Alibaba founder Jack Ma yesterday offered his ringing endorsement of Malaysia’s ambition to become the leading digital-era Asian logistics base, as the tech giant’s first electronic trading platform outside China opened for business.

The Malaysian electronic world trade platform (eWTP) includes a regional logistics centre near Kuala Lumpur International Airport and an accompanying electronic platform that will enable its users – primarily small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – to conduct cross-border trade without cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles.

The e-hub is the first of its kind outside Alibaba’s home base in Hangzhou. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

“They [Malaysia] have the first move … they have the huge commitment,” Ma said at a press conference after the platform’s launch. “I am sure that the free-trade zone is going to play a very, very important role in this part of the world.”

The event was attended by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other senior government ministers.

“Malaysia is the first,” Ma said. “We are going to make it very successful. If the first one fails no one is going to support the second one.”

Ma first discussed the eWTP concept at last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou. He has previously said the eventual network of global eWTPs – which could take three decades to develop – would serve as the modern, electronic version of the ancient Silk Road trade route that connected China with the rest of the world.

During yesterday’s launch, Najib said he was surprised Malaysia was able to partner with Alibaba to set up the e-hub within one year, after he and Ma first met last November.

“I took that as a challenge,” Najib said. “I want to show that Malaysia can do it. We have proven [to] Jack that a Malaysian government can work just as fast as Alibaba.”

Najib, who is expected to call general elections within months, said the hub’s launch “fundamentally improved the competitiveness of Malaysian firms on the global stage, which will boost exports and bring wide-reaching economic benefits to society”.

Najib said he hoped for “a long-term partnership [with Alibaba] and the rebirth of the old Silk route”.

“This is going to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative … the ‘e’ part of it that will provide the growth, the potential, the catalyst, for us to change and redefine regional global trade,” Najib said.

The Malaysian e-hub will function as a centralised customs clearance, warehousing and fulfilment facility for Malaysia and the region, delivering faster clearance for imports and exports.

Alibaba launches Malaysian hub for electronic world trade platform – and plans a ‘new Silk Road’

The groundbreaking ceremony for the bricks-and-mortar facility – jointly developed by Malaysian Airports and Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics affiliate – was also held yesterday.

The launch of a “Malaysia Pavilion” on Alibaba.com – aimed at promoting Malaysian products to global buyers – was also announced yesterday.

Alibaba Cloud last week opened a data centre in Malaysia as part of deals agreed in March.

Oh Ei Sun, a prominent commentator on Malaysia-China ties, said Alibaba’s rapid development of the Malaysian facility was testament to its attractiveness as the “second-most developed economy in Southeast Asia”.

“With all the quite adequate infrastructure [and the] relatively sound respect of law, it is quite attractive,” Oh said.

Najib last November appointed Ma as the government’s digital economy adviser. Shahriman Lockman, another Malaysian-based China analyst, said Najib’s outreach to powerful corporate figures such as Ma had reaped rewards.

“I think Najib has made it a point to engage people like Jack Ma and impress upon them that Malaysia is willing to go the extra mile to facilitate their investments,” Shahriman said. “I think what we’re seeing here is the fruition of such efforts.”