Indonesia’s Tom Lembong: ‘Let’s move away from playing games’

Maria A. Ressa
Indonesia’s Tom Lembong: ‘Let’s move away from playing games’


'We’re not a defensive culture. We’re not a closed culture. We’re not a culture of losers.'

We hugged each other when he walked into the room. 

Twenty years ago when I was CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief, Tom Lembong was a constant companion who helped me understand his complex and fascinating nation, the lynchpin of Southeast Asia.

We spent hours discussing why events played out as they did. Tom’s insights helped give depth to my reporting during some of Indonesia’s most turbulent years, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the forest fires which spread haze across the region that year, and the protests and riots which heralded the end of President Suharto’s 32-year rule of the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

When President Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998, the deep bass voice with measured tones that did a crisp, simultaneous translation on CNN belonged to a 20-something Tom Lembong. On succeeding marathon coverages, he also became the voice of succeeding presidents: BJ Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He was perfect for the job, bridging cultures, simultaneously translating the formality of Bahasa Indonesia into American idioms. 

A man whose beliefs were formed by at least 3 different cultures, Tom spent his elementary school years in Germany, where his father, a medical doctor, was based.  That’s why he speaks fluent German. Then he went to high school in the United States, even as his parents instilled in him a deep love and yearning for his homeland.

Fresh from a Harvard University education, he became an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in Singapore. Then he decided he wanted to come home to spend time with his aging parents. He joined Deutsche Bank in Jakarta, and then the Asian financial crisis hit, essentially wiping out more than 90% of Indonesia’s private companies.

That’s when he announced to his friends that he would quit his high-paying job to help the government restructure Indonesia’s banks.  He looked at it as his chance “to pay it forward.”

“I remember telling you, you were crazy,” I said.

“Well, that probably hasn’t changed,” he said, both of us laughing as we reminisced. “I think to make life fulfilling, to make life fun, you have to be a little bit crazy, right? You can’t always opt for the safe and steady. You have to go out on a limb once in a while.”

Tom served for two years as a Division Head and Senior Vice-President of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA).  In 2006, he became a Founding Partner of Quvat Capital, helping raise more than $500 million to invest in Indonesia.

In Manila this week for the APEC summit as Indonesia’s Trade Minister, the 44-year-old technocrat explained the lessons he has learned as a leader.

Failure and humility

“I’ve had some challenging times, and I think even some pretty devastating failures, to be honest,” he said. “But it was great because it taught me humility, you know?”

I remembered debates that would last hours. The end of the Suharto era surprised most Indonesians, and it unleashed a Pandora’s box of conflicts, from sectarian to ethnic to political.  Some of the questions we tackled: Why did Indonesians love Suharto? How can a country change? Why were more Indonesian women wearing the jilbab? What’s the right balance between individual rights & the needs of the society? How can you get rid of corruption? How can you live your ideals? Revolution or change from within?

“Before maybe, I was always more keen to talk and show off how smart I am,” he said.  “Afterwards, I realized that actually the most important thing in life is to be a good listener, right? I think over time, one learns to put aside one’s ego, right?  And so even criticism doesn’t really faze me.  It’s funny, I’ve had situations where some of my fiercest critics ultimately became very good friends because of just one thing – and that is a willingness to listen.”

One of our favorite topics decades back was defining identity, especially for people like us who come from more than one culture. It surprised me to see the once logical Tom forge ahead and embrace emotions.

“I believe that national and ethnic differences are often so exaggerated,” Tom said when I asked him how he integrates his worlds today. “At bottom, even across vast, different cultures, all people appreciate sincerity. All people appreciate kindness and respect. People may have different ways of showing it: some cultures tend to be more gregarious; some cultures tend to be more subdued.  I think there’s something strangely human underneath all of us. And real sincerity, real respect … dare I say … love – I think people are able to detect that across cultural divides.”

“You moved away from Mr. Spock, and you’re now moving towards embracing things that are not rational?” I asked, bringing up our Star Trek symbol for logical decision-making.

“True, true,” he answered. “That used to be another infatuation. I used to think that everything should just be rational.”

“Over time, I’ve become even more appreciative of the things that make Indonesian culture so unique.  I’ve come to more greatly appreciate our strength, which is our diversity, our tolerance for differences, our openness to new things,” Tom added.  “And I think our national strategy should be rooted very deeply in our centuries-long culture.”

“What’s your reaction to the terror attacks in Paris,” I asked.

“I do worry that one of our top enemies ought to be cynicism, right? And I think a lot of times we, technocratic, bureaucratic leaders, take a cynical approach to leading or to policy-making, and I think it has done more than its fair share to cause disillusionment. I worry that if we globally, as leaders, perpetuate cynicism in the way we lead, in the way we make policy, in the way we address issues, people can tell, and it causes them to become disaffected and turn towards other potential sources of genuine truth, right?”

Changing the conversation

I asked him why he believes in Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, known more commonly as Jokowi, who was elected last year on a wave of optimism and change, but whose performance the past year has disappointed many. His cabinet revamp to address that last August brought Tom into his cabinet.

