They are young and rich, scions of some of Indonesia’s most prominent commercial dynasties. And they’re not afraid to show it.

The latest generation of Chinese-Indonesian tycoons have come far since the dark days of the Asian Financial Crisis, when their parents and grandparents faced not only financial ruin but the threat of violence and murder as they became scapegoats in a spiralling, racially-charged chaos that left their factories looted and burned.

The new, mostly third-generation, leaders of family conglomerates run by the Riadys, Widjajas, Tanotos, Salims and Ciputras no longer feel the need to shun the limelight as many of their ancestors did. In a post-Suharto, newly democratised Indonesia, they are happy to be the highly-visible faces of their firms: their identities, achievements and wealth now something to be celebrated rather than hidden.

Indonesia has these bigger fish to fry than South China Sea

Among the most prominent is John Riady, 31, the grandson of Mochtar Riady who founded the Lippo Group as Lippo Bank in 1948. John has helped diversify its business into property, insurance, media and technology, and grown its a presence in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. The company has recovered from near collapse in the crisis in 1998 to a position of great strength – according to Forbes, the Riady family and its Lippo Group are worth US$2.2 billion today, and he is building on this.

So far is the reversal of fortune that today John, who is leading the company’s charge into e-commerce, talks of the progress the country has made in capitalising on its racial, religious and cultural diversities. He told This Week in Asia that today’s Indonesia was “inspiring in its ability to be welcoming to and absorbing of so many different diversities, and yet still preserve the core identity that holds us together ... this requires a unique combination of humility and confidence that few societies have”.

Taking a similar high profile is Fuganto Widjaja, 35, the grandson of Eka Tjipta Widjaja, who in 2001 lost his Bank International Indonesia business and defaulted on US$14 billion worth of debt.

Fuganto, who holds senior roles in the family conglomerate’s main businesses, including as Chief Executive Officer of Golden Energy Mines, rose to prominence with a high-profile global bidding war he won against British financier Nathaniel Rothschild to acquire a UK-listed company mining coal in Indonesia. He has helped to build his family’s commodities and resources-based SinarMas group back into a position where it is now an international player listed in Singapore and the Indonesian partner of China’s AliBaba in Indonesia.

Then there is Anderson Tanoto, who at 27 is among the youngest of the new batch. As a director of Royal Golden Eagle, he fronts several aspects of the pulp and paper, energy and palm oil business founded by his father Sukanto Tanoto 40 years ago. He has been increasingly vocal in public, whether it is talking about combating forest fires or expansion plans on behalf of his father. “As the second generation taking over, we want to prioritise transparency of our company,” he told Indonesian daily Kompas.

Indonesian leader Widodo’s emphasis on development boosts China ties

All three are examples of how a new generation of Chinese Indonesian businessmen are coming out on the global stage, no longer afraid to declare their identities, achievements and wealth, according to Leo Suryadinata, a visiting senior fellow at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute who has authored several books on Chinese Indonesians,

Their situation is in stark contrast to that of their ancestors two decades ago at the height of the crisis, when the rupiah collapse helped bring about the downfall of President Suharto and a chaos in which riots and violence swept the country. Chinese Indonesians’ factories and shops were looted and burnt, and they were targeted in violent crimes like rape and murder.

Anti-Chinese sentiments had been whipped up because the Chinese were perceived as dominating business circles and accumulating wealth at the expense of the pribumi or native Indonesians.

Resentment had been boiling for decades based on a widely-held assumption that Chinese Indonesians controlled 70 per cent of the economy despite accounting for only 3 per cent of the population.

Indonesia's original national flag paraded for the first time in decades for independence day

The 70 per cent claim had its roots in a 1968 talk in Tokyo by Suharto, according to Leo. It was rehashed in 1995 in a book by Australian analyst Michael Backman, who claimed Chinese Indonesians controlled 73 per cent of Indonesian-listed firms by market capitalisation, a statement debunked by other analysts.

Indeed, no credible research exists to show how much of the country’s wealth is in the hands of Chinese Indonesians, though they do account for more than half of the top 20 in Forbes’ list of wealthiest Indonesian businessmen. As for the 3 per cent claim, the 2010 census found there were roughly 3 million Chinese Indonesians – about 1.2 per cent of the 250-million population, with Javanese the majority race at 40 per cent.

Analysts caution against stereotyping the Chinese as rich individuals as many are also poor or part of the struggling middle-class.

“The Chinese minority’s economic power rose during Suharto’s presidency because of discriminatory policies; they were simply not allowed to explore participating in anything else, like politics, so they focused on the economy,” Leo said.

