Alibaba and Tencent are carving up Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem

Two global tech forces are putting their mark — and money — into Southeast Asia’s nascent startup ecosystem, but they may not be the Western names that you expect.

Rather than Google, Facebook or Microsoft, increasingly Chinese duo Alibaba and Tencent are the driving forces behind the importing of large sums of capital and vast business experience into Southeast Asia’s most promising startups.

Both companies, sworn enemies in China, appear to have realized the potential in the region and are now acting on it. That means battles, drama and probably more — welcome to Southeast Asia’s tech Game Of Thrones.

A market with promise

Southeast Asia has long been an area of interest for business for its neighbors. Tech aside, Southeast Asia is home to more than 600 million consumers, with six primary markets — Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — standing out for growing economies and rising middle-classes of consumers.

In today’s digital era, smartphones have been a key catalyst. Like India, Southeast Asia’s internet users are primarily on mobile, with most having skipped the PC altogether and jumping straight to phones and tablets.

A much-cited report co-authored by Google last year showed that Southeast Asia has 260 million internet users with 3.8 million more going online per month. That’s tipped to grow the internet population to 480 million people by 2020. Sure, that isn’t China level yet — the country has 731 million internet users, half of which are mobile — but it does mean that, alongside India, Southeast Asia is a region of serious tech development potential.

That same Google report forecasted that the region’s ‘internet economy’ — i.e. all business generated from the web — will be worth $200 billion by 2025. That’s up from 6.5-fold from 2015, when it was estimated to be worth $31 billion. E-commerce alone is tipped to rise from $5.5 billion in 2015 to $88 billion in 2025, of which half will originate from Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country, according to the report.

From interested to invested

Over the past year, it seems that Chinese companies have gone from scouting the region to actively owning chunks of it.

The first step was Alibaba’s $1 billion investment in Lazada, an Amazon-like e-commerce company serving six countries in Southeast Asia, in April 2016. The deal represented the first major investment into the region from a Chinese company.

Alibaba has since firmed up its shareholding, paying another $1 billion in June to take its ownership to 83 percent, while, under its tutelage, Lazada expanded its business into groceries with the acquisition of Singapore-based Redmart while it launched an Amazon Prime-style offering in partnership with Netflix and Uber. Amazon is expected to enter Southeast Asia this year, with sources telling TechCrunch an original goal of launching Q1 proved to be too ambitious.

Lazada CEO Max Bittner told TechCrunch last month that his company plans to extend both services, which are currently only available in Singapore, to different markets. Arguably, this is where Alibaba’s capital and experience is really coming into play for Lazada.

“We’re found the right balance between us having the freedom [for our business] and falling back on Alibaba as our big brother willing to help us when we need it,” Bittner said of the relationship in an interview.

Alibaba hasn’t stood still there, however. It has embarked on a series of fintech investments in Southeast Asia through Ant Financial, its financial services affiliate.

Ant Financial’s global investment spree has included a $1.2 billion deal for U.S.-headquartered Moneygram and Korea’s Kakao Pay, but in Southeast Asia it has done deals with Thailand-based Ascend Money, Mynt in the Philippines, Emtek in Indonesia, and Singapore’s M-Daq.

Then, earlier this month, Alibaba itself opened the coffers again to invest in a $50 million round for online insurance site Compare Asia Group.

Tencent, meanwhile, has a long-standing investment in Thailand-based media company Sanook, while it invested $19 million in a joint media venture with Ookbee, another Thai company. On the product-side, it has aggressively pushed its free-to-play music service Joox in Southeast Asia as a rival to Spotify, while it recently invested in U.S. karaoke app Smule which has strong traction in the region and plans to expand in Asia.

“Through their investments and acquisitions, it’s very clear that Alibaba and Tencent are interested in Southeast Asia. They share our vision, that this region is ripe for opportunities in the e-commerce, payments, and marketplaces space,” Vinnie Lauria, founding partner at Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures, told TechCrunch in a statement.

