Now we know that Ant Financial—or Ant Group, as we apparently must call it from now on—is ready for dual IPOs pretty soon, it’s a good time to remember that the Alibaba spinoff fintech giant is not just a China phenomenon. That’s because it has been quietly and methodically expanding across Southeast Asia in a way that’s quite unusual.

Here’s a timeline of Ant’s Southeast Asia progress so far:

  • September 2013 – Singapore: With the launch of Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace in Singapore, Jack Ma’s tech giant brings Ant’s main app, Alipay, along for the ride as one of its payment options.
  • November 2015 – Singapore: Ant quietly joined in a sizable investment for M-Daq, a startup building cross-border payment systems for corporations.
  • November 2016 – Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia: Ant buys its way into six markets by taking a stake in Thailand-based Ascend Money, which runs digital finance services aimed at ordinary consumers under the TrueMoney and Ascend Nano names.
  • February 2017 – Philippines: Ant hedges its bet in the Philippines by backing Mynt, maker of Alipay-esque wallet app Gcash and Fuse Lending.
  • April 2017 – Indonesia: Partnering with Indonesian conglomerate Emtek, Ant wants to build payments into Indonesia’s BBM chat app. However, the app formerly known as BlackBerry Messenger was soon struggling against a new wave of messaging apps, and was declared dead in April 2019. Nonetheless, the collaboration did give birth to one long-lasting app in the form of Dana, which broke cover in September 2017.
  • April 2017 – regional: One year after Alibaba took over Southeast Asia’s homegrown ecommerce startup Lazada, Ant Financial decided to swallow up Lazada’s payment option HelloPay. As a result, the service was rebranded Alipay across Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
  • July 2017 – Malaysia: Ant takes a stake in e-wallet service Touch ‘n Go.
  • December 2019 – Vietnam: It’s not been confirmed by the companies, but Reuters reports Ant takes a stake in e-wallet app eMonkey.
  • January 2020 – Singapore: Ant is among the 21 applicants for five coveted digital banking licenses from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Grab and Razer are also in the race.
  • May 2020 – Myanmar: After a quiet spell, Ant takes a second shot at the emergent Myanmar market by investing in Wave Money, maker of the WavePay app.

Slow and steady

Ant’s strategy appears to be a slow and steady one, building up a regional network. From its track record, we can see that it generally:

  • Avoids acquisitions, preferring investing for a minority stake
  • Backs services run by telecoms firms, banks, or other major conglomerates. Ant seems to not like startups that much (aside from India’s Paytm)
  • Goes after fast-growing markets where few people have bank or credit cards, or where banks are failing to serve people effectively
  • Looks for partners where Alipay’s tech can be used

It’s not all gone Ant’s way, though—such as its failed 2017 bid to acquire US-based remittances service MoneyGram.

Ant Financial, Ant Group, Jack Ma, Alibaba
Photo: Alibaba

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Ant’s biggest rivals across the region are arguably Grab and Gojek, the ride-hailing apps that have for years been expanding aggressively into online financial services on the back of the ubiquity of their respective mobile wallets. There is also a wildcard entry in the form of fledgling digital bank AMTD; the Hong Kong-born firm is quietly acquiring startups and digital banking licenses in order to build a fintech empire across Southeast Asia. Read more about that here:

See: Billionaire Li Ka-shing behind ambitious new Southeast Asia digital bank