By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: March 24, 2015
In July last year, I got an email that read like a movie script. Wendy Tanoto, who claimed to be a niece of Woodfibre LNG owner Sukanto Tanoto, was warning me against having him in Squamish. Why? Tanoto, she wrote, “was an extremely notorious businessman in Southeast Asia”. According to her, Tanoto’s companies had evaded tax, got people killed, embezzled funds and harmed forests. Also, Tanoto “imprisoned my mother, sent death threats and used many illegal methods to pressure my family, so that he could steal my father’s assets”. She claimed all that happened after her father, Suaknto’s brother, died in an air crash. To drive her point further home, she also claimed Sukanto got a Canadian engineer imprisoned in Indonesia using his influence with the government. She directed me to her blog for details on all that. In a dramatic parting shot, she wrote at the end, “You guys would regret of having this kind of businessman in your hometown.”
According to Wendy, Sukanto is a sworn enemy of nature, economy, people, business and his very own kith and kin. Sukanto, if anyone chooses to believe her, is pure evil—and there is little to mitigate his wickedness. He could be the perfect antagonist in a Charles Dickens novel or a medieval morality play.
In an age when people have to contend with bland and faceless corporate entities, the Woodfibre LNG comes as an exception. Tanoto makes the job easier for hordes of people who rage on the Internet and the diehard activists who protest on the streets against the proposed plant at the old Woodfibre mill site in Squamish: it is quite reassuring to be able to locate the fount of what people perceive as a threat to them and their habitat. A complex tangle of facts, ideas, numbers and arguments becomes tantalisingly clear when it can all be traced back to a person, when you can affix a face to your body of evidence. With Tanoto backing it, the Woodfibre LNG can never be an abstract, faceless business venture like so many other industrial projects. It comes with the scandalous aura that his critics and detractors have found on him.
Tanoto the hero is as much mythical as Tanoto the villain.
Tanoto’s life is a rags-to-riches fairy tale of a man ennobled by his constant struggle—that is, if anyone chooses to believe the accounts by his company and various media outlets.
For those who feel supported by the Tanoto Foundation, a single fact from Sukanto’s life might stand out as a testimony to his divine role in their lives—he was born on December 25. As the world celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ in 1949, an immigrant couple in Indonesia welcomed their first child, or so Tanoto claims. In reverential if not entirely divine undertones, sukantotanoto.net tells you that Sukanto was born on a Christmas day to a migrant Chinese couple in Medan in Indonesia. The eldest of seven boys, Sukanto was educated in a Chinese school and never learnt Bahasa Indonesia formally. “I wasn’t allowed to go to a national school because my parents held Chinese citizenship. I was considered a foreigner,” Sukanto recalls his childhood in a 2007 interview with Business Times, a Singapore-based magazine.
Even his name is a mixture of myth and reality. His Chinese name, Chen Jianghe, came from two of China’s major rivers—the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) and Huang He. The Chinese, Sukanto told an interviewer with a chuckle, believed that water brought wealth.
And wealth, he claims, came to him because of his single-minded focus and determination. His father ran a three-man firm in Medan supplying spare parts to oil and construction companies.
Sukanto took over the business from his father, his first foray in 1966 at the age of 17. The elder Tanoto died soon after his son joined him at work, leaving the teenager to helm the family business. However, if you believe Tanoto’s niece Wendy, whose mail read like a movie script, “my grandfather was alive until 2000 and passed away when Sukanto was 51 years old, which made him a little too old to be considered as a teenager.” Whatever the truth, no one can discount the fact that Tanoto must have been a hardworking youth—and quite resourceful too. Several reports on the Internet point out that he grew more as a crony of a dictatorial regime in Indonesia of those times than merely by his business acumen.
