Image: Jamel Toppins for Forbes
Indonesian billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo speaks halting English, but he knows one word very well: “Big”. The size of his palatial home in Jakarta? “Big.” His business empire? “Very big.” His vision for the new Bali resort he’s developing? “The biggest and the best.”
In the back of his car, a chauffeured Hummer H2, we’re returning from a visit to Lido, another of his developments, outside of Jakarta, that’s 30 times larger than what he’s doing in Bali.
“Big project, huh?” he asks.
Keen for affirmation, he directs his driver to enter a competing resort, Rancamaya, about 30 minutes away. As we pass American-style McMansions, he wants me to understand that Lido’s villas will be, yes, “much bigger” than Rancamaya’s, which tend to be about 1,300 square feet. He’s planning Lido estates as big as 100,000 square feet. “It’s not bad, but ours is going to be better.”
Sound like any US president you might know? That’s not a coincidence. Tanoesoedibjo is Donald Trump’s partner in Indonesia, and the connection runs far stronger than that. Virtually all of Trump’s foreign business partners share a trait or two with him—primarily, a carnival barker’s knack for self-promotion—but for the 51-year-old Tanoesoedibjo, Trump is a 360-degree role model that he emulates in every way conceivable.
Like Trump, he built his fortune—an estimated $1.1 billion—in real estate and media on a mountain of debt. He tweets non-stop to more than 1 million followers. He stages beauty pageants. He loves reality TV. He has a glamorous wife. Just as the tabloids boiled down Trump into a first name, The Donald, the Indonesian press likes to refer to Tanoesoedibjo simply as Hary.
And Hary doesn’t seem content to stop there. He too has started aspiring to political power—specifically, the presidency of the world’s largest Muslim country, its fourth largest by population and its 16th-largest economy by GDP. Like Trump, this billionaire sees the path to power through an anti-elitist campaign. And like Trump, he’s becoming a magnet for scandal, including a recent allegation (previously unreported in the West) that he was involved in a plot by a previous Indonesian president to frame a former government official for murder, something Hary furiously denies.
“Tanoesoedibjo has the money to finance the electoral machinery and the media to actually influence public opinion,” says Rainer Heufers, co-founder of the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, a Jakarta-based think-tank. “He has, therefore, the potential to become a relevant political player in a relatively short period of time.” To Heufers, Hary gives every sign of moving Indonesia from a participatory democracy to one with a more authoritarian bent.
In January, Hary came to America to witness Trump’s inauguration. A meeting with First Sons Eric and Donald Jr and lunch at New York media hangout Michael’s segued to the pomp surrounding the birth of a new administration in Washington. In Indonesia, Hary downplays his political ambitions, but seated in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington on the eve of the inauguration, the revelry and hoopla are contagious.
“Within ten years, I think I’ll run the country,” he says, as cocksure as his mentor.
The seventh hole at the cliffside Nirwana Bali Golf Club, the main attraction at the resort Hary and the Trumps will soon transform, already provides one of the most special vistas in golf. To the left of the 214-yard par-3 is Tanah Lot, a 16th-century Hindu island temple. Incense from the holy site often wafts over to the tee box, where Nirwana’s all-female caddies, clad in green uniforms and conical straw hats, generally suggest a 5-iron to reach the green, separated from the tee by a black-sand beach.
“This is the best property in Bali, and we’re going to make it iconic,” says Hary, looking out over the Indian Ocean. He continues breathlessly. “And we’re going to make a helipad.”
A staffer has handed him a freshly tapped coconut with a straw. His team also ensures that he has a constant supply of sanitising hand wipes (like Trump, he’s germ-wary) and that he enters every elevator first and receives a carefully itemised, printed daily schedule. His security guards greet him with a broad smile and a salute. He often travels with a police escort, allowing his driver to weave through Indonesia’s traffic-clogged streets on both sides of the road. And before he reached Nirwana earlier that morning, a small contingent of its staff lined up on its front steps like troops on review, bearing not weapons but trays of fresh hand towels and pineapple juice.
