This story is over 5 years old.

crime stories

What It's Like to Grow Up as the Nephew of Olo Panggabean, the 'Godfather of Medan'

The city's legendary 'preman' still casts a big shadow over his old community.
Chris Panggabean in his Muay Thai gym. 

Chris Panggabean had to learn young how to separate fact from fiction when it came to his great-uncle Olo Panggabean, the biggest preman in Indonesia's third-largest city.

His classmates and neighbors said Chris' opung—grandfather in the local Batak language—was a gangster, a man who led Ikatan Pemuda Karya (IPK), a "youth organization" with a heavy presence on the streets and an occasional intersection with politics. He was a criminal, a gambler, and a debt collector, according to the rumors.


But others said Olo was just a businessman, a philanthropist who lived in an ornate mansion. Chris could understand this part, after all it was his opung who was footing the bill for all those family trips overseas—as many as six a year to Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia.

Then there were the stranger rumors, the ones that could captivate a young boy's imagination. People said that Olo was some kind of magical superhuman, a man who once walked away from an attack with a samurai sword totally unscathed. Chris laughed and told me he actually believed the last part when he was still a kid.

"When we got older we realized it was all bullshit," Chris said. "He was just an excellent strategist and a brilliant businessman. He didn’t have any magic powers."

Olo Panggabean at his 65th birthday. Photo provided by Chris Panggabean

The truth is that Olo was all of those things—aside from magically impervious to stab wounds— because he was a preman, the "free men" of Indonesia who occupy an unique role in the country's social fabric. Preman are gangsters, street-level operators and thugs who run extortion rackets, protection schemes, and businesses that rely on their fearsome reputation to achieve results, like debt collecting.

But they're also so much more, explained Ian Wilson, a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, at Murdoch University who studies the intersection of gangsters and politics in Indonesia. The term has its roots in the Dutch word "vrjiman" ("free man"), a term that was used during the colonial years to refer to men who were allowed to avoid the forced labor that was common at the time because they had another, more important use, for the Dutch: population control.


"So from early on, it has held a contradiction: between someone who is free from normal social constraints, but who is also a component of imposing constraints on others, usually for a prevailing regime or set of interests," Wilson told me.

Preman are also involved in the more legitimate worlds of politics, often through their membership to ormas—mass organizations—and politically affiliated paramilitary groups. They organize rallies, raise support for political candidates, and provide security at campaign events.

"If you look at a city like Medan, many of those who are in formal positions of power in parliament and political parties, have a background in the world of preman, including within so called 'youth' or 'social' organizations such as Pemuda Pancasila," Wilson told me. "We often think of 'gangsters' and formal politics as somehow antithetical, but in Indonesia the relationship between the two has been more complex, with the preman really embodying this."

It's this duality, the fact that these men can straddle both worlds while still flying the preman flag high, that lets some of them achieve bigger-than-life status. Preman like John Kei and Hercules are as well-known on the streets of Jakarta as any celebrity. And in smaller cities, figures like Gun Jack and Olo can rise to almost legendary status. That's why here, at VICE's Indonesia office, we're interested in what it's like to grow up in the family of a famous preman.


For Chris it meant a lifetime of both privilege and suspicion. He told me that growing up with an opung like Olo definitely had its perks. Whenever he got into a fight, Olo could make the troubles disappear with a simple phone call. He had ties with the local police and the power to make criminal charges vanish—within reason, Chris said.

“The only thing he wouldn’t get involved with was drugs," he told me. "He hated that shit. He always told us that if we had a problem with drugs we were on our own.”

Today Chris runs the Medan Muay Thai Boxing Gym out of one of Olo's old homes. The gym still has the looks of a mansion, with a sweeping staircase and tall windows etched with ornate stained glass. Chris told me that a lot of people in Medan still recognize it as his opung's old place, adding that just the other day an ojek driver stared at the building in awe after dropping him off, remarking, "Didn't this used to be one of Olo Panggabean's mansions?"

But there was also a downside to being part of Olo's family. Chris found it difficult to date when he was young. He would ask a woman out on a date, only to later find out that her parents were horrified at the idea. No one wanted their daughter dating someone from the Panggabean clan.

“Their moms were worried that I was a gangster," he told me. "If that happened I would just say ‘OK, we’re done.’ I used to get embarrassed about it when I was younger. Everyone knew who Olo was, even when I was in Singapore or Malaysia people knew about him."


