Magic we can learn from Alibaba

Magic we can learn from Alibaba

The Thai government's e-commerce initiatives to partner with Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group are the right step as the country steers itself toward the so-called value-based Thailand 4.0 economic model.

To make this partnership work, the initiatives need to be part of the government's bigger picture of providing an enabling environment for innovation and creativity. More importantly, Thai leaders and policy-makers will have to change their mindset and ways of working.

The initiatives were reached at the 2nd Asia Cooperation Dialogue Summit (ACD) held in Bangkok this week. A gathering of leaders from 34 Asian countries, the ACD is slated as an inter-governmental forum that seeks to find ways for countries to work together and take on new challenges and opportunities of globalisation.

Seated next to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Mr Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group, talked about how "small is beautiful, small is powerful", a tip on how the Alibaba platform can be used by small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) to access the global trade.

He conveyed to the leaders, who included Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah of Brunei, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, and Prime Minister Hawyng Kyo-ahn from South Korea, that governments often say they want to support small businesses and young people, but do not necessarily know which approaches to take. Mr Ma recommended that governments should build the right infrastructure for financial and digital platforms to take advantage of big data and new technologies.

He also made the case for Alibaba and showed how it was poised to help small companies in Thailand access global markets. His underlining message to entrepreneurs was that success is not only about cash and assets, but about how ideas can create value for society.

After a session with Prime Minister Prayut, Deputy Premier Somkid Jatusripitak and other ministers, Mr Ma reached an agreement with the Thai government to establish two working committees that would hammer out and implement programmes between Alibaba and Thailand. These include training sessions for Thai SMEs on how to use Alibaba for e-commerce projects that would ease electronic payments for Chinese visitors to Thailand. Alibaba will also work with the Thai government on a cashless society.

The initiatives is a step forward for Thailand 4.0, the value-based economy that will take the country through creativity and innovation. It sends a clear signal to the business community that the government is ready to work with the private sector. An observation that can be made here about how Mr Ma has positioned Alibaba in Thailand. This company is one that will work closely with the government to help solve the problems it faces in e-commerce.

The biggest takeaway for Thailand was Mr Ma's conclusion. He said new ideas and entrepreneurship has to be nurtured, respected, or at least understood. This is significant because it comes from a Chinese company that must work with the Communist Party in China. The point is also spot on for Thailand, where a conservative tradition and culture of hierarchy are deeply rooted. As the society that upholds submission to authority (or phu yai) and uniform thinking, it is difficult for new ideas to become breakthroughs in Thailand, let alone creating an ecosystem conducive to innovation.

Even when those new ideas materialise and are brought into practice, Thai regulators, similar to others in the world, are still catching up with them. The explosion of disruptive technologies is held back by a risk-adverse bureaucracy and regulatory landscape.

The government's partnership with Alibaba on the e-commerce platform is a step in the right direction. Like the Bank of Thailand's national e-payment and financial technology initiatives, these programmes need to be part of a bigger picture of how the country promotes and supports innovation and creativity.

The government cannot assume that Thailand will become a knowledge-driven economy within the next few years without providing an enabling environment for new ideas to prosper. Innovation and creativity cannot be forced to happen.

Rather, it takes decades of effort in building good schools and embedding the culture of critical thinking for a creative economy to take off. This is something that is not easily achieved. It is worth remembering that e-commerce and digital payments were pioneered in the US decades ago where there was no digital ministry or innovation agency. They were the organic byproducts of a culture that valued openness and critical thinking.

A fundamental change in the mindset and ways of working of Thai leaders can lead the way. A sustained policy of supporting principles that spurs innovative thinking will eventually attract young talent and give confidence to venture capitalists to invest in new ideas.

At the same time, old interest groups will have to make concessions to a more efficient way of doing things. If Thailand is to take a leading role in Asia, as it did at the ACD Summit, its leaders must make the right and innovative choices when it comes to disruptive technologies and progressive ideas.

In this way, the country will be able to use new platforms, as it did with Alibaba and SMEs, to serve the public interests and improve society as a whole.

Chayut Setboonsarng is a consultant at APCO Worldwide.

Chayut Setboonsarng

Consultant at APCO Worldwide

Chayut Setboonsarng is a consultant at APCO Worldwide.

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