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Tech tycoon stays under the radar

Mr Pony Ma at a recent forum in Guangzhou, where he said his goal is to be a "decentralised enabler".
Mr Pony Ma at a recent forum in Guangzhou, where he said his goal is to be a "decentralised enabler".PHOTO: REUTERS

Tencent chief, who is among China's wealthiest, is media-shy

A mild-mannered, bookish computer geek. This is how many would describe low-profile billionaire Pony Ma Huateng.

The 46-year-old founder of Chinese tech giant Tencent is one of the wealthiest men in China.

Last month, the company became the first Asian company to be valued at over US$500 billion (S$682 billion), joining the ranks of US tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google parent company Alphabet.

A recent report by Denmark's Saxo Bank said that Tencent, which is parent to China's biggest mobile instant messaging service WeChat, may grow to become the most valuable company in the world, with a projected US$1 trillion in market capitalisation next year.

This year has been a good one for Mr Ma - who is unrelated to high-profile tycoon Jack Ma of Alibaba - as he saw his net worth doubled.

One year ago, he was worth US$20.1 billion, according to Bloomberg's billionaire index.

  • US$43.8b

    Estimated fortunes of Mr Pony Ma, founder of Chinese tech giant Tencent, according to Forbes.

    US$500b

    Value of Tencent.

Last Friday, Forbes put his fortunes at US$43.8 billion, whereas a similar index by Bloomberg estimated he is worth US$40.2 billion.

The twofold increase in his net worth is due to surging share prices of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed company, of which Mr Ma owns 9.7 per cent.

Local and international media have always described Mr Ma as "mysterious", "media-shy" and "low-key" as he hardly accepts interviews.

"He is a typical Teochew man," a Tencent employee told the Nikkei Asian Review, referring to Mr Ma's heritage in Shantou on the eastern coast of southern Guangdong province. "He keeps his passion inside and does not show his feelings openly."

Born to a port manager in 1971, Mr Ma spent his childhood years in the southern province of Hainan before settling in Shenzhen during his teenage years.

He majored in computer science at Shenzhen University in the early 1990s and worked in the pager business, before setting up a shop in 1998 with four university classmates.

Mr Ma clinched his first contract the following year, and Tencent created its first product - an instant messaging service that eventually became known as QQ. It is a copycat of ICQ, the world's first Internet instant messaging service created in 1996 by an Israeli company.

QQ became a hit and the number of registered users hit 100 million by 2002. Today, it has 843 million active users.

Mr Ma personally benefited from his product. "I met my wife through QQ. But she didn't know who I was. I only told her I'm an engineer," he is known to have said publicly.

It is said that the couple have one daughter who is in her early 20s.

Tencent eventually grew into a technology conglomerate with services spanning social media, games, payment, music and video streaming.

Another of its popular products is WeChat, which enables users to do just about anything, including chat, make video calls, post on social media, play games, pay bills, transfer money and book a taxi.

WeChat has more than 980 million active users, and is described by some as "the most powerful mobile app in China".

Far from wanting WeChat to become the one app that rules all, Mr Ma said at a recent forum in Guangzhou that his goal is to be a "decentralised enabler".

"We don't rent out counters like a mall. Instead, we allow you to build your own house. After you have built it, your clients are all yours. You don't need to pay monthly rent, so you don't need to worry about us raising prices at a whim. This is decentralisation," he was quoted as saying.

This is where he differs from Alibaba's Mr Jack Ma, whom he claims operates a business like an all-powerful landlord who can raise the rent any time he wants.

The Tencent founder is also keen on astronomy. Before dabbling in computer programming, he had wanted to be an astronomer.

He was said to have told a friend: "Isn't the Internet a lot like an undetermined, exploding galaxy?"

This year, Tencent invested in three start-ups involved in exploring outer space, including mining for natural resources.

"We'd like to see how far humanity can push the frontier and there are these open questions, what can we do beyond Earth," Mr David Wallerstein, Tencent's "chief exploration officer" told Bloomberg Television in an interview in June.

Being a savvy businessman, Mr Ma is said to have a close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. The official Tencent website states that Mr Ma is a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp Parliament.

Fast Company magazine reported that when Mr Ma was asked about censorship at a tech conference in Singapore several years ago, he said that many people think they can speak out and be irresponsible.

"I think that's wrong. There should be order if the development of the cyberworld is to be sustainable."

In another sign of his support for the Chinese government, Tencent became the first major technology company to set up a branch office in Xiongan New Area, which was established in April and will be developed into a special economic zone in Hebei province.

Mr Ma has pledged to help Xiongan develop its digital economy in areas such as fintech, blockchain and artificial intelligence.

"While I have yet to see how (Xiongan) will look like after it's built, I'm eagerly looking forward to it, just like how I observed the transformation of Shenzhen from a small city to a big one when I moved there in the 1980s," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'Tech tycoon stays under the radar'. Print Edition | Subscribe