Chris carries himself with the confidence and natural swagger of someone who loves hip-hop. He raps on the side, under the name "Chris AP," and peppers his Indonesian with English slang like "dope." He agreed to meet me after I told him I wanted to learn more about Olo. I've been living in Medan for one and off for more than 10 years, and the shadowy world of the preman is never far from the surface. Live in Medan long enough, and you'll hear names like Olo Panggabean come up far more often in conversation than local singers or other celebrities. In Medan in particular, the preman are the real celebrities.

So how did Olo get so famous? And what was he actually like? Chris told me that Olo grew up in Petisah, a neighborhood in central Medan he described as the "ghetto." It was there that Olo learned at a young age how to hustle for money on the streets. By the time Olo was in his 20s he was earning a tidy living protecting local businesses along the nearby Jalan Sekip. Olo had his own "squad," that he could dispatch whenever there was trouble in the neighborhood, Chris explained.

But it was his decision to found IPK that really raised his profile from a street-level figure to someone who was involved in politics—raising funds for candidate's races—and supporting several charities on the side. It was this charity work that made Olo, one of eight children, his mother's favorite son, Chris told me.


“He helped out everybody” he said. “It didn’t matter if it was a politician or someone selling satay on the street. If they needed help then he gave it to them.”

Olo also threw massive parties at his home, inviting musicians to perform, and buying ice cream for all the neighborhood kids. He helped some of his favorite local musicians break into the industry and attain real levels of celebrity, Chris told me, explaining that the relationship was similar to Don Corleone and Johnny Fontane in The Godfather.

So does that mean Olo was fond of putting severed horse heads in people's beds as well, I asked.

"Of course not," Chris said with a smile.

But it wasn't all parties and charities with Olo. He was accused in the press of running an illegal gambling syndicate—a claim that eventually ended in a clash between IPK and the National Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) in the streets of Medan. That was in 1999 and it took another six years before the police were able to shut the syndicate down. But Olo remained free and shifted his business to more legitimate concerns.

I told Chris that I planned to talk to some other people in Medan about Olo. He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand, arguing that everyone would either pretend they knew Olo personally when they didn't or, even worse, just say he was nothing more than a mere thug.

But when I was in Kampung Madras, a neighborhood with a sizable Indian and Chinese population, working on a story about the anti-Chinese riots that occurred across Indonesia in 1998, a local man who refused to let me use his name or take any photos out of fear of discussing such a dark chapter in the country's history, still felt compelled to tell me that it was Olo and IPK who came to their defense.


“He wouldn’t let the hooligans come down here," the man, a Chinese Indonesian shop owner, told me. "He protected us."

I mentioned the story to Chris who nodded and replied, "Of course. He would never let people loot and rape anyone in Kampung Madras. He didn't care who you were, Christian, Muslim, Chinese, he wouldn't let anyone rape a woman in an area under his protection."

There were times during our interview that it seemed like Chris was romanticizing the memory of his opung as a way to preserve his memory. Of course Chris would want his great-uncle to be remembered as a businessman and protector instead of a gangster.

Olo Panggabean at his 65th birthday. Photo provided by Chris Panggabean

But Olo's open acceptance of Indonesians from different religions and ethnicities wasn't an exaggeration. The city of Medan is one of the most-diverse urban centers in Indonesia. An estimated 60 percent of the city is Muslim, while another 29 percent is Christian. It's home to a wide range of ethnic minorities, including Indian, Arab, and Chinese Indonesians who live and work alongside indigenous Batak peoples, Javanese transmigrants, and Minangkabau from West Sumatra.

Olo's own family was equally mixed. Olo was a Christian, but Chris and his father are Muslim. No one in the family cared about the religious differences, Chris told me. Instead they all celebrated every holiday together.

Olo passed away in 2009 at the age of 67 after falling ill. People across the city of Medan mourned his passing and thousands showed up at his funeral. Chris told me that the flower boards offering condolences seemed to stretch for kilometers across the city.

But how does Chris remember his great-uncle? He paused for a moment and explained that there was one thing Olo taught his family above everything else.

“He always told us that it was important to be a real man," Chris told me. "He didn’t mean fighting. He meant take care of your girl properly, look after your family right. I'm trying to be a real man like he was. But it ain’t easy being that dope."