Banks battle Jack Ma in payments market

Mr Jack Ma's Alibaba Group and payments affiliate Ant Financial are targeting South-east Asia's digital payments market.
Mr Jack Ma's Alibaba Group and payments affiliate Ant Financial are targeting South-east Asia's digital payments market.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Over the past two months, some 1,000 part-time workers for DBS Group Holdings have fanned out across Singapore's foodcourts, trying to entice mom-and-pop hawkers to use PayLah!, the bank's digital payments service.

"Hawkers need speed, and they are afraid that using PayLah! may not be fast enough when the queues are very long," Ms Erica Chiang, 19, who has signed up 50 food vendors in her seven weeks working for DBS, said on Wednesday. "But once they know the product, they become interested."

Ms Chiang is on the front line of a push consuming banks across South-east Asia these days: defending against Mr Jack Ma's Alibaba Group and its payments affiliate Ant Financial, which are targeting the region as a major growth market.

South-east Asia's banks have long been spared the competitive onslaught that saw their peers in China cede that nation's giant payments market to Ant Financial and Tencent Holdings.

That is about to change, as Mr Ma lines up partnerships across the region to win over some of the estimated 450 million people with limited access to banking services - and then use that position to go after the lenders' core customers.

Mr Sandeep Lal, head of digital banking at DBS, said: "We view the 'Big Techs' with large platforms as the ones we should be more concerned with."

Underscoring the perceived threat, the Singapore Government on Tuesday proposed new rules to make it easier for banks to invest in non-financial businesses, including e-commerce and digital payment platforms.

China stands as a stark reminder of what happens when banks do not respond quickly enough. Alipay and an offering from Tencent carved up more than 90 per cent of the country's US$5.5 trillion (S$7.6 trillion) mobile payments market between them in just four years.

Ant Financial has set up partnerships in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines to offer services like lending and money transfers. Together with Alibaba, it is also piecing together a digital payments business in heavily-banked Singapore.

Mr Ma, through Alibaba and Ant Financial, is also stitching together an e-commerce and payments network in Singapore through the acquisitions of Lazada Group, online grocer Redmart and HelloPay, a mobile payments service now rebranded as Alipay.

DBS is moving to stave off the challenge by linking up with traditionally cash-heavy businesses.

The bank is working with ComfortDelGro, Singapore's largest taxi firm, to equip 16,300 of its cabs with terminals that allow payments through PayLah! by the third quarter of this year.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'Banks battle Jack Ma in payments market'. Print Edition | Subscribe