's ninth- and 10th-largest companies under Liem's control and made him the city-state's biggest landlord virtually overnight.

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