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Million-dollar thanks from childhood mate and Alibaba founder Jack Ma

11 February 2017 No Comment

On his first trip overseas in 1980 Newcastle boy David Morley met a spirited Chinese teenager. Ma Yun was hanging around the tourist area of scenic Hangzhou, hoping to practise English.

The pair played Frisbee in the park and went on to become pen pals. David’s father Ken took Yun under his wing, correcting his ­English in double-spaced letters the youngster wrote to Newcastle. In 1985, Yun left China for the first time after Ken invited him to the Morleys’ NSW home.

It was a defining point in an ­enduring friendship between the billionaire magnate now known as Jack Ma — founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and China’s richest person worth an estimated $US33 billion ($43.1bn) — and the modest socialist who helped him get his start.

The Morleys opened Jack’s eyes to the world beyond China, which was just beginning to reveal itself under Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy.

Ken and his wife Judy also helped subsidise Jack’s living costs at Hangzhou Teachers College. Later they contributed $22,000 to the purchase of newlywed Jack’s first home, according to Ma’s ­colleague and biographer Duncan Clark.

Decades on, the Morleys’ generosity has come full circle. Mr Ma yesterday formalised one of the biggest philanthropic handouts to an Australian university, a $US20 million ($26m) commitment to fund the Ma & Morley Scholarship Program at the University of Newcastle.

The scheme, which the university says will help up to 90 students a year for at least 20 years, highlights the shared values between a magnate and the retired electrical engineer he referred to as his “Australian dad”.

Ma has rock-star status in China and is rapidly becoming known as the country’s most ­famous self-made entrepreneur. His itinerary this year has ­included a visit to US President Donald Trump, where Mr Ma promised to work to create a million US jobs in five years, a speech to the Davos business forum in Switzerland, and a deal to become a major sponsor of the International Olympic Committee.

Malcolm Turnbull last year ­became the latest foreign leader to visit the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou when he visited China for the G20 meeting.

Mr Ma yesterday said the scheme would honour the “special relationship” he had formed with the Morley family. “I am very thankful for Australia and the time I spent there in my youth,’’ he said.

“The culture, the landscape and, most importantly, its people had a profound positive impact on my view of the world at that time.”

The donation puts Mr Ma in the front row of Australian universities’ charitable backers, alongside Fortescue Metals chairman Andrew Forrest, entertainment mogul Neil Balnaves and Wotif founder Graeme Wood.

Ken Morley died in 2004, and David, now a Newcastle yoga teacher, said his father’s relationship with Mr Ma would transform the lives of hundreds of students.

“Dad would be so touched that their close friendship has led to this program,’’ he said.

The scheme, which emphasises global and social awareness, is merit-based and favours indigenous and disadvantaged students. Assistance will range from one-off experiences to living support of up to $15,000 a year for the duration of degrees.

It also features a “comprehensive engagement and enrichment program” including mentorship, internships and “cultural immersion”.

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