In 2013, Hary bought the Nirwana resort for about $200 million, as well as Lido, the larger, similarly priced property outside Jakarta. He shuttered part of the Lido hotel and the golf course later that year while keeping Nirwana open and searching for what to do with them both. He asked his team to put together a short list of established luxury-hotel companies to partner with, eventually tapping the Trump Organization. “Trump specialises in hotels and golf courses. That’s why we appointed Trump,” says Hary. Besides, “you have to admit, the image of Trump is quite high-end”.
The 2015 deals let the Trumps manage the hotels and golf clubs as Trump-branded properties while also licensing their name for on-site villas and condos. Hary won’t comment on the Trump agreement’s financial terms, but given what industry sources say is normal, the Trumps will probably get 5 percent of the hotel revenue and 3 percent of the golf revenue. (For their part, the Trumps wouldn’t comment for this story.) Hary owns everything and takes all the risk, putting up the money for the construction at Lido and Nirwana.
Hary has dealt mostly with Donald Jr and Eric, first meeting them a few months before they announced their partnership. He has met President Trump “a few times”, including at a post-election gathering in January that he won’t go into in detail other than to say the then-president-elect “seemed the same, but there were all the bodyguards and Secret Service agents”.
Renovations at Nirwana should begin later this year, and Hary says he has already arranged for Phil Mickelson to rethink and lengthen the course—originally designed by Greg Norman in the 1990s—in the hope of landing a PGA event. He has equally grand hopes for the hotel, which currently goes for between $100 and $200 a night. When it reopens as a Trump hotel two years from now, Hary hopes its rates will start at $600 a night and go up to $3,000.
Lido requires a more extensive renovation than Nirwana, and Hary plans to tear most of it down while Ernie Els designs its golf course, currently a great muddy field. Lido’s massive size also gives Hary the opportunity to add a 250-acre theme park, too. “The idea is, the first word people say when they walk in is ‘Wow’,” he says. By the projects’ end, forecast for some time between 2018 and 2020, he says he’ll invest close to $2 billion transforming Lido and Nirwana.
Of course, all of this ambition comes with an obvious hazard: Hary must sell Trump in a nation with a vast Muslim majority, roughly 90 percent of its 258 million citizens. Before the inauguration, Hary dismissed Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign-trail comments, saying people “misunderstood” them and that Trump was talking only about “radical Muslims”. In the aftermath of President Trump’s controversial start, including his travel ban, Hary will no longer talk on the record about most Trump-related topics.
It’s the night before Donald Trump will become president, and Hary sits near the Trump International Hotel’s lobby bar. The billionaire seems several drinks into the night. Recharging himself with a pot of peppermint tea, he’s eager for me to join the party, clinking his tea cup against my tumbler of scotch. “Finish it,” he says.
“Donald Trump is about to become president,” Hary says, explaining his jovial mood. “And he’s very inspirational to everyone, including me.”
That inspiration has roots going back to Hary’s childhood. His father was a builder, like Trump’s, in Surabaya, a port city in eastern Java. He had high aspirations for his son and sent him to college in Canada, where he studied finance at Carleton University in Ottawa.
After graduation, Hary returned home and, again like Trump, took money from his father to start his own business, in 1989. In Hary’s case, his dad’s $5,000 funded a brokerage business; within a year, he’d move it 15 hours west to Jakarta, growing it to about $24 million in sales before taking what became MNC Group public in 1997—into the jaws of the Asian financial crisis. He switched gears and used the economic tumult to focus on buying companies on the cheap. “That was my golden period,” he says. He executed dozens of deals in the next few years, investing close to $1 billion. Among his acquisitions were four TV stations, including two that counted children of the recently deposed dictator Suharto as owners.
In the 2000s, he changed the stations’ model from broadcasting other companies’ shows to airing series created by MNC, setting up a talent-management business to control the stars he created. Realising talent-search shows would play well in Indonesia, where extreme class stratifications make it far harder than in America to turn talent into fame and fortune, he launched local versions of X-Factor and American Idol. (MNC makes other types of programmes, too, including a hit drama that has a title that loosely translates as The Upside-Down World. The show’s female lead is the breadwinner while its male lead “stays home and does all the work,” Hary explains, drawing titters from the all-male retinue around him.) Starting in 2005, he began staging the annual Miss Indonesia beauty pageant, and in 2013, he hosted Miss World. MNC captures 40 percent of Indonesia’s prime-time audience and has five of the country’s ten most popular programmes. The indefatigable Hary tries to cram as much as possible into a day. Like Trump, he barely sleeps—only about four hours a night—waking up at four or five am to answer emails or WhatsApp messages. (He remains glued to his phone for the remainder of the day, compulsively checking it every few minutes.) His executives do their best to keep pace with him. “He does everything very fast. You have no idea how he pushes us in the office,” says Ivan Casadevall, an MNC vice president involved in the Trump projects. “It’s 18-hour days, not 12 hours.”
