By A JALIL HAMIDMarch 26, 2017 @ 9:46am

JACK Ma’s life is very much a testament to the idea that nothing is impossible. At least that’s what he still believes in.

A former English teacher and now one of China’s richest men (with a fortune worth around US$30 billion), the executive chairman of Alibaba Group has built his company into a major force in China’s e-commerce.

With a market capitalisation of US$264 billion and which counts some 450 million customers a year, the company is now taking the world by storm by going beyond China.

Emerging as a global icon for Chinese business, he travels widely around the world, meeting government leaders and business people and sharing his business philosophies and his rags-to-riches story with varied audiences.

He dropped by in Kuala Lumpur last week, sharing the same stage with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, concluding a deal to develop an e-commerce hub near Kuala Lumpur International Airport and delivering a lecture at a global transformation forum.

The digital economy adviser to the Malaysian government spoke of how he was impressed by the speed in which Malaysia’s Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) was set up.

“Malaysia is very business-friendly and much more efficient than I thought,” he said.

Ma said it took only 10 minutes for him and Najib to agree on introducing the DFTZ when they met in China last November.

“My team and I thought — is four months possible? We have been discussing it with many European and Asean countries,” he said.

A firm believer in globalisation, the 52-year-old Ma said with China’s Silk Road — which he referred to as the “first globalisation” — the export of China’s tea leaves was possible as they were placed in containers made of tin sourced from Malaysia.

“Without Malaysia, the Silk Road would not have been as successful as Malaysia’s tin protected the quality of Chinese tea in the 18th century.”

The high-profile Alibaba chairman sees his stature as a global business leader as an obligation.

“Running such a big economy, you have the responsibility to share with people what you think,” he once told one interviewer. “Our ideas, our policies, our decisions are going to
affect the lives of half a billion people.”

We Malaysians can learn many things from Ma and his business ways. But we may also find it strange that his company, an Internet-driven conglomerate, bought into Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post newspaper in 2015.

Ma has explained his million-dollar investment in SCMP as ensuring that non-Chinese speakers have access to high-quality information about China.

What are the main things we can learn from Ma? To me, one of the things is that a good command of English is important.

Ma has shared in his numerous TV interviews or public talks on how he went out of his way while growing up in Hangzhou, China, to pick up English by listening to the radio or talking to foreign tourists.

“Since there was no way to learn English at the time — there were no teachers in our city who could teach English — so I listened to the BBC and Voice of America, and there every evening, 8 o’ clock to 9 o’ clock, I opened my radio and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I listened to VOA and the first book I heard about was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” he said.

Another trait of his is to learn to think differently.

“For nine years every morning, whether snow, rain, or sun, I went there looking for foreign tourists to become a free guide and I made a lot of friends.

“This trained me in the way of thinking different from the other kids in China in my generation because everything I learnt from the tourists are so different from the things I learnt from life, from school, my parents… so that trained my way of thinking different.”

Fortune magazine, in its coming April 1, 2017, issue, has written a piece headlined “You don’t know Jack”. It discusses the three precepts which are key to Ma’s approach.

PURSUE an “Asset-Light” Strategy

Alibaba is a platform, not a retailer. It holds no inventory and a 47 per cent stake in a logistics network rather than owning trucks and warehouses directly.

PLAY on the World Stage

Like President Xi Jinping of China, Ma promotes the virtues of global trade — all the better if small businesses sell their wares on Alibaba’s platforms.

PLAN Your Retirement Well in Advance

Ma says he’s been thinking about his departure from the company he built since he was 45, seven years ago. But it’s probably still not imminent.

Perhaps, another key lesson from Ma for Malaysian businessmen is that you can become rich, but not at the expense of the environment.

While you could find almost all products on Alibaba, you will not find ivory, shark fin and sea turtles from the listings.

After learning how shark fins were harvested, Ma made it a point to stop eating the stuff.

“Let’s take down this thing… I am proud of these young people. They care for the environment more than my generation ever did.”

jalil@nstp.com.my

The writer feels in a digital world, the winner does not always take all