Discrimination against Chinese began early in Indonesia’s history, and harks back to Dutch rule in the 1700s. More recently, under Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, many Chinese Indonesians were killed during an anti-communist purge in 1965.

When Suharto took over the presidency a year later, he enforced more discrimination by banning the teaching of the Chinese language and celebrations of Chinese festivals, and pressured Chinese Indonesians to adopt Indonesian names.

“Indonesia’s relationship with its Chinese minority has come a long way since. The ethnic tensions of those days have disappeared,” Leo said.

Indonesia’s relationship with its Chinese minority has come a long way
Leo Suryadinata

“With democratisation that swept in after Suharto’s fall in 1998, the Chinese had more freedom and were allowed to participate in the political process.

“Now, they are open to displaying their achievements, and some are writing biographies,” he said, citing those from Mochtar Riady and Tahir, a billionaire banking and property tycoon whose business interests have grown to span healthcare, media, tourism, retail and aviation.

Growing acceptance has also seen Chinese Indonesians foray into politics.

Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is a Chinese Indonesian whose straight-talking ways and firmness in tackling corruption and underperforming city officials have won him backing from all ethnicities.

But he is not the first Chinese Indonesian in a prominent political role. In 1999, economist Kwik Gian Gie was named the economics and finance minister and later put in charge of the national development planning portfolio. In 2004, another economist, Mari Pangestu, became the first Chinese Indonesian female minister when she was given the portfolio for trade.

These appointments came on the back of other key changes at the start of the last decade that showed Indonesia was committed to overturning discrimination against its Chinese, such as the revocation of a law banning Chinese cultural performances and use of Chinese names, and declaring Chinese New Year a holiday.

Suharto ties with Chinese financial backer still hold lessons for Indonesia

While these developments indicate the intensity of resentment against Chinese Indonesians has eased, political analyst Tobias Basuki of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies does not think this will inspire large numbers of Chinese Indonesian businessmen to charge into politics.

“They are still taking a cautious approach and are not keen on being political leaders as much as being able to influence politics,” he said.

The Riadys, who were linked to former US president Bill Clinton, hired former manpower and housing minister Theo L. Sambuaga from Suharto’s Golkar party to head the Lippo Group’s media business.

This does not mean no one in the community is eyeing the country’s top political offices.

Media mogul Harry Tanoesodibjo, a Chinese Indonesian businessman whose wealth is valued at US$1.06 billion – 28th in Forbes’ list of richest Indonesians – this year launched his own political party, largely seen as a vehicle to propel him in a future presidential bid.

However, key figures in the Chinese-Indonesian community, like Sofyan Wanandi, say this is an exception and that Chinese Indonesians are largely reticent about political office, preferring to be strategic about the impact they can achieve.

“They are influential in some sectors of business rather than in politics… because they know they can have a direct impact on building up retail, hospitals, education and infrastructure, and so on,” said Wanandi, who leads the economic team advising the country’s vice-president.

Growing nostalgia for former dictator Suharto aids Indonesian election candidates

Of all these developments, Aimee Dawis, 38, author of The Chinese of Indonesia and Their Search for Identity, says one has been overlooked – the rise of influential, rich female Chinese Indonesians in business.

Among them are former judge Khartini Muljadi, an 86-year-old ranked 38th richest Indonesian who built up a pharmaceutical empire and advised the government, and Hartati Murdaya, 69, a real estate tycoon who owns malls, office buildings and the Jakarta International Expo Centre. The latter, widely-regarded as a financier of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was convicted of graft in 2012.

“Some of these females have been quietly building up their own business empires over decades as the spotlight turns on their male counterparts,” said Dawis.

Indonesia is inspiring in its ability to be welcoming to and absorbing of so many different diversities
John Riady

With China’s rising economic power, some wonder if Chinese Indonesians will pander to Chinese from the mainland, but analysts downplay the suggestion.

Tobias believes that while Chinese-Indonesian businessmen are tapped by Chinese investors from China and can act as connectors between them and the Indonesian government, they are not tied by an ethnic bond, but rather, make decisions based on profit margins.

“The Chinese in Indonesia have lost their connection to China,” said Leo. “They do not speak the language and have already entrenched themselves as Indonesians, especially the second and third generations.”

Leo said that in the latest census many had neglected to state ‘Chinese’ as their ethnicity, listing themselves simply as Indonesians.

“The new generation of Chinese business leaders in their 30s and 40s have developed a unique identity which is not connected to a mythic homeland,” added Dawis. “[They] are busy building up the legacy they inherited.”

Zubaidah Nazeer is a communications consultant and former foreign correspondent based in Jakarta