From his own and his company accounts, Tanoto was a self-taught, strong-willed man who picked up technical skills required in the oil and gas industry on the go. It’s the leitmotif of his narrative: from humble origins, against all odds, an ordinary man builds something extraordinary as the world watches in awe-struck wonder. “When you have a dream, you have to consider how to make your dream come true to reality,” he says matter-of-factly.
Tanoto’s self-image is also of a wealthy but moral man who stays true to his roots and puts family first. And his family and the extended family of his employees stand by him when the times are hard. He may be of old school in family values, but not in his business practices when it comes to environment. “You have to look at the best eco-business practices to build an eco-business,” he claims. And you can rest assured with the management mantra that he says is at the core of his business practice: ‘Good for people, good for country, and good for business’. People come first, and business comes last.
The Wharton School of Business honoured him with the Dean’s Medal in 2012. In gushing praise, it cited his passion for using his success to help people in his native Indonesia and across the globe.
Tanoto may be a hardcore capitalist with a personal net worth of nearly $2 billion but listening to him talk about ‘people’, you could easily mistake him for a good old communist. In a TV interview, a fawning talk show host parades before the audience a motley crew of Tanoto admirers, all singing hymns to his vision and generosity. One of them is an Indonesian farmer who came to Tanoto with nothing but a bagful of clothes. But as he found work on Tanoto’s plantations, his life stood changed. “The first time he came he had nothing but now he lives in a nice house with TV and cars,” says a smiling Sukanto as the grateful farmer looks on to his redeemer.
Tanoto says he believes in sharing his good fortune, even as many activists claim he has amassed it by dubious means. The Tanoto Foundation website proudly details the philanthropic helps it provides, from improvement programs in 200 schools to Tanoto Entrepreneurship Series, Tanoto Professorship Award and Tanoto Student Research. Along with universities around the world, Tanoto Foundation has also established collaboration with The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, that enables studies and research on ASEAN with a focus on Indonesia.
In the company’s narrative, Tanoto is the mythical hero, a self-made billionaire with a heart of gold. But ask Greenpeace about Tanoto and they would paint him in dark hues. Since his business is located in the rainforest, he is always in the crosshairs of environmental activists.
Shane Moffatt, a Toronto-based forest campaigner for Greenpeace, wrote to me in 2013, asking Squamishers to look at the history of the new Woodfibre owner. Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), part of Sukanto’s RGE Group, is one of the largest drivers of deforestation. Despite its evocative name, APRIL is cutting down the last remaining natural rainforests and tiger habitat to feed its mills, claims Greenpeace. This forest destruction is taking a heavy toll on endangered wildlife, including tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos. “As long as his company operates, the future looks bleak for the rare Sumatran tiger, an excellent swimmer well-adapted to the rainforest,” Moffatt wrote. As APRIL clearcuts the forest, the tigers find themselves vulnerable to poaching. Pressurized by NGOs such as Greenpeace, APRIL proposed a new sustainable forest management policy. But under this policy, it can keep clearcutting the forest until 2019.
Environmentalists also lament the destruction of peat bogs which are important natural carbon sinks. When the bogs are destroyed, massive quantities of stored greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. In September 2011, Fuji Xerox ceased selling paper manufactured by APRIL.
The company has denied all claims of wrong-doings, stating it has a commitment to implement practices that mitigate climate change and promote sustainability.
In 2013, after Greenpeace, WWF Indonesia and the Rainforest Action Network filed a complaint, APRIL pulled out of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an eco-labelling body for forest products. APRIL said it had pulled out because an FSC policy rendered ineligible for certification companies which were part of a group that had converted more than 10,000 hectares of forest within the past five years. However, Greenpeace said the move was to save APRIL from a formal FSC investigation of its practices following the complaint. Read reports by investigative journalists on Tanoto and more tales start to tumble out. According to International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, nine of Indonesia’s 11 richest families have found shelter in tropical tax havens, holding ownership of more than 190 offshore trusts and companies. Many among these were closely tied to the late dictator Suharto, who helped a special circle of Indonesians grow rich during his 31-year rule by granting economic fiefdoms to family and friends.
