Over the past few years, Southeast Asia’s traditional banks, which have historically been digital laggards, have become much more relevant. Leveraging their internal fintech capabilities, as well as best of breed external solutions, across the region, traditional banks are gradually becoming much more digitally adept and able to better serve users in everything from contactless payments to wealth management. The benefits are clear - a Fitch Ratings report argues banks with stronger digital transformation are more likely to secure recurring business and hit profit and innovation targets.

Regulatory uncertainty and travel restrictions are forcing many of Hong Kong’s blockchain and crypto companies to shift their operations to more hospitable jurisdictions including finance-focused island-states Singapore, Gibraltar and Cyprus and technologically empowered innovation hubs including Israel, San Francisco and London. Crypto.com, the world’s third-largest spot exchange by 24-hour trading volume, shifted its headquarters last year from Hong Kong to Singapore.

Amid a digital banking craze that is sweeping much of the world, it has become fashionable for big incumbents to claim they are, in fact, digital banks, or at least as digitally adroit as their branchless counterparts. The truth is usually more nuanced. However, in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and most populous country, incumbents really can become digibanks. They just need to be acquired by tech companies or other deep-pocketed investors and rejigged.

Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) is the latest incumbent lender in Asia to wager that digitization is the key to its future. Thailand’s oldest commercial bank and established by royal charter in 1907, SCB is transforming into a financial technology group and moving into the digital assets business. The transformation, which involves the establishment of a “mothership company” called SCBx, will propel the bank “as a regional financial technology conglomerate by 2025,” SCB says on its official website.

In Asia Pacific, digital banking is a tale of two different types of markets. In advanced economies like Hong Kong, Singapore, digital banks often lack a clear value proposition and have limited disruptive capabilities. In developing countries, it is a very different story, and perhaps none more so than the Philippines. The Philippines’ geography, large unbanked population and fast-growing mobile internet connectivity make the country uniquely suited to branchless neobanks.

Indonesia’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending sector has grown expeditiously in recent years, with significant benefits for financial inclusion in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Put simply, P2P lenders can serve markets that incumbent lenders cannot. However, risk is also higher in every way because P2P lending lacks a robust regulatory regime. The challenge for Indonesia’s Financial Services Authority (OJK) is striking the right balance between encouraging healthy industry development and preventing malfeasance and excessive borrower delinquency.

Throughout Asia, e-commerce platforms are adding fintech functions as they look to build more comprehensive digital services platforms. Unfortunately for e-commerce platforms in Taiwan, regulations make it very difficult for them to offer banking services. This is by design: Taiwan’s financial regulators want to prevent internet companies from fomenting too much disruption in the financial services sector.

Singapore's largest banks have performed strongly throughout the year, and the third quarter was no exception. In the July to September period, the city-state’s three largest lenders (DBS, OCBC and UOB) once again beat analysts’ forecasts.

As Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia is among the most important market in the region for the financial services sector. With that in mind, Indonesia’s steady adoption of digital banking represents a huge market opportunity for both fintechs and incumbent banks engaged in digital transformation.

In early October, Toss Bank finally went live in South Korea. The process took several years and hit a few bumps in the road. The country’s third digital lender had to reapply for a digital bank license after its initial application was rejected in May 2019. Regulators gave Toss preliminary approval in December 2019, but nearly two more years were required before it could launch. As it turns out, Toss is entering the market amid the first real fintech crackdown in South Korea, which has important implications for its growth trajectory.

While a certain amount of hype surrounds digital banks, one thing about them is for sure: Their very presence intensifies competition in the market, drawing attention to incumbent complacency. Now that Malaysia’s central bank plans to issue five digital banking licenses in the first quarter of 2022, the country’s traditional banks are moving to head off the challenge – or at least prepare themselves well.

The digitization of life since the coronavirus pandemic began has made  life more convenient in many respects. However, there is a downside to all of the digital activity: Criminals are now more active online than ever, and Singapore is no exception. The city-state known for its low crime rate – extremely low when compared with other developed countries –  is a grappling with a surge in online crime, with loan and investment scams especially problematic.

South Korea’s fintech crackdown has delayed Kakao Pay’s IPO and likely will force the company to do some restructuring to meet regulatory requirements. Kakao Pay’s parent company has also felt regulatory ire. Yet Kakao Bank, the digital bank unit of the platform company, has continued to perform well, as have its competitors K bank and Toss.

Given that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy, the decisions it makes about digital banking will have a large effect on fintech development in the region. To date, Jakarta has moved cautiously, despite the pandemic-driven transition to online banking that has swept the region. There are signs, however, that Indonesian regulators are keen to get the ball rolling. They will take a somewhat different approach than their counterparts in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia though.

All good things come to an end, and sometimes the end is long and drawn out. Such is the state of the latest fintech crackdown in China, which has evolved into an all-out effort to reign in Big Tech/platform companies. The tightening of supervision over firms like Ant Group and Tencent represents a major escalation over prior regulatory campaigns, which focused on cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. This time, Beijing is keen to clip the wings of the firms that have come to dominate its once-booming fintech sector. Not all of them are equally affected though.

Just a few months into its digital bank fast-tracking experiment, the Philippines decided to slow things down by limiting the number of digital bank licenses to seven for the next three years, effective September 1. Interest in the digibanking licenses has been strong among both digital upstarts and incumbent lenders, perhaps even stronger than the Philippine central bank (BSP) had expected. The newest winner – and perhaps the last for some time – in the country’s digibanking race is Voyager Innovations’ PayMaya, one of the Philippines’ leading e-wallets.

