China's marvellous maverick Jack Ma

BEIJING - To his fellow countrymen, Mr Jack Ma is the closest China has to the late Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder of Apple.

To global investors, Mr Ma is the eccentric spiritual leader of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, which is set to launch one of the biggest initial public offerings (IPOs) in history.

But the 49-year-old maverick technopreneur prefers to see himself as something of a cross between Feng Qingyang, a reclusive master swordsman from a famous Chinese martial arts novel, and ET - the iconic alien in the 1982 Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Such is the larger-than-life persona of the diminutive Mr Ma, who has earned a cult following in China. Here, Alibaba is the reigning e-commerce champion with its business-to-business platform and its flagship online store for retailers called Taobao, which means "search for treasure".

Alibaba was founded in 1999, with Mr Ma as the chief executive. Some called him the "chief cheerleader" as he was known for firing up his staff - now numbering more than 23,000 - with pep talks not unlike those by Mr Jobs.

But the showman in Mr Ma Yun - his Chinese name - would do more than just talk.

He has been known to belt out hits like Can You Feel The Love Tonight at major company events, while hamming it up for the cameras in costumes such as the ensemble of a flowing white wig, Mohawk, leather jacket and black lipstick, or dressing up as the Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger on his arm.

Last year, he relinquished his CEO role to focus on other pursuits such as charity, the environment, education and film-making. Yet it is still Mr Ma who dominates news about Alibaba.

Chinese media casts him as the hero in a David-versus-Goliath narrative: Not only did he transform Alibaba from a barely profitable operation to one that forced eBay's retreat from China, he also turned it into the world's largest e-commerce platform whose summer listing in the United States could rival Facebook's US$160 billion (S$200 billion) IPO.

Nothing in Mr Ma's background, however, foreshadowed such great successes. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, where his parents' profession - performers of the traditional musical storytelling technique of ping tan - was banned.

While he hoped to study at the prestigious Peking University, he flunked his college exams twice and had to make do with a low- ranked teacher's institute in his hometown in Hangzhou province.

There, he studied English - which he picked up as a teenager by cycling 40 minutes every day, rain or shine, to the city centre to act as a free tour guide to foreigners - and became a teacher.

In 1988, he married his college sweetheart Zhang Ying, who helped him in his business ventures before becoming a housewife to take care of their son, who is now 21.

Mr Ma's first two start-ups, a translation business which led him to the US where he learnt about the Internet, and an online Chinese version of the Yellow Pages, flopped.

That did not stop him from gathering his wife and 16 friends to set up Alibaba, so named because it is easy to pronounce in most languages. The group pooled together US$60,000 and set up the firm out of Mr Ma's Hangzhou apartment, where the dial-up connection was so spotty that it took some three hours to load half a Web page.

But he had a trump card: fighting spirit. "Chinese brains are just as good as theirs and this is the reason we dare to compete with Americans," he told his co-founders, according to the Financial Times. "If we're a good team and we know what we want to do, then one of us can defeat 10 of them."

When eBay sought to capture the China market around 2002, he launched Taobao by offering free accounts, haemorrhaging cash until the American giant retreated in 2006. Taobao went on to win an 84 per cent market share and still holds its own against new Chinese rivals, like the US-listed

In all, Alibaba has more than 600 million registered accounts - almost half of the Chinese population - and hosts some 100 million shoppers a day.

When Alibaba, which was running Yahoo's China operations in a 2005 deal, handed over private e-mail information to the Chinese government, leading to several democracy advocates being imprisoned on subversion charges, Mr Ma stood up to Western condemnation.

He told reporters that Alibaba would do whatever the state told it to, as shareholders "do not want us to oppose the government and go bankrupt".

But he has shown no intention of cozying up to the Chinese state either. He has reportedly turned down several requests to form government joint ventures, and told his employees that "you can be in love with the state, but do not marry it".

He has also taken on powerful state-owned enterprises. His recent push to expand Alibaba's offerings to microfinance loans and offer retail deposits at higher rates has rattled state banks and challenged their comfortable monopoly.

These days, he has set himself the even bigger challenge of tackling major socio-economic problems like pollution and poverty.

Together with co-founder Joe Tsai, he has pledged part of his equity in Alibaba to create what could be Asia's largest philanthropic trust worth an estimated US$3 billion. The funds will be used for health care, the environment, education and culture.

This has earned him praise as a trailblazer for China's notoriously tightfisted billionaires. It is little wonder then that he is the first mainland Chinese to make the cover of Forbes magazine, which described him as a "Napoleon-like person".

Indeed, the 1.62m-tall Mr Ma relishes a good fight. In 1995, when he was still a nobody, he found himself on Hangzhou TV after he was the only person gutsy enough to take on a bunch of burly men stealing well covers.

It turned out that the TV station had staged the theft to find chivalrous passers-by.

This article was published on May 12 in The Straits Times.

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