Jack Ma was inspired to create Alibaba by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Founder and Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' awards show on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
Wang HE | Getty

Jack Ma may be seen today as an e-commerce visionary, but the billionaire businessman has revealed that he was first inspired to build his empire by the dreams of another Asian icon: Malaysia's current prime minister.

The Alibaba founder told reporters on Monday of how Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's plans to turn Malaysia's capital into a high-tech business center had driven him to launch a digital business aimed at similarly revolutionizing China's tech scene.

Ma said the idea had dawned on him 20 years ago when he read in a newspaper about Mahathir's "Multimedia Super Corridor," or MSC — part of an agenda to modernize the country.

"My inspiration came from the MSC," Ma said on a visit to Putrajaya, a city just outside of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

"I started my business in 1995. [I] started the China Pages — the first internet company in China — and I was wondering where to go," recalled Ma. "[I was wondering] how internet, how this kind of technology, digital technology can empower society, empower people."

Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad
Sanjit Das | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Then, one day I was reading the newspaper, and saw this Multimedia Super Corridor and I said 'Wow! This is a genius idea. How can this thing happen?'" he continued.

"The day when I read this news in China in 1997 I said: If Malaysia could, why China could not have it? If this kind of thing could happen, why I should not start for myself in my apartment?"

"So, Malaysia inspired me on Alibaba and this morning I thank [the prime minister] for his great inspiration for MSC."

The now-92-year-old Mahathir was 72 when his tech strategy inspired the then-33-year-old emerging e-commerce titan Ma.

In under two years, Ma went on to launch Alibaba with a team of three other co-founders. Today, the company is one of the world's largest online retailers.

Mahathir's strategy was first announced in 1996, though he was replaced in office in 2003. Ma is the first Chinese tech leader to visit the country since Mahathir was re-elected in a landmark election in May. The Malaysian National News Agency, Bernama, announced his visit on Twitter.

Bernama tweet: Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls on PM Tun Dr Mahathir @chedetofficial at Perdana Putra, today

Ma said he planned to continue to look to the politician for tech inspiration.

"I know so little about technology, so when I talk to him I think I should go back to read more books," Ma joked.

Ma and Mahathir are not the only ones to highlight the role of reading in their success. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Arianna Huffington are all strong proponents of the value of books. Gates, for one, this year gifted one of his favorites to U.S. college grads.

Here's some inspiration for the best books to get started with:

50 books that inspire Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other tech titans

The 5 books Bill Gates thinks everyone should read this summer

6 books to read in 2018 if you want to get rich

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