Sukanto, the report claims, built his fortunes after he obtained licences to log and clear rainforest during the dictatorship of Suharto. One of Tanoto’s companies was fined US$205 million recently after being shown to have evaded taxes by using shell companies.
An LNG plant in itself would have attracted enough controversy, and the one backed by Tanoto, whom activists have painted as a villain online, was almost certain to kick up a storm. “All you are doing is taking a bad man and marrying him to a bad industry,” says Michelle Neilson, a local who has been involved in the anti-LNG movement for the past one-and-a-half years.
No wonder then that Squamish social media pages have been abuzz with Tanoto ever since his company announced plans to set up shop at the Woodfibre site. Locals began digging into his business practices—not that tons of stuff available online on him required too much digging—and posting information online. It’s clear from the posts that a lot of Squamishers see him as a rapacious plunderer with no respect for law or nature. The Woodfibre public relations managers, so intent on proving that the plant would be good for the town, usually keep silent on Tanoto. The negative online campaign against Tanoto is so aggressive and in your face that it can deter even a seasoned PR person.
A poster that many have seen around town begins with a simple question: ‘Squamish’s new neighbour’? Locals wonder if Tanoto is indeed the man the provincial government was intent on making their neighbour.
As the online commentary under various posts reveals, Tanoto must have touched a raw nerve in the community. “Whether or not you support the LNG plant, how can you accept this man coming into our community and province? He is so awful. If only 10 per cent of what is on the Internet about him is true, he is still a truly heinous man,” writes a commentator. For some Squamishers, Tanoto is not merely a vile businessman but the evil incarnate. “EVIL … pure EVIL,” says a commentator. Another calls him “an eco-terrorist”. Some think they have to be wary of the LNG plant mainly due to Tanoto’s dark reputation: “The list of his violations is endless. Psychologists say past behaviour is indicative of future behaviour,” writes a commentator.
It is clear that Tanoto’s reputation looms large over the Woodfibre project. Some say even if they were to accept Woodfibre, they would have a hard time accepting Tanoto as its owner. “Even if I agreed with the LNG plant, which I don’t, I would be disagreeing with one owned by Sukanto Tanoto,” writes one commentator.
In the online discourse, Tanoto’s ownership of the plant seems like a sure mark of environmental degradation that would follow: “Because if this guy is not to be trusted, then everything about his operation will be subject to abuse and neglect in favour of the bottom line. This is the corporate model that does what they want knowing worst-case scenario they pay a small fine but no one ever goes to jail.”
For a community that has a range of frightening apprehensions from the LNG plant coming up in a scenic and environmentally sensitive location, Tanoto’s online representation is hardly reassuring. The overwhelming negative information on Tanoto on the Internet—a lot of it from reputed outlets—is the reason why he finds little acceptance among Squamishers online. That’s why there are very few who would his side. Amid rampant angry attacks on Tanoto, you will find such comments rare: “But when you fill up at the pump, are you sure you know who you are supporting? My guess is that some of the investors in the publicly traded company you support are cut from the same cloth as this one [Tanoto]. Really what we need is a better solution.”
Local business-owner Michael Quesnel says he has researched on Tanoto and read about his dealings in pulp-mill industry in Sumatra and the environment issues related to that. After his research, he says, he found there was one word that defined the welcome afforded to Tanoto by British Columbia: Terrifying. For him, the vast difference between the online and offline images of Tanoto is puzzling. He says what frightens him is how the BC government is being mute about his past and rolling the red carpet for him. “How does a convicted criminal come into a country such as Canada and do fancy dinners for our MLAs?” he says, referring to cases of tax evasion and accounting fraud against one of Tanoto’s company.