His restless drive has led him to expand MNC broadly—and pile on debt doing so. Today, the company has more than 60 local TV stations, 4 national stations, a newspaper, a property development business that constructed a campus in Jakarta for MNC’s offices before turning to the Trump resorts, and a number of other wide-ranging investments, including coal mines. As a result, debt has ballooned within MNC. Its liabilities have increased roughly by 350 percent in five years to $2.2 billion, and S&P estimates about $800 million in loans are coming due through 2018—Hary disputes this figure and says it’s about half of that. Both Moody’s and S&P rate the bonds of the MNC parent company as junk and have a negative outlook on them. “When you’re at this level, you are starting to talk about high risk of financial distress,” says Xavier Jean, a Singapore-based credit analyst at S&P, who says MNC may have to restructure some loans in the coming months to avoid default.
All of this is happening at a time when Hary, like Trump during his campaign, clearly doesn’t devote all his attention to his business anymore. He stepped down last year as the CEO of MNC’s largest media arm. “I’m confused if I come here now,” he says, missing a turn onto an escalator in one of MNC’s office towers.
He dismisses concerns about MNC’s debt and says he has no plans for the company to grow much from here. “If I expand into more areas, it will be more time, and I want to get into politics,” he says. “I have to move away from business and forward into politics.”
Chaos surrounded Hary’s first foray into Indonesia’s national politics during the lead-up to its 2014 election. He quit one party, Nasdem, over a spat with its leadership and then joined a second, Hanura, to become the vice presidential running mate of a former army general, Wiranto (who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name). Their campaign quickly fizzled as stronger, better-known candidates emerged.
In defeat, Hary threw his support behind Prabowo Subianto, another ex-general who ran a fractious campaign and suggested a return to a more autocratic presidency. In the end, the more moderate Joko Widodo won.
Almost immediately, Hary moved to form his own political party, Perindo, in October 2014. Social media quickly became a major conduit for him to boost his public profile. Staff photographers follow him almost everywhere, documenting his every move, and many of those pictures get posted to Twitter. Hary often tweets a dozen or more times a day.
Hary has previously tempered speculation on his presidential ambitions. “Everyone wants me to run. But I haven’t decided.” But in Washington with me in January, he dropped the pretence: “My political party is a stepping-stone—a stepping-stone to do something for the country. I have to run.”
He has more to overcome than being a billionaire cloaked as a populist. Hary is ethnically Chinese in a country where 99 percent of the nation is something else and a Christian in the world’s largest Muslim country. But in some ways, conditions are ripe for Hary’s message. Economic growth has been creeping down, from 6.2 percent in 2011 to 4.8 percent in 2015, the last data available. “In America, you have ‘Make America Great Again’,” Hary says. “Here, ‘Make Indonesia Great Again’. That’s why I’m getting into politics.”
Hary sees the benefit of a “modified” democracy—“not like you have in the States”—and is anti-free-market capitalism. “It’s good for me, not for Indonesia,” he says. To him, China and its government-controlled economy is a paradigm. He could, for instance, see Indonesia limiting imports of sugarcane during its local harvest so farmers could sell their crop at higher prices. He supports freedom of expression—to an extent. “Everyone should have the right to speech but not if it’s from those in power,” he says, a thinly veiled criticism that Indonesia’s current political establishment pays demonstrators to push prescribed opinions. He also espouses subsidised housing and education loans for the poor.
