3 key issues at National Day Rally 2017: The push to go digital

A customer using the unified self-checkout system at Cheers' first unmanned, cashless outlet at Nanyang Polytechnic.
A customer using the unified self-checkout system at Cheers' first unmanned, cashless outlet at Nanyang Polytechnic. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Singapore has been placing emphasis on pre-school education, and announced plans to combat diabetes and step up digital payments and services to be a Smart Nation. Ahead of tonight's National Day Rally, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will elaborate on plans in these areas, Insight looks at what has been done on all three fronts, why they are significant and what more could be done.

Even when using smartphone apps for goods and services, Ms Kelly Kin, 29, prefers to part with cash.

"I feel safer using cash," says the account manager, who was once wrongfully charged on her credit card by a ride-hailing app.

She went through hoops to report the incident, but only got a promotion code offer instead of a refund.

The hassle of reporting wrongful online charges, plus the "convenience" fee some merchants impose on consumers for transacting digitally, are just some of the challenges of going cashless in Singapore.

It is no wonder that 60 per cent of consumer payments here last year were made in cash, a Monetary Authority of Singapore-commissioned study by consulting firm KPMG Advisory revealed.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong candidly told the annual Camp Sequoia tech summit in February that Singapore was not moving as fast as it ought to on digital transformation, of which e-payment is a key part. He also wanted to see more progress on a national digital identity system, crucial for securing e-payments to drive Singapore's Smart Nation ambition.

WHY DOES E-PAYMENT MATTER?

Governments benefit from cashless payments as they lower the demand for physical dollars and coins, in turn reducing printing and storage requirements.

The cost of processing cash and cheques in Singapore was about $2 billion, or 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year, the KPMG study found. The cost includes storage, transportation, security and incineration.

Cashless technologies can reduce the cost significantly.

Yet Singaporeans cling to their cash, despite plenty of cashless payment options - from recently launched mobile wallets Apple Pay, Android Pay, Dash, DBS PayLah and Samsung Pay to the traditional ez-link, Nets CashCard and credit and debit cards.

Their wariness is one aspect. But the bigger problem is that some merchants accept one option and not another - spurning contactless payments, or credit cards, for example.

And consider the two most widely used cards, ez-link and CashCards: the former do not work at some carpark gantries, though they are accepted for public transport payments; motorists still need their CashCards.

The solution is not another piece of technology, but efforts by the Government to make the disparate platforms work with one another.

Money saved from handling and printing cash can be used to subsidise the common infrastructure.

Another issue is this: Dr Teo Hock Hai, a professor at the National University of Singapore's School of Computing, points out that "merchants have nothing to gain from engaging in e-payments".

They pay a 3 per cent transaction fee for accepting Visa and MasterCard payments. The same fee also applies to mobile wallets, most of which are layered on the existing credit card infrastructure.

At retail chain Courts Singapore, the cost of accepting cashless payments at its 14 outlets is about three times higher than accepting cash, says its chief executive Ben Tan.

Unifying payment networks cannot be left solely to any commercial entity. For instance, banking apps such as DBS PayLah, UOB Mighty and OCBC Pay Anyone for fuss-free fund transfers are not inter-operable, and thus not as fuss-free as touted.

A breakthrough happened only in June this year - three years after the banks first launched their apps - with the roll-out of a central addressing system by the Association of Banks in Singapore.

Dubbed PayNow, the fund-transfer system lets users send money to a mobile or NRIC number regardless of who they bank with. It is free for now.

And after three decades, Singapore's most extensive e-payment network, Nets - run by DBS Bank, OCBC Bank and United Overseas Bank, and which charges merchants only a 1 per cent transaction fee - is at last gaining some traction in the e-front push with a unified point-of-sale terminal.

It accepts payment from cards of all banks, so there is no need for several different terminals at a checkout counter from different issuers. It also accepts payment through mobile wallets.

About one-third of Nets' 99,000 acceptance points islandwide, including those at Cold Storage and FairPrice supermarkets, have been upgraded.

IMPORTANCE OF DIGITAL ID

For e-payments to take off, robust authentication is crucial to protect against fraud and identity theft.

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament in March that the existing SingPass authentication system was "not good enough".

SingPass, set up for Singapore residents in 2003 to access e-government services, tends to be vulnerable when users adopt usernames and passwords that are easy to guess, such as NRIC numbers or birth dates.

"We need to quickly upgrade this," Dr Balakrishnan said, noting that SingPass lacks biometrics such as fingerprints and encryption.

Efforts to develop a national digital ID started as early as July last year, when the agency in charge of public sector digital transformation, the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), engaged security systems maker Gemalto to conduct trials in the banking and healthcare sectors.

It is unclear what form this national digital ID will eventually take, but the authorities have said it could be in the form of a software-based security token.

For it to be truly national, it must also provide access to both public and private sector services, as is the case in Estonia. The European country has a digital ID system that allows its citizens to access their bank and healthcare information, and even vote online.

"The Estonians have this - there is no reason why we should not have it," PM Lee said in February.

The biggest hurdle in Singapore remains convincing the private sector to get on board.

It was not too long ago that a government-backed universal security token dubbed OneKey failed to supplant the clutter of tokens issued by individual banks.

None of the major banks here - DBS, UOB, OCBC Bank and Standard Chartered Bank - has signed up to use OneKey, launched in 2011. Instead, they have stuck to their in-house technology, citing security and other commercial concerns.

EXIT, PAPER PARKING COUPONS

Another Smart Nation initiative is a mobile app for parking payment that could supplant the humble 20cm-by-8cm parking coupon that was introduced nearly 40 years ago.

The perennial woe of getting a ticket from the "summons auntie" for insufficient paper parking coupons may soon end.

And parking cheats would no longer be able to exploit the paper coupon system.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Board - together with GovTech - are developing a mobile app so that parking at 1,150 carparks here, including kerbside parking spaces, will be coupon-free.

The app will pave the way for the next-generation satellite Electronic Road Pricing system, which is expected to be introduced in 2020. Satellites will monitor vehicles to calculate charges and parking fees, and bill motorists electronically, saving on enforcement costs.

The coming together of Singapore's Smart Nation plans hinges on the cooperation and coordination of various government agencies and the private sector in some cases.

Observers say the lack of such coordination will stymie efforts to be a Smart Nation.

Mr Nicholas You, a director of the Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation in China - where the much-vaunted mobile payment system WePay is accepted even by hawkers - had this warning at a conference in June: Public agencies, by working in silos and refusing to share data, can produce "stupid" cities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'The push to go digital'. Print Edition | Subscribe