James Riady - The evangelical felon


Of the many rich Chinese doing business in Indonesia, James Riady stands as the only one openly mixing religion with business. By and large, the 97% indigenous Indonesians tolerate the 3% minority Chinese unless provoked. In 2001, soon after pleading guilty to a felony charge brought against him by the US Justice Department, he gave an interview to Fortune that caused him endless troubles at home.

Riady was a close friend of Bill Clinton an intimately linked to Clinton’s campaign fundraising scandal. He pleaded guilty to the felony charge of “conspiring to defraud the US”, paid a record US$8.6 million fine, and was barred from the US for two years

Most people would keep a low profile after that. But Riady felt the need to explain, through Fortune, that he was not the villain he was made out to be by the US media. During the interview, Riady, a born again Christian waxed lyrical about setting up schools in poor villages all over Indonesia and converting the people there to Christianity. Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic country with more than 200 million Muslims. Riady’s remark angered many of them. Muhammadiyah (“Follower of Muhammad”), the second-largest Islamic organisation that claims to have 28 million members, quickly assembled mass protests against Riady. James and his family, his parents, wife and four children retreated into their 16-room mansion in Lippo Village

Six years on, his dream of setting up schools in villages remains a dream

James Riady became a Christian in 1990. God, he said, spoke to him personally and showed him all his past sins. “I thought I was a good man. God said, 'You're a horrible man.' I cried and cried... Since then I try to be a better person, and my life has changed,” he once said

Certainly there are changes, but not in the way Riady runs banks. In his pre-Christian days in the 1980s, Riady was caught by US regulators funneling money from his Worthen Bank in Arkansas to his private business. After his conversion, in he 1990s, he was caught doing the same thing through the Lippo Bank in San Francisco. In Indonesia, the Riadys were caught inflating the stock price of Lippo E-net and fined US$500,000.

For years, Riady has talked about giving up business to become a missionary. “Once you have seen eternity, it changes the way you see things,” he declared. As he is still running Lippo from Indonesia today, it would seem that eternity is taking a backseat to earthly gains.



First Published: 
February 2008


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