Alibaba chairman Jack Ma has led his company to expand into India and Southeast Asia for growth opportunities

Pick a side

That collection of deals is just those that have been reported or made official. There are plenty more either lurking in a press pipeline waiting to be announced, or subject to negotiations.

Through discussions with founders, TechCrunch understands that Tencent and Alibaba have held discussions with at least a dozen startups that operate in Southeast Asia’s e-commerce or fintech space. In almost every instance, it seemed that both Chinese giants had been in touch with a near-identical set of companies to make investment offers, or to register interest for when the startup in question is ready to raise new funds.

To borrow a phrase from a prominent tech investor, who spoke to TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending either company, Tencent and Alibaba are “carving up” Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem.

The dogfight has spilled into the ride-sharing space, for one.

Alibaba is expected to be part of a group of investors behind a new funding round for Uber rival Grab which could reach $2 billion and is expected to close soon, a source told TechCrunch. But Alibaba is also rumored to have held talks with Go-Jek, a rival to Grab and Uber which is widely acknowledged as the market leader in Indonesia. However, in a twist, Go-Jek ended up agreeing to take investment from Tencent as part of an as-yet-unannounced $1.2 billion round that would value the company at $3 billion, as we reported in May.

In e-commerce, Tencent’s strategic ally JD.com — which includes Tencent among its investor base — has been strongly linked with an investment in Indonesia-based company Tokopedia, which previously raised money from SoftBank. However, a source told TechCrunch that Alibaba is also talking to the company with a view to making an investment. Alibaba’s long-standing relationship with SoftBank, which included an early investment in Alibaba, could prove to be a clincher in this case.

The decision of Alibaba or Tencent is tough one because essentially companies are being asked to join one of two rival sides.

It’s akin to a Game Of Thrones-style allegiance. There are few examples in China of companies that share both Tencent and Alibaba as investors — both firms own stock in Didi by virtue of a merger between their respective investees, Didi Kuaidi and Didi Dache — so the decision of which to go with has real long-term implications on future relationships and investors.

“They are clearly drawing lines in the sand with their checkbooks, and we can see a war of these two titans playing out across Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand,” Lauria, whose firm invested in Redmart, said.

First of many movers

While Alibaba and Tencent are among the first (and heaviest) movers, many are predicting that others from China and beyond will follow the same steps if they haven’t already.

“Singapore, serving as the hub for the Southeast Asia ecosystem, continues to attract major investment interest from Chinese companies and Chinese VCs,” Michael Smith, an operating partner with early-stage VC firm SeedPlus, told TechCrunch.

“Obviously Tencent and Alibaba are some of the biggest companies looking for growth in areas like e-commerce, fintech and logistics but JD.com is also investing and looking for further opportunities in the region,” he said.

Smith also pointed out that bike-sharing companies Mobike and Ofo both selected Singapore for their first overseas expansion, while, outside of the startup space, China-backed consortium Nesta is bidding to buy Singapore’s Global Logistic Properties for around $11 billion.

“We continue to believe that Singapore and the companies created here will rise in their attraction to not only Chinese but European and American companies looking for Asian expansion,” Smith said.

Uber rival Grab is close to taking investment from Alibaba, according to sources.

U.S. tech firms have increased their presence in Southeast Asia, with Google and Facebook in particular operating local offices in multiple countries, but their presence has centered around product localization, sales and marketing rather than investments.

Google acquired a chat messenger app to staff its ‘Next Billion’ team tasked with tweaking existing services and creating new ones for emerging markets like India, Southeast Asia and Africa. (It recently did the same in India, too.)

Facebook and Twitter are among those that have long conducted deep market research projects to learn more about how users in frontier markets use the internet. Facebook even trialled a social payment feature in Thailand to explore the potential of social media commerce.

The results of these exercises have helped shape products like Facebook Lite, the social network’s fastest-growing app, and Twitter’s new mobile web app, but for now none of the Western tech giants have dived into the ecosystem with quite the impact of their peers from China — and we’re just getting started.

