Toeing Jack Ma’s line easier said than done

opinion April 23, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Business partnership requires utmost commitment on both sides to benefit all

On paper, the Thai government’s business cooperation agreement with Asian e-commerce king Jack Ma looks very promising. Thailand will purportedly get to penetrate new markets and expand current ones thanks to his increasingly effective online platforms, and his empire will benefit from exotic Thai products with high potential, currently made for limited or modest consumption but certain to register big booms with his know-how.

In reality, the partnership will need strong resolve on both sides so the people they publicly vow to be helping can really reap the gains. Jack Ma’s “empowerment” catchphrase is a lot easier said than done, and the amazing growth and power of his business empire is a testament to that.

Conventional business has been functioning under the big-fish-eat-small-fish phenomenon. Changing that in order to allow the people at the bottom of the pyramid to significantly grow requires many reforms, not least in the mindset of big conglomerates and people who literally serve them – the politicians. The Thailand-Jack Ma public agreement features farmers, start-up businesses and all the currently struggling medium-sized entrepreneurs, but the moment of truth is not yet to come.

The rapid sale of Thai durian on his platforms is a solid proof of how online business can do wonders. Soon, the real question will no longer be about how many durians are sold, but about where the money goes. The Thailand-Jack Ma partnership will become truly noble if it can ensure that durian growers benefit the most from the sale, and businessmen in suits who know virtually nothing about growing durian but happen to be “overseeing” the sale benefit the least.

Nothing tests a person’s ideology better than what it brings when it becomes “successful”. An advocate of small retailing businesses that take advantage of the fast-evolving technologies, the founder of the Alibaba Group has seen his wealth and power increase exponentially. Suddenly, he became a man whom a younger Jack Ma would have frowned upon.

Even today, Jack Ma’s uneasiness with his business power and glory appears evident. In talking about the partnership deal with Thailand after a meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, he emphasised that he really wanted to help, as his wealth had grown a lot more than he could use. One thing about business, though, is that it has to keep growing, keep expanding, and before one realises it, the need to grow, to expand, becomes the top priority.

As for whoever is the government, helping big business players virtually comes with the territory. In countries like Thailand, the gravitational pull of giant companies is even greater, as skilled labour is limited, political connections are important, and only a small number of people are ready to take “risks”.

So, the recipe for going back to Square One, where the big fish eat and control everything, is also very much there, despite the promises of the Jack Ma partnership. The reason for optimism is that online opportunities are real, and shortfalls of the digital revolution do not affect the people technology is supposed to serve. At least not yet.

In other words, durian growers have never been badly affected by online upheaval, unlike those in the media or entertainment industries. It’s simply because the durian growers knew about the Internet relatively less, or not at all. That is about to change, according to the Thai government and Jack Ma. A lot needs to be done, though, for the second mouse to really get the cheese.