BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)- Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group has committed to invest a combined Bt11 billion (S$461 million) in Thailand in a move that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said could benefit the country's small farmers and rural enterprises due to the firm's expertise in diverse technology.
"Jack Ma (Alibaba's co-founder and executive chairman) told me he does not solely look for profits because (Alibaba) already has enough," Prayut said after his meeting with the Chinese tycoon. "So he aims to help low-income farmers and other people using digital technology to boost their competitiveness on online market platforms."
Ma, who was on in Bangkok on Thursday (April 19), also met with deputy premier Somkid Jatusripitak at Government House before signing four memorandums of understanding (MoUs), marking the start of Alibaba's significant investment in Thailand's much-heralded Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) as well as a related "Smart City" project. Other signed agreements involved tourism promotion, digital economy and human resource development programmes.
Ma has been to Thailand several times and in 2016, he also met with Prayut during the G20 summit in China's Hangzhou city. However, the Chinese e-commerce giant made its first investment within Asean in Malaysia, raising questions whether the Prayut government's "Thailand 4.0" initiative was compelling enough to attract Alibaba.
Prayut said he personally asked Ma to help promote Thai agricultural products, particularly palm oil, rice and para rubber as well as cooperatives, community enterprises and modern farming using digital and related technologies and Alibaba's expertise in e-commerce and related fields.
"(Alibaba) also runs schools for business and e-commerce development that can help Thai SMEs and rural entrepreneurs," Prayut said, adding there were mutual benefits from the cooperation with Alibaba.
The Thai government's policy is to facilitate trade and investment, turning Thailand into an investment hub, according to the prime minister.
In response, Ma said that Alibaba focuses a lot on Asia and the Internet is a great opportunity in Asia. The collaboration with Thailand included "Go to China", meaning bringing Thai local farm goods, such as rice and fruits to the huge Chinese market and "Go to Thailand" meaning bringing more Chinese tourists to Thailand.
"Today's MoUs are the initial phase of our long-term commitment to be a strategic partner with this country. Our strategy is a global vision, to partner with the countries having the same belief in the future, technology, e-commerce, SMEs, and young people," said Ma.
Commerce Minister Sonthirat Sonthijirawong said the ministry would drive the digital economy by promoting e-commerce platforms to allow Thai farmers and other producers to sell to China, citing the Thai Rice Flagship Store on Alibaba's Tmall.com as an example. Other Thai products will be on sale on Tmall.com, China's largest online marketplace which reaches more than 1.4 billion consumers.
In addition, the Industry Ministry will work with the Chinese e-commerce giant to use the Alibaba Business School as a platform for training Thai entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, a researcher who conducted a study of the EEC project, said that Ma's investment in the EEC could also draw other foreign investors to the region but the challenge is how Thailand could take advantage of investment in ICT.
She expressed concern about the skills of the local ICT workforce. "There are about 170 education institutions that teach 430 ICT-related curriculums, but the graduates are not qualified enough for the jobs or do not meet industry demands," she said. "So far we do not know which university has a reputation in what specific field of ICT," she said. One problem is that technology is changing fast.
Learning from the experience of other countries, the Thai government, universities and private companies, may jointly organise six months re-training for those graduates to hone their skills, particularly in disruptive technology such as artificial intelligence, she said.
The government could also relax conditions for smart visas offered to specialists who earn a monthly salary of Bt200,000 to stay four years in Thailand. For example, those have an income of Bt100,000 could also get a smart visa but only for a three-year stay, she said.
Prinya Homanek, president and chief executive officer at ACIS Professional Centre Co, who is in the information security business, said the local IT industry feels the government has preferred giant foreign investors, such as Ma, but Thai authorities have not yet created a conducive investment-friendly environment for local technological start-ups. New, friendly regulations such as those related to fundraising via initial coin offering have not yet been put in place. Thai IT entrepreneurs still prefer to register their companies in Singapore where it is much easier to do IT-related businesses, he said.