The Jakarta Post
I am Chinese in ethnicity, no one can deny that fact. But what is much more important is that Indonesia is my motherland. And as a true Indonesian I have the obligation to redistribute what I have received from my country and nation,' Tahir told a group of Indonesian journalists who traveled with him to cover his meeting with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on April 24.
During conversations, he cited at least three times one of the dark sides of the 1997-1998 financial crisis that ruined Indonesia's economy and forced Soeharto to end his 32-year rule.
He talked of Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance (BLBI), in which the central bank was required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to channel hundreds of trillions of rupiah to rescue private banks and the private sector. Until now, the massive loans remain controversial.
He said he never received a loan from the central bank scheme, and he pointed out that many conglomerates owe the nation for receiving huge amounts of money and they have a moral obligation to repay that debt to the nation, not just to the government.
The spirit of redistributing parts of wealth through transparent management is very strong in the West, but relatively new among wealthy Asians. This time, Tahir wants to pioneer joint cooperation with world-class philanthropists.
His choice is Bill Gates.
Perhaps Dato' Sri Tahir did not realize his strong similarity with Gates when they met in Abu Dhabi on April 25. Both of them are college dropouts (although Tahir would continue his studies later in other subjects after dropping out of medical school for financial reasons), and both are holders of an honorary doctorate.
Tahir is one of Indonesia's wealthiest men, while Gates is one of the world's richest. The co-founder of Microsoft is now the world's largest philanthropist and Tahir wants to follow the man's path in social and health work by becoming Gates' partner in a massive health project in his own motherland.
And it is now official: The chairman of the Mayapada Group is the first Indonesian partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Tahir could not hide his pride and joy after a 30-minute private meeting with Gates on the sidelines of an international conference on polio eradication.
The chairman of the Tahir Foundation and the boss of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to provide US$200 million ' each of them contributing $100 million ' for the next five years.
Their effort is a part of a global movement to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). $50 million will go to the global fight against polio, which is still rampant in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
'Bill Gates' plan to play an active role in social activities in Indonesia is expected to encourage other Indonesian businesspeople to do the same,' Tahir said.
'We live and earn a living in Indonesia. It is very proper that we also do more for our fellow Indonesians,' said Tahir, who refuses to be called a tycoon.
They will spend $150 million to help eradicate HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and for family planning in the country. Gates described the last target as reproductive health, which gets serious attention from his wife, Melinda, who will come to Jakarta this year.
Gates himself specifically mentioned developing a health program in Papua, which he called Irian Jaya.
'We have a lot to learn from the Gates Foundation and we hope this will be the start of other [Indonesian] philanthropists joining in more,' Tahir told journalists.
Meanwhile, Gates said, 'working with partners like Dr. Tahir will increase our impact in achieving ambitious goals.'
He described Tahir's commitment as strong evidence for the global community that people can come together to solve global challenges.
Tahir, who uses only one name, was born in Surabaya on March 26, 1952. He changed his Chinese name to Tahir in the 1960s because Soeharto's regime required all Indonesians of Chinese descent to use Indonesian names.
He received the 'Dato' Sri' title from the Pahang Sultan in Malaysia due to his social work and contributions to the country. On education, after failing in his medical studies in Taiwan, he pursued his education at Nanyang University in Singapore and Golden Gate University in the US.
His Surabaya accent is very strong. He said the legendary Srimulat Comedy Troupe remains one of his favorites.
His father was a pedicab maker and his mother helped her husband to paint the three-wheeled vehicles. They rented the vehicles mostly to Madurese people who are known as tough workers and who have great pride in their ethnicity. Young Tahir began to learn to manage people from his parents' business.
Tahir's wife, Rosy, is the daughter of the founder of the Lippo Group, tycoon Mochtar Riady. Although he never said anything during conversations with journalists, it seems that his business links with his father-in-law or brother-in-law James Riady are limited.
The couple has three daughters and one son: Jane, Grace, Victoria and son Jonathan. All work for the Mayapada Group. Following Chinese tradition, 26-year-old Jonathan is the crown prince of Tahir's business empire, which includes banking, print media and pay TV, property, a hospital and a chain of duty free shops (DFS).
Jonathan is very close to his father and was always attentive, even when his father had lengthy conversations with others. They shared the same hotel room during their stay in Abu Dhabi, and he was a loyal aide.
Meanwhile, when asked about the saddest moment in his business life, Tahir said with a big smile, 'When the Salim Group fired me as the dealer of their automotive business [he mentioned a Japanese car brand]. At that time it was practically my only business.'
He will never forget the help of a senior government official, who showed him the way to obtain a large amount of textile exports after his automotive business bankruptcy. In 1990 he established Mayapada Bank.
'We are born in Indonesia, live and gain our wealth in Indonesia. It is time now to return it to our compatriots,' Tahir said.
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