Indonesia is the most important digital financial services market in Southeast Asia, given its overall size, unbanked population of 181 million, and island geography. With 6,000 populated islands, Indonesia is almost uniquely suited for branchless banking.

It is thus no surprise that the region's most prominent platform companies, all in search of a shorter road to profitability after burning cash in the days of low interest rates and easy venture funding, are betting big on the Indonesian market. Singapore's Grab and Sea Group, as well as Indonesia's own GoTo and Bukalapak, are all vying for market share in Indonesia's burgeoning digibanking market.

Data from Redseer suggests that Indonesia's "total addressable market for financial technology services" will reach US$70.1 billion in 2025, up from US$17.8 billion in 2020.

While the Singaporean firms have deeper pockets and arguably a larger talent pool they can deploy, GoTo and Bukalapak have a certain homefield advantage. They understand the market better, and their resources are not spread as thin because they do not have large operations outside of Indonesia.

Buying the way to success

Unlike some other regulators in Asia, Indonesia's Financial Services Authority (the OJK) has made it relatively easy for foreign firms to move into digital banking. It has actively encouraged the purchase of incumbent lenders that can be rejigged as digital banks. The OJK sees that model as a win-win, allowing a local bank that might otherwise have been uncompetitive to improve the quality of its services, while big tech companies that make the investments do not need to apply for a digital banking license: They can use the license of the bank they buy.

This strategy is working out well for Sea Group, which bought Indonesia's Bank BKE in early 2021 and revamped it as SeaBank Indonesia. It was easy for Sea to meet the 3 trillion rupiah capitalization requirement for digital banks.

It did not take long for the undisclosed investment to pay off, especially given the synergies between Shopee's e-commerce ecosystem and digital banking. SeaBank Indonesia recorded a net profit of 269.2 billion rupiah ($18 million) in FY 2022, compared with a loss of 313.4 billion rupiah ($21 million) in FY 2021. Not a huge profit by financial industry standards, but certainly a step in the right direction. Furthermore, SeaBank's loans disbursed climbed to 15.9 trillion rupiah ($1.1 billion) in FY 2022 from 6.1 trillion rupiah ($409.2 million) the year before.

Thus far, Sea is the only major platform company to acquire a local bank outright. GoTo has a 22% stake in the local bank Bank Jago through a US$160 million investment Gojek made in late 2020, while the Grab-Singtel consortium has a minority stake in Indonesia's PT Bank Fama.

Laser focus on Indonesia

Local platform company Bukalapak has also leveraged its e-commerce ecosystem, but in a different way than Sea Group. In fact, such is the company's experience with merchants that it is now moving into the offline segment with its Mitra business to help the owners of small shops known as warung digitalize their operations.

According to venture capital firm Flourish Venture, traditional warung represents 70% of sales in Indonesia's US$257 billion grocery market. Given that the roadside kiosk operators are facing increasingly tough competition from modern, larger retailers, Bukalapak reckons that better digital connectivity can help them compete more effectively against the big players.

Thriving amid competition

As platform companies battle it out for dominance in Indonesia's digibanking market, the country's unique landscape and unbanked population present a vast opportunity for growth. With Singaporean giants like Grab and Sea Group, along with local players GoTo and Bukalapak, vying for market share, the race is on to capture a piece of Indonesia's booming digital financial services sector.

As these platform companies continue to streamline their operations and focus on profitability, Indonesia's digibanking market holds immense potential, and all four companies have a chance to thrive if they adapt to the evolving landscape and embrace a profitability-first approach. The pie is certainly big enough.

The great irony of digital banking in East Asia is that it most often refers to large incumbent banks, conglomerates, Big Tech or a combination of the three launching online-only lenders. Not the Philippines’ Tonik Bank though. It’s a genuine startup that began as a rural bank and morphed into a digital one. Tonik’s financials for 2022 recently appeared in several media reports, and by the looks of things, the three-year-old digibank is doing reasonably well in terms of customer acquisition, but its losses are widening.

Japan’s financial sector has been on a shopping spree in Indonesia, with an eye on digital finance opportunities. Though Japan has gradually been increasing financial sector digitization, the pace is slow compared to Indonesia and financial inclusion needs are limited given the country’s advanced stage of development and high per-capita GDP. Japan’s megabanks have been the most active buyers of assets in Indonesia, but other financial firms are also starting to look into opportunities in segments like banking and payments.

With a population of 169 million, of whom 40% to 50% lack a bank account, Bangladesh is a prime candidate for digital banks. Unlike the advanced economies of East Asia, Bangladesh can genuinely benefit from online banks that can rapidly bring more people into the formal financial system. With that in mind, the Bangladeshi central bank in June announced that it is ready to approve a framework for digital banks.

