'This is truly a mess, a very big one' Alliance of empires turns hostile amid fraud allegations and corporate dissent By Leslie Lopez KUALA LUMPUR: A grand alliance between two of South-east Asia's wealthiest tycoons, Malaysian T. Ananda Krishnan and Indonesian James Riady, has collapsed into an acrimonious face-off that could lock their businesses in a bitter legal battle.
In Indonesia, a joint-venture into a pay-TV business has turned hostile. Allegations of embezzlement and fraud, including charges that unauthorised payments were made to an unnamed family member of former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, have been levelled. Relations worsened to the point that at least three employees of Mr Ananda's business units in Jakarta had to flee Indonesia for fear of arrest by the police.
In Singapore, the months-long feuding over how to manage property and hotel company Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), which Mr Ananda and Mr Riady control jointly, has forced the two parties to the arbitration table to resolve differences. A senior executive of Mr Ananda's business empire, which includes the satellite TV network Astro and cellular phone company Maxis, admitted that the businessman's corporate alliance with the Riadys was in trouble. 'The issues are being worked out, but we are also pursuing legal remedies,' said the executive who asked not to be named. Mr Riady, who owns the conglomerate Lippo Group, did not respond to queries. A spokesman for Lippo in Singapore said the company could not comment as the dispute is in arbitration. 'This is truly a mess, a very big one,' said a chief executive of a Malaysian bank which has dealings with the two groups and is closely tracking the situation. 'Both sides made wrong moves and the whole issue boils down to the loss of face. There are not going to be any winners here,' he added. Loss of face aside, the collapse of the four-year business partnership shows how inter-regional corporate alliances are hard to forge in South-east Asia because companies and governments are reluctant to yield their markets to outside competition. When partnerships unravel or domestic political problems crop up, nationalistic sentiments are whipped up. In the process, foreign investors can often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as Singapore groups like Temasek have discovered in their investments in the telecommunications sector in Indonesia and Thailand in recent years.
The following account of the crumbling business ties between Mr Ananda and Mr Riady is based on interviews with bankers, government officials and corporate executives in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, who requested anonymity. The partnership began in early 2005 when both groups agreed to set up a joint venture to operate a pay-TV business in Indonesia through a Lippo subsidiary, PT Direct Vision (PTDV). The subsidiary owned a multi-media licence awarded by the Indonesian government. The pay-TV tie-up quickly led to other corporate pacts. In April 2005, Ananda-controlled Maxis paid US$100 million (S$140 million) to acquire a controlling 51 per cent interest in Lippo's wholly owned cellular telephone company Natrindo. But rolling out the pay-TV and cellular businesses was not easy in Indonesia's heavily regulated business environment.
The joint venture also came under resistance from other Indonesian telcos and pay-TV players that did not want competition from the new Riady-Ananda start-ups. At the time, bankers say that Astro and Maxis executives would privately gripe that the Riadys, who wielded immense clout during the Suharto years, had lost their political muscle to get things done under the new regime. 'The view among the Malaysians was that the Riadys had not been able to ensure the status of the licences that they had obtained from the Indonesian authorities,' said a senior Malaysian banker familiar with the situation. But that did not deter Mr Ananda and Mr Riady from forging new business tie-ups.
In May 2006, Mr Ananda's privately-held holding company Usaha Tegas and Lippo paid S$1.8 billion to take control of Singapore's premier property and hotel company, OUE, from United Overseas Bank. It was Mr Ananda's first major investment in Singapore andd at the time both parties trumpeted the acquisition of the highly prized OUE as a major corporate coup in the island's robust property sector. In the meantime, Astro pushed ahead with building its pay-TV business through the Lippo-controlled PT Direct Vision despite numerous unresolved issues over the planned joint venture agreement. Astro employees were seconded to head PTDV, which is currently ranked as Indonesia's second-largest pay-TV operator with 150,000 customers.
In April 2007, Mr Ananda's Maxis bought out Lippo's remaining 44 per cent interest in Natrindo for US$124 million. It would be a deal that would cause irreparable damage to the alliance. Two months after concluding the buyout of Natrindo, Mr Ananda entered into one of the region's biggest corporate transactions with Saudi Telecom, Saudi Arabia's largest telecommunications firm. He sold a 25 per cent interest in Maxis and another 51 per cent in Natrindo for a whopping US$3.05 billion. The deal stoked anger in the Riady camp. The Indonesians felt that Mr Ananda had already lined up Saudi Telecom as a potential business partner before he concluded the deal to acquire Lippo's remaining interest in Natrindo and in the process deprived the Indonesian group the chance to profit from the Saudi deal. 'The Riadys felt it represented a huge loss of face,' said a Jakarta business consultant who knows the Lippo group well.
But Maxis executives say that negotiations with Saudi Telecom began only after the deal with Lippo was concluded. Relations between the two partners deteriorated rapidly. Lippo then informed Astro that it wanted a non-negotiable sum of US$250 million to sell its interest in PTDV, a demand which the Malaysian group rejected.
The OUE joint-venture also began to unravel. While both parties held roughly equal stakes in the company, close associates of Mr Ananda claim that the Malaysians were deprived of any real sway in the company's management. Within months, Astro and Maxis executives say that Mr Ananda's operations came under intense pressure. In August last year, a police report was lodged at the Jakarta police headquarters against one Astro employee seconded to PTDV for alleged embezzlement by a director of a Lippo-affiliated company called PT Ayunda Prima Mitra. The director allegedly made payments to a family member of former Malaysian premier Mahathir. The allegations contained in the police report, which Astro insists are frivolous, prompted the Malaysian company to immediately fly Mr Sean Dent, who was seconded as chief financial officer in PTDV, out of Jakarta. Mr Dent continues to perform his duties for the pay-TV company from outside Indonesia.
Malaysian police say that the Indonesian police then requested the Interpol division in Malaysia to arrange for them to interview Mr Ralph Marshall, Mr Ananda's chief corporate lieutenant, over the allegations of embezzlement at PT Direct Vision. Astro executives say that the company had informed the police that its employees, including Mr Marshall, were not aware of any alleged criminal acts in the Indonesian pay-TV company.
So far, no further action has been taken by the police in Malaysia or Indonesia. In late May this year, another police report was lodged against Astro executives seconded to PTDV, including the Indonesian company's president director Nelia Molato, alleging embezzlement and money laundering.
Sources in Astro say that shortly after the police report was filed, the company was informed that several of its several of its executives had been listed on a travel ban to Indonesia, including Mr Marshall, Mr Dent and senior technical advisor Michael Chan. The three now perform their duties from outside Indonesia, including Ms Molato, who left Jakarta in mid-June.
With little chance of both parties reaching an amicable situation, senior bankers familiar with the situation say that Mr Ananda is seriously considering legal remedies to resolve his troubles with the Riadys. Astro has also decided that it will cease its licensing pact with PT Direct Vision when its agreement lapses later this month. That will mean 150,000 unhappy pay-TV subscribers in Indonesia because Astro will cease to deliver programming to PTDV. The Malaysian company also plans to initiate legal proceedings to demand for roughly US$250 million as compensation from the Lippo Group for funds and technical services to PTDV in rolling out its pay-TV business.
Comment: Pretty bad stuff. Analysts will write off almost all value in the Indonesian operation. May push shares towards RM3.00. However, the longer it stays at RM3.00 or below, the higher the chance of just taking the whole thing private. I expect AK to collect heavily at those levels should Astro gets there. Obviously the attraction of being listed gets less and less with these developments.
p/s photos: Jeab-Pijittra Sirivejaphand