The Chinese have a saying that when you drink water, think of its source. In other words, never forget your roots. Jack Ma, the Chinese founder of the internet giant Alibaba, has turned those words into an enormous gesture, donating more than $26 million to the University of Newcastle.
The man estimated by Forbes to be worth US$28.4 billion, or more than Australian $37 billion, is giving $US20 million through his foundation to fund a scholarship program at the university.
Mr Ma is giving the money to honour the city that he first visited in 1985, and, in particular, one Novocastrian family, the Morleys.
And the billionaire returned to the place he called his “second hometown” to announce the Ma and Morley Scholarship Program in a ceremony at the Conservatorium of Music. Among those attending were the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, business leaders and school students. It was also an opportunity for Mr Ma to reunite with dear friends. Members of the Morley family were also in the audience.
“This trip is a trip of thanks,” Mr Ma said.
The bond between Jack Ma and the Morleys was forged in 1980. The teenager Ma Yun, as Mr Ma was known then, saw a boy about his age in the park in his home city of Hangzhou and approached him to practise English. That boy was David Morley.
The Morleys arranged for Mr Ma to visit their hometown in 1985. As Mr Ma revealed to the packed auditorium, the effort to simply get a passport and visa was exhausting. But it was worth it.
“My trip to Australia really changed me,” Mr Ma said.
“I stayed in Newcastle, New Lambton for 29 days. That 29 days was really so critical in my life.”
Mr Ma told the audience he had heard about the university from Ken Morley, the family’s patriarch. Mr Morley had not gone to university but believed in education. Mr Ma talked about how Mr Morley taught him life values, the importance of travel, and some of the finer points of intellectual debate – “He’d say, Jack, you’re bullshit …. but he always supported me”.
“When I went back to China I became a different Jack Ma, the Jack Ma standing in front of you,” he said. “Without that 29 days, I would never think like today.”
As a result, he said, he was determined to one day do something for the University of Newcastle, particularly after Mr Morley died in 2004, to say thank you to the family “for helping me, for supporting me, for understanding me”, and to be like “Mr Ken Morley” by helping young people.
In announcing the scholarship program, the billionaire said he was honoured to put his name with “Morley”, and that “it’s a really historic day in my life”.
With the donation being the largest philanthropic contribution in the university’s history, it was also a historic day for Newcastle.
“That he views this as so significant, so important to him, that he would personally come to be here is a really strong symbol,” the University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen, said.
Professor McMillen said the university had been working with the Jack Ma Foundation for about a year to shape a program “that really represents the quality of that friendship, that really unique friendship, between Jack Ma and Ken Morley”.
When The Ma and Morley Scholarship Program reached full capacity, it would support 90 students a year. The program would be advertised from the middle of this year, and Professor McMillen said the recipients would include students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and indigenous scholars.
“At the heart of this philanthropic commitment is the most remarkable story of friendship,” Professor McMillen said.
Professor McMillen told the audience just as there was a bond between Mr Ma and the Morleys, the program in their name would build global friendships among the scholars. To Jack Ma, the recipients would be not just smart people but “ambassadors for responsibility, courage, and wisdom”.
The Premier told the audience that this was “an extremely special day not just for Newcastle, not just for the university, but for New South Wales”.
“Jack Ma is an individual who is extremely grateful for the opportunities he’s received in his life, and he’s now returning that through his wonderful family connection with the Morley family,” Ms Berejiklian said.
For David Morley, it was more like a homecoming for “Jack, our amazing brother”.
An emotional Mr Morley told the audience “we know Dad would be bursting with pride to see Jack here, donating this university scholarship in both their names.”
He talked about his father’s hunger for knowledge, his desire for social justice, and enjoyment in exploring other cultures and economic models, which was why they visited China.
“But his biggest souvenir from that tour was certainly his life-long friendship with Jack,” he said.
“Dad really took a shine to this young Chinese friend and he relished the project of bringing him to stay in our home in Newcastle.”
Mr Morley, who is now a yoga instructor in Newcastle, told of how the family had watched Mr Ma make the most of every opportunity, as his business had grown through the years.
“Jack has always been a person who makes things happen,” he said. “And now we’re so pleased to be here to see Jack create this whole new opportunity for university students in honour of their strong friendship and shared ideals.
“Jack and Dad had a lively friendship, full of challenge and debate, and we hope the scholars supported through this program continue this spirit of debate, the spirit of friendship and aspire to make the world a more peaceful place.”
Before leaving Newcastle for Melbourne and more meetings, Jack Ma mused about what more he could do to remember his roots, and to honour his Newcastle family.
“Twenty-six million Australian dollars, it’s big, I think I should do more in the future,” he said.