Neilson is not convinced that Tanoto is a philanthropic man who believes in the greater good. “He’s a very selfish person who has left a legacy of ruin, economically and environmentally,” she says. “Tanoto is not setting up the Woodfibre plant to save the children in China from coal. This is strictly about money and all he cares for his return on investment.” Neilson says Tanoto is among the worst of businessmen in two ways: he’s contributing to a sunset industry that is doing damage and
he comes to Squamish with a bad track record that adds insult to injury.
Tanoto may be as good or bad as any other business tycoon, but he is attracting negative attention because his reputation does not evoke trust among the local residents who are already wary of a controversial industry in their backyard. The Woodfibre LNG plant might not have faced as much protest if it were not backed by Tanoto. When the stakes are so high for the locals, even the tiniest detail would matter.
However, local engineer Craig McConnell, who has keenly studied the LNG industry, says lambasting Tanoto simply doesn’t serve any purpose because Woodfibre LNG is the Canadian subsidiary of his company and Tanoto must be aware that Canada has a high level of government regulation. “It’s easy to dig up dirt on anyone these days, but I simply don’t see the point of attacking someone whom I haven’t even met or talked to. Personally, I have hard times judging people until I met them and I don’t see how attacking Tanoto will benefit people in BC,” he says.
McConnell also says that the online portrayal of Tanoto might not be representative of the broader community. He believes there is a silent majority of people in the community who support the project and they might not be active on the social media for a host of reasons. “People have busy daily lives and their time is taken up by commuting and working and taking care of their family. They don’t feel the need to engage as much as the evangelistic opponents who are organized and have an emotional investment in this issue,” he says.
Geri Avis has worked at the Woodfibre pulp mill and now works in Vancouver. She has been quite vocal in supporting the LNG plant but has pulled back from the relentless bickering on the Internet. As an old resident of Squamish, Avis claims there is a silent majority of citizens, including local businesses, which supports the project but doesn’t want to engage in unnecessary confrontation. “Those faulting Tanoto should also reflect on the business practices of Canadian companies. Before we start casting aspersions on others, why don’t we write about the conduct of Canadian mining companies abroad or the sneaky way the Canadian pension company operated in Germany?” she says.
Online debates, especially by anonymous people, may not be the most reliable indicator of public mood. Yet, one stark fact you cannot miss is this—there are lots of people who passionately defend Woodfibre LNG on the Internet but very few among them would defend Tanoto.
It seems Woodfibre LNG too has realised that Tanoto’s shadow must not fall on the plant. But Tanoto, it seems, is its worst-kept secret. A few weeks ago, when I was planning to prepare a package on the Woodfibre issue, I asked the company for a high-resolution photograph of Tanoto. I was shocked by their response. A global company that circulates tons of publicity material, in both hard and soft forms, told me they don’t have his photograph at the moment but would try to arrange. And how do they do that? The request for photograph, the company said, was sent to the parent company in Singapore! About ten days later I was told: “Will let you know when/if I hear back [from Singapore].” I had asked for just a high-resolution picture of any kind and not a portfolio!
It seemed the mere request for a photograph, from which they had no means to deduce what I was going to write, had sent them into a tizzy. And this is what they further said: Are you writing an attack piece on Tanoto? If you are, forget the photograph. The assumption was the company would provide the photograph only if I was writing a positive piece! When I expressed my shock, a friendly executive realised the gaffe and apologised. If you bring up Tanoto’s name, there is a Pavlovian reaction from the company.
The day I was sending the paper to press, the company told me they had come to know I had written something on Tanoto and they would be happy to give me any information I wanted. I forgot to ask if the condition for getting information remained the same—if it’s a goody-goody piece we cooperate, otherwise the request goes to Singapore and we will let you know “when/if” we hear back.
Tanoto is a big challenge for the Woodfibre LNG which they cannot meet by playing games. With such a negative portrayal of him on the Internet, the company must reach out to the community and educate it on Tanoto’s background. They can give presentations to challenge allegations and allay unfounded fears of the community about Tanoto’s intentions.