National Day Rally 2017: When Lim Swee Say felt 'suaku' in smart city Shanghai

Straits Times China correspondent Lim Yan Liang spends a day running errands and buying food using only his mobile phone.

SINGAPORE - When Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say was queueing up to buy chestnuts at a roadside hawker stall in Shanghai a few years ago, he saw all the people ahead of him wave their handphones, take their chestnuts and leave without paying any cash.

He thought it was a special offer that required them to show their phone, and declined to participate, offering to pay the full price for his order in cash.

But it turned out the people were using WeChat Pay to scan the hawker's QR code, and Mr Lim felt "suaku", or like a country bumpkin, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 20).

The story drew laughter from the audience, but Mr Lee was using it to make a serious point - Singapore lags behind other cities in several areas of its Smart Nation push, such as electronic payments.

This is despite the country's "natural advantage" with its compact and highly connected state, a digitally literate population, and basic computing and robotics being taught in schools, he said in his National Day Rally speech.

In major Chinese cities, for example, cash is already obsolete and even debit and credit cards are becoming rare, he said.

With mobile apps like WeChat Pay or AliPay linked to one's bank account, nearly all payments - from taxi rides to tips for waiters - can be made by scanning a QR code, a kind of barcode, with a phone.

"So when visitors from China find that they have to use cash here, they ask: how can Singapore be so backward?" he said.

He added that there are too many different e-payment systems and schemes here, which makes it inconvenient for consumers who have to carry multiple cards, and costly for businesses which must install multiple readers.

As a result, six in 10 transactions here are still made through cash or cheque.

Mr Lee said the various systems in use must be simplified and integrated, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore has been working on this.

Over the next 18 months, 25,000 unified-point-of-sales terminals, which accept multiple payment options such as credit cards and contactless payments through phones, are expected to be deployed islandwide, said the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office said in a release on Sunday.

 

Citing the PayNow service which was launched recently, Mr Lee said he hopes to use it to pay for hawker centre meals in the near future. PayNow allows people to make payments to someone's mobile number, instead of their bank account number, and works across different banks.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office said e-payments at hawker centres will be rolled out in phases by the National Environment Agency by end-2019.

The e-payments drive is among five strategic national projects the Government is working on to promote pervasive adoption of smart technologies.

Other e-payment initiatives are: a common QR code to be rolled out in six months' time, which consumers and small businesses can use to receive money via PayNow, and account-based ticketing, which the Land Transport Authority has been piloting, that will allow commuters to use contactless bank cards to pay for trips without making top-ups.

To be a Smart Nation, Singapore has to take full advantage of information technology, said Mr Lee.

It is not just about owning more handphones, having the fastest Internet connection, or using self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.

"(It is about) using IT comprehensively to create new jobs, new business opportunities, to make our economy more productive, to make our lives more convenient, and to make this an outstanding city in which to live, work and play," he said.