Mahathir Mohamad

Alibaba’s Jack Ma reassures investors China-Malaysia business ties are strong, despite government reviews

Ma told business leaders in Kuala Lumpur that problems were natural between countries with strong economic ties and it was the job of ‘people like us’ to solve them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 1:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 11:30pm

Alibaba Group’s co-founder Jack Ma on Monday sought to allay concerns about Malaysia’s ongoing review of Beijing-backed investment deals, but at the same time he urged Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s one-month-old government to keep the country’s doors open to Chinese investors.

Speaking after a meeting with Mahathir – the first by a Chinese entrepreneur since Malaysia’s landmark polls on May 9 – Ma hailed the 92-year-old premier as a “legend” and vowed to boost job creation and technology transfers in the country.

His two-day visit to Malaysia also saw him open Alibaba Group’s new office near Kuala Lumpur – its first country office in Southeast Asia, as well as take in meetings with Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and Chinese ambassador Bai Tian.

Ma said Malaysia’s “Multimedia Super Corridor” initiative, Mahathir’s brainchild during his first tenure as premier from 1981 to 2003, served as an inspiration for him to co-found Alibaba Group, the South China Morning Post’s owner.

The general election saw Mahathir roundly defeat the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition he once belonged to which was led by his scandal-tainted protégé-turned-rival Najib Razak.

Since taking office, the veteran politician has set in motion sweeping economic reforms that include a review of Chinese-backed infrastructure deals approved by Najib.

Some of the deals, like the 55-billion ringgit (US$13.7 billion) East Coast Rail Link project to be built by China Communications Construction Company, are deemed by Mahathir to be too expensive and not beneficial to Malaysian interests.

“I heard there will be reviews. So what? Our companies have reviews every quarter. We need to have reviews all the time to determine what is right and what is wrong,” Ma said at the opening of Alibaba’s Malaysia office in the afternoon.

“Before I came here, people said a lot of words about China-Malaysia relationship,” he said. “[But] I came here myself, I feel it, I touch it, I spent an hour with the prime minister this morning. I am very confident in Malaysia, I am very confident in China, I am very confident in Malaysia and China’s relationship, and I am confident in the China business community that comes to Malaysia to invest.”

Ma said it was natural that there would be “problems” between the two countries because of the extent of their economic ties.

“If there is a problem, it is OK,” Ma said, adding that it was the job of “people like us” to solve problems.

In a separate media interview, he likened the relationship between Chinese firms and key overseas markets like Malaysia to a marriage.

“Chinese companies going anywhere, they should follow the local rules and laws and respect the culture and create value and jobs locally … I think the Chinese companies will learn quickly.”

On the flip side, Ma said countries like Malaysia “cannot afford to lose a big market like China”.

“It will be difficult to find a country like China, which has 500 million middle income people in 10 years … the total American population is less than 300 million,” Ma said. “When doing business, you have to embrace the big markets and Malaysia’s small businesses have to think globally and have to think about China.”

Lim, Malaysia’s finance minister, echoed Ma’s assessment on the future of bilateral ties.

Alibaba’s new Malaysian office is a “shining example of China-Malaysia friendship that is based on mutual respect and benefits that augurs well for the cooperation on the part of governments, businesses and people from both parts of the world”, he said in a speech at the opening ceremony.

Bai Tian, the Chinese envoy, said economic figures provided the clearest picture of the state of the relationship. He revealed that the latest data showed bilateral trade grew 14.7 per cent to US$42.7 billion in the first five months of this year compared with 2017.

Meanwhile, three Chinese companies invested 1.2 billion ringgit (US$300 million) in Malaysia just weeks after the May 9 polls, the ambassador said.

“There is an English proverb that says, ‘we shall not look at the tree, we should look at the forest’,” Bai told reporters when asked about the review of Chinese-backed projects.

Mahathir, speaking to the Post in a separate exclusive interview on Monday, said he had “a lot to learn” from Ma.

He said he was encouraged by his discussion with the Alibaba co-founder, which included proposals on the use of cutting edge technology like cloud computing in schools and small businesses.

The meeting between the two in Mahathir’s office in Putrajaya was initially scheduled for around 30 minutes, but stretched to an hour.

Also announced on Monday was a “Malaysia Week” campaign in July to promote Malaysian products, jointly organised by Alibaba and the Malaysian government.

Oh Ei Sun, a prominent observer of China-Malaysia ties, said the comments by Ma and Mahathir suggested that Malaysia will continue to warmly welcome investments that are of the “jobs-creating and skills-transferring variety”.

“Mahathir bears no malice towards Chinese investment in general. He just feels that investment should be of his described variety, and free of irregularities,” he said.