Source: TechCrunch

MCMC: WhatsApp admin and members are accountable

PETALING JAYA: Administrators of WhatsApp groups may face legal action for failing to stop the spread of false information but investigations are based on complaints, said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

It said that while conversations in messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and Telegram, are private, an investigation can be conducted to look into any offending comment if a complaint is made.

“Investigations will only be conducted if there are complaints made regarding the content shared within these groups.

“Therefore, members of the public, whether they are group administrators or members, should be careful when spreading information so that it does not become a case of spreading false information,” the commission said in a statement on its Facebook page on Friday.

The MCMC said that the spreading of false information is an offence under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA).

It stressed that any investigation it conducts will not differentiate between group administrators and members.

“If the group administrator or any member is found to have spread false information, then legal action can be taken against them,” it said.

The MCMC said that group administrators would be held responsible if they make a comment, request, suggestion or other communication that is obscene, offensive, false, threatening or irritating with the intention to hurt, abuse, threaten or harass others.

Furthermore, they will also be held accountable if they ask for such comments from other members in the group, as well as if they incite any other person in the group to make such comments.

It also said that any group administrator who obstructs an investigation by any enforcement agency will also be culpable.

“On these matter, MCMC will consider the need to establish guidelines on the usage of messaging applications and the like.

“At the same time, the public is urged to always be prudent when using social media for their own good,” the commission said.

Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Jailani Johari was reported on Thursday as saying that provisions under the CMA allowed for WhatsApp group administrators to face legal action for failing to stop the spread of false information in their groups.

Source: The Star Online

Jack Ma to launch Alibaba’s regional distribution hub in Malaysia

Ready to go?: Ma and Najib are expected to announce the plans at an event in Kuala Lumpur. — Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR: Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Limited plans to set up a regional distribution hub in Malaysia to cater to its fast-growing business in the region, two sources aware of the discussions said.

The hub would be sited within KLIA Aeropolis, a 24,700-acre development led by airport operator Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) that is expected to generate more than RM7bil worth of domestic and foreign investments.

Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak are expected to announce the plans at an event in Kuala Lumpur this week, the sources said.

The hub will be set up with the help of Malaysian state-linked agencies. It was not clear whether Alibaba would invest any funds in the project.

“Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) has existing facility for Alibaba Group to pilot their distribution services here, and if (Alibaba) decide to expand in the future, there is the option to build more on other (undeveloped) sites in KLIA Aeropolis,” one source said.

Alibaba and the Malaysian prime minister’s office did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Najib appointed Ma as his government’s digital economy adviser during an official trip to China in November.

Malaysian media reported that Ma, whose Alibaba owns Chinese online shopping business Taobao, would help steer Malaysia’s e-economy development with the implementation of online payment and banking.

“Many people see Malaysia as an emerging hub next to Singapore. Malaysia may not be able to take all of Singapore’s business but it is a good choice (logistically),” one source said.

This would mark Alibaba’s first investment in Malaysia. The company invested US$1bil (RM4.44bil) last year to control Singapore-based e-commerce platform Lazada, Southeast Asia’s largest online shopping platform. It also increased its shareholding in Singapore Post to 14.4% from the 10.2% acquired in 2014 and bought a 20-percent stake in Thai e-payment service, Ascend Money.

Ties between Malaysia and Beijing have blossomed in recent months with a surge of investments from China.

China agreed to buy assets of troubled state fund 1MDB for US$2.3bil (RM10.2bil) in December 2015.

Najib returned from November’s Beijing visit with 14 agreements amounting to US$34.4bil (RM152.5bil), which included an agreement to buy four Chinese naval vessels and collaboration to build rail projects in Malaysia.

Sources said the distribution hub would be part of Malaysia’s Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ), also slated to be launched during Ma’s visit next week.

“KLIA Aeropolis includes many components and the DFTZ is likely a new component to be added into the development,” one source said.

Plans to establish the DFTZ were announced in the national budget last October. —  Reuters

Source: Tech News | The Star Online

经济考验 危机即是转机


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Featured on Global Business Magazine (Issue 79: March-April 2017)

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