Digital transformation in Japan’s financial sector has been a gradual process, with the earliest pure-play online lenders dating back to the early 2000s, but limited change occurring until recently. Among East Asia’s developed economies, Japan is unique in that it has an unusual number of barriers to digitization of financial services: limited financial inclusion needs, a deep affinity for cash, a comprehensive and mature banking system with branches almost anywhere customers would need them, and the world’s most elderly population. That said, the pandemic spurred Japan to speed up financial digitization, and the trend is proving to be enduring.

When will Ant Group’s transformation be complete? Once China’s and probably the world’s most prominent fintech firm, the company has been caught up in political and regulatory headwinds since November 2020. Each time the light at the end of the tunnel has seemingly been in view, the expected revival of its IPO – the only definitive signal that would signal the company were out of the woods – has failed to materialize. Recent moves by Ant Group suggest that it still has some work to do before its transition to a technology company that works for the national interest is complete. That seems to be what Beijing expects of Ant.

Platform companies in Southeast Asia all want to capitalize on fintech opportunities, but Indonesia’s Bukalapak may be better positioned than others to do so. The reason is simple: First of all, Bukalapak’s core offering is e-commerce, which is the online service that best syncs with digital financial services, especially compared to something like ride hailing. Sorry, Grab and Gojek. Second, Bukalapak is based in Indonesia, which has a huge unbanked but digitally forward population. The company can ride the waves of both surging e-commerce and digital finance adoption rates.

It was bound to happen: South Korea’s most successful digital bank has started to have global – or at least regional – ambitions. Kakao Bank is one of the few digital lenders in Asia to reach profitability quickly (within just two years) and stay there. In fact, Kakao accomplished the unlikely feat of reaching profitability and going public within five years. One of the reasons Kakao has been successful is that it has eschewed gung-ho global expansion, which has helped keep its costs at a more reasonable level than most neobanks. Now, however, it is eager to try its hand in several Southeast Asian markets.

They say it’s lonely at the top, and once you get there, someone always wants to take you down. Revolut must feel that way. It towers above most fintech startups in this era of slashed valuations, more-demanding investors and scaled-down expansion. Though Revolut’s valuation has fallen from the absurdly high US$33 billion of 2021 to a still-lofty $18 billion today, its ambitions have not diminished. The company is trumpeting the fact it now has 30 million retail customers. But there remains one factor that could cut Revolut down to size: being denied a banking license in the UK.

How many platform companies outside of China have been able to make the super app concept work? Last time we checked, the only profitable one with a thriving fintech unit is Korea’s Kakao, and the jury is still out on that company. Unlike Korea or China though, Southeast Asia is an extremely heterogenous market – if we can even call a region with 11 countries that speak many different languages a single “market” – which means that a one-size-fits-all super app was never going to be an easy sell. On top of that, Southeast Asia’s consumers have limited spending power while competition in digital services is intense. Grab’s first-quarter performance highlights the challenge platform companies in the region face.

In East Asia, digital banks often are incumbent banks and tech giants in disguise, not so much disrupting the market as putting a new spin on an old story. There are exceptions though, and the Philippines is arguably the most prominent. A unique confluence of factors, from its unique island geography (it has about 2,000 inhabited islands) to complacent incumbents to a significant unbanked population to a central government plan that relies on digital finance to rapidly boost financial inclusion, has given online lenders a real chance to shake up the market and challenge incumbent lenders.

In its competition with Hong Kong to be Asia’s top fintech hub, it is pretty clear Singapore has won. Its linkages to Southeast Asia and India – where the fintech growth story is – are superior, while Hong Kong is more narrowly focused on mainland China, where fintech peaked a while back. Singapore also weathered the pandemic better. That said, Hong Kong is emerging as a strong player in green finance, with some analysts giving it the edge over Singapore.

Since China unveiled the digital renminbi several years ago, it has been hyped as a juggernaut that would dethrone the dollar in the international financial system while relegating China’s domestic e-payments duopoly of Alipay and Tenpay to supporting roles. The digital yuan’s biggest boosters – usually not Chinese policymakers – made such predictions without offering compelling evidence to support their arguments.

Singapore has long competed with Hong Kong in asset management. While the latter’s industry is still larger, the city-state’s has been growing expeditiously, buoyed by an influx of capital from China as well as the broader global super rich. Singapore's assets under management grew 16% to S$5.4 trillion (US$404.6 billion) in 2021. More than 75% of that originated outside Singapore, with about 30% coming from other Asia-Pacific countries.

What is going on with Malaysia’s digibanks? All that hype about who would win the licenses, lots of anticipation, the announcement of the five winners, and a year later there seems to be little demonstrable progress. According to a recent report by The Ken, Malaysian digibanks have a human capital problem: That is, they are having a hard time finding the right talent. Without the right people, the five digital lenders will not be off to a strong start.

