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Despite the huge investment pledges and social impact claims, Grab is not a charity.

If anything, it is quite the opposite. As SoftBank’s largest investee in Southeast Asia and second largest in Asia in terms of investment capital, there are inescapable expectations of financial reward. Irrespective of any social or economic impact Grab may be responsible for. Similarly, as WeWork and Uber show, there’s no substitute for a solid business model. Playing the good guy can’t come at the price of sustainability.

Wooing regulators

Wooing regulators

Grab’s strategy is a far cry from the early days of ride-hailing’s ‘move fast, break things’ ethos. That approach saw Grab and Uber battling angry cabbies in Malaysia, Gojek-induced rioting from ‘ojek’ motorbike taxis in Indonesia, and, of course, Uber entering Southeast Asia and taking on governments directly.

In the years that have passed, ride-hailing has normalised and the biggest providers have sought to work with governments and develop policies conducive to their business.

“Most governments didn’t know how to respond to ride-hailing when it arrived,” said Jianggan Li, who previously led Uber and Grab rival EasyTaxi, which competed in Southeast Asia until 2015. “The sector was small, we created an impact but not much changed.”

“Towards the end of 2014, it changed, and we had lots of meetings with regulators in different countries. Each had different perspectives and interests,” added Li, who runs Singapore-based startup consulting firm Momentum Works.

This isn’t specific to ride-hailing companies, of course. Big tech is cosying up to governments in Southeast Asia, developing infrastructure and resources that are ostensibly designed to benefit all. For example, Alibaba opened a free trade e-commerce hub in Malaysia last year, announced collaborations with the Thai government, and has even had meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Grab’s co-founders Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan (no relation) have also played up the impact-based mission of the company, and its role working with the economy. Their campaign has seen SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son join the fray in July with a pledge to invest $2 billion to help digitise Indonesia’s infrastructure. That announcement was made after a much-publicised meeting with President Widodo which featured Son, Grab CEO Tan and William Tanuwijaya, CEO of SoftBank-backed e-commerce platform Tokopedia, which was last valued at $9 billion.

Grab has since turned its playbook to Vietnam, where it competes with rival Gojek’s GoViet business and local services like FastGo. In August, Grab said it would invest $500 million into the country over the next five years. Grab President Ming Maa, a former SoftBank executive, said Vietnam, like Indonesia, is a huge opportunity for the company.

Grab’s vertical limits

Grab has never revealed its profit and loss figures, but gave its first revenue projections last year. It estimated earnings of $1 billion for 2018, and $2 billion for the ongoing year. While the scale of its losses wasn’t mentioned, the company noted that its transportation business is not losing money in some countries, though it declined to state which.