The quiet philanthropist

Indonesian tycoon Tahir has traded a history of discreet philanthropy for a policy of public, strategic giving. Now he wants Asia’s wealthiest to do the same

On a warm April morning in Abu Dhabi, Indonesian businessman Tahir stepped into a hotel meeting room and into the big league of philanthropy. Within minutes, flanked by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the 61-year-old had quietly signed away more than $100m of his fortune against a muted background of clicking and flashing cameras; money to be doubled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and funnelled into tackling some of Indonesia’s most intractable public health problems. It was, he told the clutch of waiting journalists, a new beginning.

Tahir is no stranger to largesse. A self-made billionaire, he’s built a sprawling empire with interests in banking, retail, healthcare, media and more; propelling himself into the ranks of Indonesia’s wealthiest with, according to Forbes, a $2bn fortune. Along the way, he has siphoned off millions of dollars for philanthropy through the Tahir Foundation, gifting money to needy students, to universities in Indonesia, Singapore, China and the US, and, in 2012, to fund medical research. For much of this Tahir ducked the limelight, preferring instead to unobtrusively clear medical bills for poor families, or fund scholarships for aspiring academics. Headline-grabbing donations were a scarcer occurrence. His private foundation, arguably one of Indonesia’s largest, doesn’t even have a website.

The tie-in with the Gates Foundation, however, was a game changer. It not only marked Tahir as the first major private donor in Indonesia to align himself with the multibillion-dollar foundation, but also signalled his own shift towards a policy of public and strategic philanthropy.

“I have a lot to learn,” says Tahir, pin-sharp in a dark suit and tie. “In Indonesia, we carry out philanthropy on a more individual, direct basis. The Gates Foundation has a broader approach – they look at how to make the biggest impact with their money. I have been given enough wealth to do good work. But this is an opportunity for us.”

The $206.5m pledged by the Tahir and Gates foundations will be drip-fed over five years into five critical areas of public health. The first $50m was promised to the global effort to eradicate polio, a paralysing viral disease that once raged in 125 countries but now, thanks to titanic public health campaigns, has been corralled into just three. A further $130m was ringfenced to fight HIV, malaria and tuberculosis in Tahir’s home country, while $26.5m was set aside to bolster access to family planning tools in Indonesia and the wider Southeast Asia region.

This is high-margin philanthropy that tackles the scourge of ill health, a blot that spreads poverty and stifles economic development. Improved family planning alone holds the promise of high returns: for every $1 spent on contraception, countries can save up to $6 on water, health, housing and other critical public needs.

“We have a lot of challenges in Indonesia, and our philanthropy has to match those needs,” says Tahir. “I want to see people healthy, upgraded in their education, able to work for their families. There is a Chinese saying; ‘the demand is so much but the pot is so little’. That’s why we need the best return on our funding.”

“My business is second to my philanthropy. To be the richest person has never been my goal”

By any measure, Indonesia’s needs are vast. Of a population of 234 million, half of all households remain clustered on the national poverty line, grinding out an existence on less than $22 a month. More than 32 million Indonesians live below the line in dense poverty, yet to be touched by economic growth that has reached 6 per cent in five of the past six years. Tahir, an expert assistant to Indonesia’s coordinating ministry for people’s welfare, has seen much of this destitution first-hand.

“Nearly 40 per cent of our people are in poverty and the gap between the rich and he poor is widening,” he says. “I was born in Indonesia, it gave me a chance to make a living, to raise my children. I have taken from society, so it is only natural that I should give back if I can. And there’s a lot of work to do.”

Tahir himself grew up in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, in a home that faced its own share of financial difficulties. His parents ran a pedicab business and leased the three-wheeled vehicles out to drivers, an early sign of the entrepreneurial flair that would later propel Tahir to fame. After high school and a stint at Singapore’s Nanyang University, he began his career in business, initially peddling clothing and textiles to Indonesians seeking imported goods. In 1990, he founded Bank Mayapada, the first cornerstone of his business empire, which went on to list seven years later.

In the years since, Tahir’s Midas touch has given him a grip on much of Indonesian industry, but his goal has never been to pile up riches. As his business grew, so did his philanthropic activities: last year saw Tahir donate $24m to the National University of Singapore for medical research. In 2011, he gifted $1m to the University of California, Berkley, to fund scholarships for MBA students primarily from Asia, building on the raft of scholarships he already funds at more than 20 state universities in Indonesia.

“My business is second to my philanthropy. To be the richest person has never been my goal,” he says. “I use that because you need to have proper financial power to do good work, and carry out philanthropy. But entrepreneurship is only a means; it’s not the end.”

“Philanthropy is about setting an example. I want to be the inspiration for others to follow”

He is also quick to inveigh against the cutthroat policies of multinational corporates, and against titans who wait to amass a fortune before deigning to give any of it away. As a philosophy, his has strains of the great 19th-century industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who insisted that the man who died rich, died disgraced. “It is not just what you do after you are rich, it’s also a question of how you made your money,” Tahir says. “This is very important. There is philanthropy in the process as well: you should earn money in an ethical way. Yes, once you have wealth, you also have to distribute it properly, but I try to instill philanthropy in the journey too.”

In the wake of his pairing with the Gates Foundation, Tahir is now turning his attention to persuading others to follow in his footsteps, making waves among Asia’s wealthiest. His first target was tycoon Syed Mohktar AlBukhary, named by Forbes this year as the eighth richest Malaysian, with a $2.75bn fortune. Tahir brokered an introduction to the Gates Foundation and says he hopes to see the two working together in the near future.

“Philanthropy is about setting an example,” he says. “I want to be the inspiration for others to follow. We hear again and again how China and Asia are rising in the global economy, but I'd like to see the region play as big a role in the philanthropic world. If we are in the spotlight of the whole world, then let’s use it. We should be an example to others.”