Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar on journeying from space to virtual space

Going from space to the virtual space is not an easy feat. And while he might have gone to space, when having a chat with A+M, Sheikh Muszaphar, Malaysia’s first ever astronaut turned entrepreneur, was surprisingly down to earth.

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Muszaphar, who was on a short business trip in Singapore, shares with A+M during an exclusive interview on how the journey has been so far.

Muszaphar’s latest business venture is with Aladdin Group, which operates the AladdinStreet e-commerce site. He said the venture was motivated by his spouse, as she often faced limited choices in quality halal food. Choices for Muslim consumers are limited even today despite the thriving global Islamic economy which is currently to rise from 1.6 billion to 2.8 billion by 2050, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2014-2015.

The report added that global expenditure of Muslim consumers on food and lifestyle sectors alone grew 9.5% from previous year’s estimates to US$2 trillion in 2013. This figure is estimated to reach US$3.7 trillion by 2019, at a compound annual growth rate of 10.8%.

According to reports by Ogilvy Noor, Muslim consumers are now the world’s most rapidly developing consumer group, yet the group remains largely untapped. Many Muslim consumers are also now increasingly calling for brands to respond to their needs. The study also said that more than 60% of the Muslims live in Asia, with two thirds under 30 years old, and majority of them want brands to simply understand them and be genuine.

This is where AladdinStreet comes in.

As a Muslim consumer himself, Muszaphar says his company aims to be the largest premium halal e-commerce platform which caters to both B2B and B2C consumers, as well as the top 10 most profitable e-commerce firm in the world. He adds that now is the right time to venture into e-commerce business:

I believe that Aladdin can go far and ten years from now, we can be as big as Alibaba.

This is indeed a bold ambition for such a young company, established in just mid last year.

To make these ambitions a reality, Muszaphar and his team plans to invest about US$100 million over the next three years to expand operations and marketing to over 30 countries worldwide including China, Indonesia, India, the Middle East, and parts of Europe. It’s also seeking for more financing options from banks as part of the expansion plan.

AladdinStreet Singapore, meanwhile, is on the list of 29 other countries that the Aladdin Group has collaborated with and it recently announced a target of SG$50 million in sales within the first year of its office launch in July 2016.

As such, Muszaphar reveals he is confident of getting the desired results, citing sales and response from merchants has been good particularly for Malaysia and Singapore. As part of the marketing drive, he added the company is still in the midst of final stage in striking an exclusive and first-ever brand partnership with one of the world’s biggest football clubs, but declined to comment further.

Starting this month,  his team is on a nationwide roadshow, bringing along the nearly 10 kilogram spacesuit, to promote and expose the AladdinStreet brand to schools and universities within Malaysia.

"We are looking at one state per month and the campaign will last about a year. We are also working with the respective states’ ministries, starting with Johor state," he explains.

Localised challenges

One of the most challenging tasks for the group, Muszaphar says, is looking for the right partners and merchants within different countries it ties up with. This is in addition to making sure the products are halal, at a premium quality.

Different countries have different halal standards, that’s the problem.

For instance, Malaysia has a very high and well-respected standard when it comes to halal products. But in China, the halal standard is not as firm with products such as halal beer and halal pork.

“As such, we don’t want people from Malaysia to buy products online from China as the products are different. We work closely with trade associations, ministries, and also want to form a halal academy in each respective country which will guide that particular country [on acceptable halal standards],” he adds.

Another big challenge, Muszaphar says, is to reach out to 4 billion consumers, including the non-muslims globally.

This involves changing the mindset of non-Muslims consumers that halal is not just about religion, but also about hygiene and lifestyle.

But Muszaphar is no stranger to tedius tasks with the numerous hats he has adourned in his life. Not only is he candidly  known as the "space man" - he’s also restaurant owner, a former model and an ex-national swimmer. Even harder to imagine, he is actually trained as a certified orthopaedic surgeon too. He is also a recipient of Asia Best Outstanding Achiever Award 2014/2015.

Muszaphar has in fact become a Malaysian household name many locals can relate to.

I do many things in life, because I believe that once you succeed in one field, you need to try a new field. I like to push myself to the limit, don’t just remain in the comfort zone.

Talking about his future goals, he says, he has two more.

“I have two more goals in life, to become a pilot by 2019, and to work in Africa for the African children,” he adds.

Be it space or a new venture, Muszaphar says his mental strength plays a critical role. Specific to when trying to head to space, and beating the other 11,400 plus candidates who were eyeing for the same goal, he says:

“If I want something, I know I will get it. It’s just a matter of time because I work so hard, I [also] use the power of visualisation. I imagine, I imagine, I imagine, it will come!

The trick, he says, is to be fearless.

“Many ask me if I’m scared or worried, but we’ve been trained to be fearless. You should take risk in life. Should tell yourself, if you die, you die. So be it. Don't be ‘takut’ [afraid].”