 

Never short of ambition, Revolut is aiming for an Australia banking license roughly a year after formally launching its app Down Under. The UK neobank unicorn is in discussions with the Australia Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) as it seeks approval to take customer deposits and provide lending services.

Digital banks are fast becoming a fixture of the Asia-Pacific fintech boom, in many ways a manifestation of Big Tech’s desire to become Big Fintech. In contrast to the United States and Europe, where ascendant digital lenders are usually pure-play operations that began as humble startups, APAC has an increasing number of so-called digibank startups backed by the region’s largest tech companies and some major incumbent financial services firms.

The Philippines has returned to an unenviable position: It is once again one of the only East Asian countries on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) Grey list, alongside Cambodia. Countries on the grey list have been flagged by FATF for insufficient anti-money laundering and/or counterterrorism financing controls. Being on the list creates regulatory headaches for financial institutions – such as higher interest rates and processing fees – and can be detrimental to a country’s business environment.

Sea Group just can’t lose when it comes to investor sentiment, even though the company’s losses widened on an annual basis to US$433.7 million in the second quarter from US$393.5 million a year earlier. The day before it reported Q2 earnings, Sea’s share price was about US$291 and as of August 23 it had reached US$315. Over the past year, the stock has risen more than 105% while Sea’s market cap now stands at US$168 billion.

With 37 retail banks for a population of 23.5 million, Taiwan is not the easiest market for digital banks to crack. Just about every Taiwanese adult has a bank account; in fact, many have more than one because of the tendency of companies in Taiwan to require employees to open a bank account with the company bank. Nevertheless, near ubiquitous smartphone penetration and the popularity of certain platform companies’ ecosystems offer digital banks an opening in Taiwan, especially given the effect of the pandemic on people’s banking habits.

We have to hand it to AirAsia: They tell the super app story well, probably better than some of the others whose task is less daunting than the beleaguered airline’s. Indeed, AirAsia is not a high-flying tech company aiming to use fintech to take its valuation and exit to the next level, but an airline facing an existential crisis wrought by the never-ending coronavirus pandemic. If AirAsia pulls off its transformation, it will stand as one of the great turnarounds in recent Asian corporate history, and perhaps pave the way for a new breed of platform company.

Revolut is the biggest neobank most of Asia has never heard of. Try as it might, Revolut just has not been able to make much of an impact in any APAC market yet, which is not a huge surprise given the amount of competition it faces and its distant home base in the UK. Revolut needs something to make it stand out from the crowd in APAC. Its new travel app Stays might be just what the doctor ordered.

It would have been difficult for Singapore’s Big 3 banks – DBS, OCBC and UOB – to beat their performance in the first quarter. That holds especially true for DBS and OCBC, which both posted record earnings in the January-March period. So while all three banks saw earnings fall in the second quarter on a quarterly basis, they still turned in a solid performance that beat analysts’ expectations.

Indonesia is fast becoming the most hotly contested of Southeast Asia’s digital services markets. No other market is both as large and untapped. With that in mind, Singapore’s Sea Group and hometown favorite GoTo have made significant plays in recent months. The former acquired Bank BKE, while Gojek upped its stake in Bank Jago and then merged with Tokopedia. Not to be outdone, Grab is teaming up with Tokopedia's rival Bukalapak. This move finally brings e-commerce into the Singaporean firm's ecosystem and strengthens the hands of both Grab and Bukalapak as they prepare to go public. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That seems to be true in just about every market that has introduced digital banks, and it is a two-way street. Hype about the challengers unseating incumbents tends to give way to a more nuanced reality in which there is some room for cooperation. In Australia, where four large banks have long dominated the market, the incumbents are steadily increasing their cooperation with fintechs in a bid to strengthen their digital offerings.

Big Tech may have reached an apex in the United States and China, but in South Korea it is ascendant. In a country where chaebols have long been dominant, it is not hard to imagine internet companies – and indeed fintechs in particular – taking a similar path. And that is exactly what is happening. First, Kakao became a fintech giant, and now it is Viva Republica’s turn. The company, which operates Toss, the largest fintech app in South Korea, recently raised US$410 million at a valuation of US$7.4 billion.

If there ever was a “We are all fintechs now” moment, it must have been earlier this year when Indonesia’s online travel unicorn Traveloka stepped up its rebranding as a digital financial services provider. Skeptics could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes. Yes, the pandemic has hit the travel industry hard and companies like Traveloka need to rejig themselves or they may not survive. On the other hand, not every platform company is suited to reinvent itself as a fintech.

Sea Group is one of the most successful loss-making companies in the world outside of private markets. Sea lost an astronomical amount of money in the first quarter of the year: US$422 million. That is not normally cause for celebration among listed companies, but its revenue also grew 147% year-on-year to US$1.76 billion. Investors are cheering: Sea’s stock price has risen more than 300% to US$283 over roughly the past year. Helping to drive that bullish investor sentiment are expectations about Sea’s potential in Southeast Asia’s nascent but fast-growing digital finance space.

Many of the world’s preeminent platform companies have tried to reinvent themselves as fintechs. Outside of China, South Korea’s Kakao is the only one that is an undisputed success. Kakao boasts South Korea’s largest e-wallet, with 36 million users, and leading digital bank. Both will go public in Korea in August and are likely to raise US$1.4 billion and US$2.3 billion respectively. The speed of Kakao Bank’s swing to profitability (it took just two years) – paving the way for the IPO just four years after its founding – has been remarkable by industry standards.

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