“What’s quite revolutionary with President Jokowi is how he’s changing the conversation, how he’s changing the tone,” Tom answered. “He’s becoming more well known around the world, and I expect he will become more well-known around the world. The people will notice his sincerity, his humility. In light of the tragic events in Paris a few days ago, again the importance of that sincerity, of that authenticity, to me becomes amplified because I think cynicism breeds disillusionment.”

What he said next is refreshing honesty that’s rare from a sitting public official.

“The antidote is very simple,” he added. “Let’s move away from the cynicism. Let’s move away from playing games, right? On the trade front, let’s be honest. We all talk about free and even fair trade, but what do we do in practice? The truth is since the global financial crisis in 2008, most countries, including Indonesia, have been quietly rolling out protectionist measures.”

“Correct. I’m so glad you said this,” I responded.

“Well, I think the cynical approach would be to deny it or to cover it up. Or engage in a bunch of rhetoric,” he continued. “Let’s start by telling the facts, by admitting the truth. And let’s look at something else very factually, very honestly. Have these measures been helpful? For the last 3 years, global economic growth has been very weak. Emerging markets, which would have been probably most active in rolling out these protectionist measures, have seen their currencies collapse.”

“Are we going to see this change?” I asked.

“I think so,” he answered. “Personally, I believe we’re just going back to what the Indonesian culture is actually anyway. We’re not a defensive culture. We’re not a closed culture. We’re not a culture of losers. You know, we’re a culture of winners. We’re a very diverse society full of tolerance for each other so our economic policy should be like that.  Our trade policy should be like that. I mean, there should be other countries that have a culture of being very closed, very defensive, but I just don’t see where that applies to us.”

That, he added, is part of the reason Indonesia’s President Jokowi told US President Obama Southeast Asia’s largest nation is joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. (READ: Jakarta can meet TPP standards)

I asked him how he would find the balance between being open and trusting versus being cynical to protect his ministry and country. He laughed.

Keeping one’s heart

“Well, you know, one still has to be savvy.  One still has to be realistic and a good manager. You have to know sound management principles. You have to be astute, and often times paranoid even. Because, you know, you’re up against a lot of cynical people. Or people with ill intentions. I mean honestly, good sources of that balance is family. Your family reminds you of what’s actually important in life. Again that’s another difference 15 years ago versus now.  I think when you start having a family, it just changes you completely. You should allow it to change you completely.” (Tom now has two kids).

“I think for societies and for many in the world, religion is another excellent source of sincerity, genuineness, and you know from our former President Wahid, who is a phenomenal Muslim cleric …”

“But not a very good president,” I interrupted. Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known as Gus Dur, was pushed out by Indonesia’s parliament, the People’s Consultative Assembly, in a no-confidence vote after less than a year in office.

“Yes, but that’s why sound management still applies,” he retorted. “So you’re right, you have to balance: one that is scientific and logical and rational and astute and a good manager. But one also has to keep one’s heart. President Wahid was a great spiritual leader in the Islamic community, and now Pope Francis. I mean, look at the mental revolution that he’s brought!”

Among the ideas Tom brought up in the 40 minutes we spent together: shifting the global monetary architecture away from an overdependence on the US dollar as the medium exchange rate during a time of shrinking dollar liquidity towards China’s renminbi. I asked him whether that would be politically sensitive.

“I don’t think so,” he quickly retorted saying the idea is supported by the UK, Germany, Korea, and the US after President Jokowi’s recent state visit. “Look, the more the renminbi gets out into the global economy, the more China has a stake of the global economy. And China will take its rightful place as one of the stewards of the global economy, which is appropriate given that they are in nominal terms second largest and in real terms potentially already the largest economy in the world.”

He parried questions about recent controversies like this year’s corruption scandal involving the police chief and Jokowi: “These are outward manifestations of change that is happening, regeneration, rotation. What you can’t do is status quo;” and the haze, the forest fires which spread through Southeast Asia this year, something we discussed incessantly in 1997. Although I knew his ministry wasn’t involved in solving this long-standing problem, I asked him about its economic impact.

“It’s more a social and humanitarian issue,” he said. “Yes, it does have economic impact. Turns out, surprisingly to me, that’s been manageable to me. Economic numbers are showing moderate impact, but the humanitarian cost was unacceptable, and the environmental cost is unacceptable. Again, we have to change attitudes, mindsets, instead of thinking about the short term or the quick hit. You have to foster a system that appreciates the longevity, the intergenerational aspect of society and economic policy.”

There’s no doubt Tom has the intellectual capacity as well as the self-awareness to make a difference. To do what he set out: to beat cynicism, to be sincerely honest, these entail risk and great courage.

I know his values as he knows mine. We’ll keep a watchful eye, and he knows that if he were to do anything wrong, that despite our past, Rappler Indonesia would be at the frontlines to tell the world about it.

Those are the values we live, something the young Tom helped me crystallize.

Good luck in changing the world, Minister Lembong! –

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.