Innovation and automation in the banking and finance sector is nothing new. Calculators (such as counting sticks and the abacus) have been in use for thousands of years. A more recent invention, the automated teller machine (ATM) debuted in the late 1960s. With the digital revolution, modern cutting-edge technologies have been introduced to drive improvements in the financial services sector, leading to the rise of financial technology (FinTech). Unlike previous advances, FinTech has the potential to significantly impact society and the world.
Mr Ravi Menon, Managing Director, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), in his speech “FinTech for an Inclusive Society and a Sustainable Planet” at Singapore FinTech Festival 2020, pointed to FinTech as a force for good in the midst of the three global crises we face today: the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst global recession since the Second World War, and climate change.
“The pandemic and economic crisis have laid bare the inequalities in our societies,”
said Mr Menon, citing how the digitally enabled were able to order food and buy things online (largely carrying on with their lives), while the digitally excluded had to struggle.
Similarly, restrictions on mobility affected small business to a greater degree than large firms, which could turn to digital platforms and implement remote working. Mr Menon added that the pandemic also made us more aware of how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature..
In such challenging times, it has become evident that technology holds the power to help us find solutions to difficult problems—from making vaccines to contact tracing, and online learning to telemedicine. FinTech, Mr Menon opined, has great potential to be a force for good, because of the role it can play in creating a more inclusive society and a more sustainable planet.
Mr Menon’s vision of what FinTech can do for an inclusive society in Singapore involves empowering every citizen and enterprise in the country to become digitally enabled and financially included. For individuals, this would be facilitated in part by four ongoing initiatives: pervasive electronic payments (e-payments), affordable cross-border remittances, timely health insurance claims and holistic financial planning.
The e-payment and cross-border remittance efforts are underscored by Singapore’s retail e-payment infrastructure, known as FAST, and PayNow, which rides on FAST to allow users to make round-the-clock, real-time fund transfers through the banking system to other individuals and businesses. In addition, MAS, in partnership with the Bank of Thailand, is aiming to launch by mid-2021 a first-of-its-kind linkage between PayNow and Thailand’s PromptPay, to make cross-border remittances cheaper and faster.
To make insurance claims more efficient, MAS, along with the Ministry of Health, Integrated Health Information Systems (the technology agency for the public healthcare sector) as well as the insurance and healthcare sectors, will be piloting a technology platform to securely share data with patient consent.
In the financial planning arena, MAS is looking to empower individuals with information and tools so that they can best make use of financial services. The Singapore Financial Data Exchange (SGFinDex) will enable individuals to consolidate their financial information residing in different banks and government agencies—eventually expanding to include data from the Central Depository and from insurance companies. By breaking down information silos, SGFinDex will enable individuals to gain a consolidated view of their financial information, so that they can carry out more holistic financial planning.
The other focus of Singapore’s FinTech agenda for a more inclusive society, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), can enhance their digital inclusion by adopting common digital platforms. This will enable them to enhance efficiency and expand their business opportunities, particularly in three areas: seamless cross border trade, enhanced access to global opportunities and efficient multi-currency payments and settlements.
The Networked Trade Platform (NTP) is a one-stop trade and logistics ecosystem which digitally connects players across the trade value chain—in Singapore and abroad—to help make it easier for local SMEs to sell their goods or services overseas. Apart from allowing the SMEs to share information quickly and securely with multiple parties connected within the platform (facilitated by the use of digitised documents and digitalised processes), the platform also enables SMEs to apply for trade financing with multiple banks through one portal.
Another digital platform, Business Sans Borders (BSB), is designed to connect different platforms globally to help SMEs seamlessly access a much larger ecosystem of buyers and sellers. It uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to introduce to SMEs essential financing and business solutions from service providers across the BSB network.
Cheaper cross-border payments that settle round-the-clock and in real-time are also on the horizon with Project Ubin, a blockchain-based prototype for multi-currency settlement, which integrates commercial applications, such as trade and supply chain financing, with blockchain-based payment functionalities.
Shifting to the second theme of his speech, Mr Menon shared that FinTech can play an influential role in helping to advance the sustainability agenda, because finance fuels the economy, shapes investment decisions, and drives action. Green FinTech can enable trusted and efficient sustainable finance flows.
Against the backdrop of wider sustainability initiatives such as the development of an Asian carbon credit market and the implementation of its Green Finance Action Plan, MAS will be embarking on Project Greenprint, a technology platform aimed at promoting a green financial ecosystem.
Through this project, MAS hopes to achieve three goals:
i) provide a platform for SMEs and FinTech firms working on green and sustainable projects to connect with financial institutions and investors to access a wider pool of capital and green solutions,
ii) deploy technology to monitor whether the projects are indeed meeting their sustainability commitments, &
iii) explore the application of AI and other technologies to quantify the environmental, social and governance impact of potential investments and loan portfolios.
The above initiatives mentioned in Mr Menon’s speech are but a few examples of how the FinTech is growing exponentially in Singapore. A number of other activities are also fuelling the expansion of the sector, including the injection of funds, the setting up of new digital banks, and research and development.
In the way of funding, MAS announced in April 2020 a S$125-million support package to sustain and strengthen capabilities in the financial services and FinTech sectors. The support package will help to position financial institutions and FinTech firms for stronger growth when the threat of COVID-19 recedes and economic activity normalises. Following up, in May 2020, MAS launched a S$6-million grant scheme to support Singapore-based FinTech firms.
In December 2020, MAS announced that four applicants had successfully secured licences to operate new digital banks in Singapore. International interest in the licenses was high, including from global technology companies such as Razer, Xiaomi and ByteDance. Ultimately, two digital full bank licences were awarded to a Singtel and Grab consortium, and Sea Limited, while two digital wholesale bank licences went to Ant Financial, and a consortium comprising Greenland Financial Holdings Group, Linklogis Hong Kong and Beijing Co-operative Equity Investment Fund Management. MAS expects the new digital banks to commence operations from early 2022.
Singapore, considered one of the top FinTech hubs in Southeast Asia (if not the Asia Pacific), is also investing significant resources into research and innovation. The Asian Institute of Digital Finance (AIDF), jointly founded by MAS, the National Research Foundation and the NUS, aspires to be a thought leader, a FinTech knowledge hub, and an experimental site for developing digital financial technologies as well as for nurturing current and future FinTech researchers and practitioners in Asia.
The AIDF conducts research into AI and smart decision analytics, FinTech infrastructure and deep credit analytics, and is home to the unique Fincubator programme, which promotes FinTech entrepreneurship and provides support to translate innovative FinTech solutions into market-ready products and services.
Recognised as Asia’s technology capital, Singapore hosts the headquarters of 80 of the world’s top 100 technology firms, which means that demand and competition for information technology talent is high. The FinTech Talent Survey 2020, conducted by the Singapore FinTech Association and PwC Singapore as a follow-up to their 2019 report, revealed that despite the pandemic FinTech firms are exceedingly optimistic about growth prospects over the next three to five years. In fact, 97% intend to expand their workforce in the next 12 months.
In general, the prospects for the FinTech sector in Singapore are looking very good. It is undoubtedly going to have an impact not just on the city state, but also the region and globally, offering a great many opportunities to numerous parties. As the vision described by Mr Menon unfolds, it is clear that now is an exciting time to be involved in the sector, not just for careers or profits, but also for the advancement of social and environmental causes.