“I think Trump’s strategy is to do good things for the lower people,” Hary says. “And that’s my focus here.” As for Western influences in his country, Hary lauds them one moment (“If a country is in trouble, it is very easy to get some help from, like, the International Monetary Fund or IMF”) and derides them the next (“The World Bank, the UN, the IMF only see Jakarta—they don’t know anything”).
“Our party is the rising star today,” he declares at one point, though that notion is widely rejected by nearly all Indonesian political experts, who view his candidacy as a long shot because of his ethnic and religious background and low name recognition in a country with more than 700 languages spoken across 13,466 islands. His most plausible course may be to sign on again as someone’s vice president in the 2019 election, bankroll the campaign and run for president on his own later on.
He does have two things going for him: His media businesses, which gives him a mighty megaphone, and his connection to Trump. “There’s going to be perceptions that he may have advantages because of his relationship with the US president,” says Kevin O’Rourke, a longtime Indonesian analyst and corporate-risk consultant.
“Everyone asks me about Mr Trump,” Hary says, relaxing one evening over post-prandial Cohiba cigars and a $3,500 bottle of Cognac. “They email me. They message me. I tell them our relationship is about the business, not Mr Trump personally” or politically. “He’s not even involved with the business.” Still, Hary says he’d aid President Widodo in dealing with Trump if asked. “If I’m requested to facilitate,” he says with a shrug, “I’m happy to help.”
Hary’s white house rivals that of his role model’s. It takes up nearly an entire Jakarta block, and with its palms and marble and tall columns, it’s a dead ringer for the Scarface manse—or Mar-a-Lago. It has teeming koi ponds, ten bedrooms and a 23-person staff on call 24/7. In other words, very Trump.
Hary finds it serene. A good thing, since he’s invited me to dinner on a stressful night. Eight years ago, Indonesia experienced a captivating political scandal. Antasari Azhar, the head of the country’s anti-corruption commission, was arrested, tried and sentenced to 18 years in jail for the murder of a friend. The two had reportedly been involved in a love triangle. But speculation swirled over whether Azhar had gone after the wrong person as corruption chief and paid for it. Azhar was released early, in November 2016, and granted clemency by the current president.
The day before I came to Hary’s house, Azhar went public with an explosive accusation: The Indonesia president at the time of the murder, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had framed him, after using Hary to deliver a threat—back off the investigation of a Yudhoyono in-law or face repercussions. “You should be careful,” Azhar says Hary told him. Azhar didn’t really think much about it (“I was in law enforcement, I was used to that kind of thing,” he says) until he found himself on trial.
Sitting poolside, Hary tries to seem blithely indifferent, but he’s clearly mulling his next move. “In politics, the game is dirty,” he says. He exhales deeply on a Cohiba and sips at a freshly decanted Bordeaux. “You have to have a poker face. You have to be cool.” Like Yudhoyono, he says that Azhar’s comments are a meritless, politically motivated attack on him.
And with that he beckons me inside for a family dinner befitting a Trump: An 18-person table complete with centrepieces of roses and lilies, waiters in black neckties and vests, and a prepared menu at each seat. His wife and four of their children (one lives abroad in Los Angeles) join us, including his only son, Warren, 15, whom Hary named after Warren Buffett.
As we work our way through the charcuterie, duck consommé, clams, fish, Wagyu beef and white chocolate mousse, the wine, including a 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild, flows freely, and Hary, as tends to happen, dominates the conversation, his waving hands displaying a custom Richard Mille watch, encrusted with diamonds in the shape of a serpent (“It’s the only one in the world,” he says of a timepiece that likely ran about $1 million). There are moments of genuine family interaction—stories about how Hary and Liliana met as children and about their trip to Jerusalem, where the deeply Christian couple prayed for a son and then had Warren nine months later. But it largely consists of Hary quizzing me on how President Trump won the election, which regions of the country he carried in his victory and other questions about America.
“Who continued The Apprentice?” asks Hary, who is mulling a local version—with himself as host, the role that repackaged Donald Trump as the ultimate arbiter of business success and ultimately made him president.
So if President Trump had “You’re fired” as his catchphrase, what would Hary use? The billionaire immediately comes up with a phrase of which President Trump would surely approve: “You’re stupid.”
Dan Alexander and Shintya Felicitas contributed reporting to this story
(This story appears in the 28 April, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)