Commentary by Wayne Forrest
The uptick of attacks against Asian Americans is a sickening reminder of the intolerance that raises its head all too often in the US. Indonesian Americans have been attacked, as well as Americans with Chinese, Filipino, and other heritages. AICC stands decidedly against these outrageous acts. AICC was established in 1949 by American businessmen who since the 1920’s (and even before) had seen the ugly effects of Dutch colonialism while at the same time benefiting from it. But when Indonesians began their revolution in 1945, this small collection of rubber, coffee, and spice traders banded together in support of an independent Indonesia. They wanted for their Indonesian friends what America had fought World War II for: freedom. But beyond freedom is respect and equality for different heritages and cultures. These WWII veterans went on to establish AICC and the best of our members personify these principles. I will highlight a few.
I can recall many conversations with early AICC members no longer with us about their constructive interactions with Indonesians. Robert Delson told me of his experiences as a young attorney defending the right to asylum for 200 Indonesian seamen in 1947 who had jumped a Dutch ship in NY harbor. He identified with their struggle and won them freedom to reside in the US pending the outcome of the nascent Republic’s struggle for independence. Paul Goodman, who used to paddle up and down Kalimantan’s rivers in the 1950’s looking for rattan and later established one of the first rattan furniture factories in the country, would ask a question three or four ways because otherwise he might only get the answer his Indonesian partner thought would be the most polite. The geologist and former Caltex Chairman Richard Hopper, discoverer of the Minas onshore oil field, Indonesia’s largest, told me some his finest memories were eating local foods with his Indonesian colleagues in the middle of the Sumatran jungle in the 1930’s while looking for oil. Caltex became one of the the first foreign companies to place an Indonesian at its helm. Norman Gouldin was President of Uniroyal and an AICC board member when I was hired in the late 80’s but he had also worked at the company’s rubber plantation in Kisaran, Sumatra in the 1950’s. He and his successors such as Angelo Miglietta, were able to weather periodic waves of anti-foreign Indonesian intolerance because they deemed them temporary and “politics of the moment”. Bill Rothschild, whose father established one of the first rubber broker/dealers in NY in the 1920’s, always had the Indonesian view in mind during AICC board discussions. Rolf Benzian, who passed away in 2020, took the extreme terror of fleeing the racist, ethnocentric intolerance of Nazi Germany and turned it into a positive force for mutual understanding, building a successful chemical business in partnership with Indonesia.
AICC mourns the passing of Rolf Benzian, a bright light in US-Indonesia commercial relations, at age 96. Rolf’s family fled Nazi Germany and after a period in Sweden he made his way to the United States where he founded and presided over Centerchem, a long-time AICC member and global supplier of unique functional products for use in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, food and fine chemical industries. In Indonesia, Rolf played an important role in establishing a state-owned firm, PT SIL, in the 1970’s, which processes quinine into various derivatives, marketed by Centerchem globally. Given his long experience in Indonesia and generous nature, Rolf helped several generations of AICC members develop new businesses with Indonesia through his mentorship. Rolf retired as Chairman of Centerchem and remained on AICC’s board of directors for several years. He epitomized the ethical values on which AICC stands and I salute others within AICC’s current roster who are following in his footsteps.
(These views are the author’s and may not reflect those of AICC or its members.)