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 1/3 of the global total. Beijing is well aware of the effect its emissions have on climate change and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking in 2030.

2023 has been an eventful year for renminbi internationalization thus far with China striking deals with several different countries to increase trade settlement in the Chinese currency. The renminbi seems destined to become increasingly important in international trade. While some of the media attention given to these deals would suggest they herald a broader de-dollarization movement, the reality is more nuanced.

One would be hard pressed to find any market in East Asia except the Philippines where startups are major digital banking players. In one jurisdiction after the next, regulators have ensured that incumbent lenders and in some cases large technology companies win the requisite licenses to operate online-only banks.

Japan’s largest banks are increasingly looking to fintech opportunities in Asia’s emerging markets as an avenue for growth, as their home market is mature, a laggard in digital transformation and constrained by the  world’s greyest population. In contrast, much of Southeast Asia as well as India still have plenty of low-hanging fruit, whether in the payments segment, banking, or both.

In the battle of Southeast Asia’s platform companies, the one that never declared itself a super app is edging out the others in digital financial services. Despite a slowdown in its gaming arm Garena, Sea Group is growing expeditiously in the e-commerce and fintech segments, a proven synergistic combination if we ever saw one. Just look at Taobao and Alipay. It’s just a more compelling one-two punch than trying to turn a ride-hailing app into a bank like Sea’s competitors are set on doing.

While most digital banks struggle to make money, South Korea’s are largely profitable. They have been able to scale up quickly, despite negligible financial inclusion needs. According to the World Bank, almost 99% of South Koreans have a bank account. The factors that have made Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank successful are unique to South Korea and are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

Rakuten Bank is gearing up for what will likely be Japan’s largest IPO since 2018, scheduled for April 21. The country’s oldest digital bank, which was founded in 2001 back in the days of Web 1.0 and was then known as eBank, aims to raise US$800 million at a valuation of US$2.31 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with the sale of 53.95 million existing shares of Rakuten Bank Ltd to both domestic and overseas investors and the issuance of 5.55 million new shares.

Slowly but surely, Thailand’s largest incumbent banks are positioning themselves to dominate the country’s nascent digital banking segment. This is no surprise. It’s how things tend to play out in East Asia – though it’s a shame for startups. The latest Thai incumbent bank to embrace digital banking is Kasikornbank, commonly known as KBank.

At the recent meetings of its National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, known as the two sessions, China made important changes to its financial and technology regulations to address significant challenges at home and overseas. Beijing is intent on ensuring financial stability at home and achieving breakthroughs in so-called “chokepoint technologies” as it deals with an increasingly fraught relationship with the United States.

One lingering question remains though: Will China’s dynamic private sector be sufficiently empowered by the reforms?

In December, the Philippines' House of Representatives approved a bill establishing a sovereign wealth fund. Known as the Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF), it is an initiative of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. aimed at raising capital for infrastructure projects, among other things. The Philippines will likely seed MIF with its central bank’s dividends and investible funds from the country’s Land Bank and Development Bank.

Asia has been fortunate thus far in that the failures of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank have not had a significant impact on its financial sector. While some financial firms in the region had limited exposure to these defunct lenders, it was not enough to pose a serious problem. Indeed, S&P Global Ratings has found that of the 380 banks and nonbank financial institutions that it rates in the region, it does not anticipate any rating actions directly related to the SVB default.

It was not so long ago that Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) was singing cryptocurrency’s praises and preparing to invest US$500 million in the Thai crypto exchange Bitkub. Alas, it was not meant to be. The crypto market cratered, and one of the kingdom’s largest lenders thought better of betting so big on a sector of financial services with so much inherent risk. SCB is now pivoting to what is turning out to be familiar territory for incumbent lenders in Asia: digital banking.

After four years, Cambodia has finally been removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), indicating the watchdog no longer sees the kingdom as a country at a heightened risk of money laundering and terrorism financing. It’s an achievement for Cambodia to celebrate, especially given that it coincides with the imminent end of the coronavirus pandemic and a resumption of normal international business and travel links.

Sea Group surprised many of us with its swing to profitability in the fourth quarter, the first time the Singaporean company ever recorded positive net income. The company is much better known for losing money than making it. In the fourth quarter, Sea made a profit of US$422.8 million, compared to a loss of US$616.3 million in the same period a year earlier.

Given the competition it faces from Singapore, Hong Kong cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Over the past few years, Singapore has become a bigger fintech hub than Hong Kong, an increasingly important location for the regional headquarters of both multinational and Chinese companies, and is also quietly attracting high-net worth individuals to set up family offices.

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