Southeast Asia appears open to blockchain technology and the digitization of currency despite the fact that the majority of the public remains reliant on cash.
By Zachary Frye
As the digital age continues apace, central and private banks across the world are experimenting with technology to promote faster, smoother and more secure economic transactions.
In Southeast Asia, while much of the region remains steadfastly cash-based, hubs in Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand are taking the lead in promoting the use of digital transactions through blockchain.
Blockchain is a technology that facilitates transactions through an electronic data ledger that cannot be altered, which proponents say reduces friction and increases trust between parties, spurring economic growth.
The applications for the technology, however, go beyond payments. In Vietnam, the government in Ho Chi Minh City is pursuing the use of blockchain to streamline business within the energy, transportation and urban development sectors, while Singapore is emerging as one of the world’s biggest research locations for the broader use of blockchain technology across industries.
Omise, a Bangkok-based firm, has launched a digital asset called OMG Network that ranks as one of the world’s larger publicly-traded digital currencies—also known as cryptocurrencies. Omise now boasts partnerships with several big-name companies in Thailand, such as telecommunications giant the True Corporation.
By contrast, R3 does not have a tradable digital asset but instead focuses on streamlining economic activity through its private blockchain platform called Corda, which has gleaned the interest of traditional financial organizations in the country like Siam Commercial Bank and the Bank of Thailand (BOT).
The global blockchain industry is benefiting from significant growth, partly due to the rise in popularity of Bitcoin and other digital currencies, but there are a host of regulatory uncertainties that continue to haunt the industry, including uneven legal jurisdiction for blockchain assets and services across borders.
According to R3 Head of Asia Pacific Amit Ghosh, however, Southeast Asia generally seems warm to the technology and its potential benefits.
“As the region becomes a center of global economic growth, we have seen how its appetite for technological innovation has become even more voracious,” Ghosh told ASEAN Today.
“From our perspective, we find that governments and businesses in Southeast Asia have been receptive to blockchain and are cognizant of the benefits that the technology can bring,” he added.
Thailand could be among the first countries to implement large-scale transactions through blockchain
Over the past several years, Thailand’s central bank has studied the application of digital blockchain payments both within and across borders.
In 2018, the BOT started phase one of an initiative dubbed Project Inthanon, in reference to Thailand’s highest peak, to facilitate more efficient and cost-effective payments between institutions.
The second phase of the project, implemented in 2019, focused on testing interbank bond transfers and the third phase—Project Inthanon-LionRock—culminated in successful cross-border transfers between the BOT and the central bank of Hong Kong without the use of a third-party.
R3’s Corda technology facilitated the transactions through its blockchain network. In the longer term, such projects will only help spur the use of blockchain for financial transactions throughout the region.
“We believe that the first phases of the project have helped to set the groundwork for wholesale fund transfer through CBDCs [Central Bank Digital Currencies],” Ghosh said.
So far, no country has digitized its currency, which would mean that a country’s reserves are stored digitally and citizens complete everyday transactions on the currency’s blockchain. But a recent survey published by The Economist noted that some 80% of central banks around the world are looking into such proposals.
Cash is still king in Southeast Asia, but increased access to financial technologies could improve lives
Despite the interest from Southeast Asian governments and companies in digital financial services, large swaths of the population across the sub-continent remain reliant on cash.
According to data published by Reuters in 2018, 70% of people in the region are unbanked, meaning they do not have a bank account and rely solely on physical money.
More recent reports suggest that despite fast growth in e-commerce and other digital services, some of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia—like Cambodia and Myanmar—have especially high unbanked populations. In Myanmar alone, some 40 million people are unbanked.
With that said, over the next several decades the region could see an influx of people signing up for banking services for the first time—a trend that would increase the role of digital finance in people’s lives, especially given the acceptance of such technologies among emerging generations.
Young people in the region, especially in urban areas, are much more likely to utilize e-payment services than older generations.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, one of the world’s largest business consulting firms, 49% of urban residents in Southeast Asia who have bank accounts already use e-wallets for payments—a number they project will reach 84% by 2025.
Some advocates of blockchain, however, claim that its potential goes beyond simply offering traditional banking services or helping move developing economies away from an overreliance on cash.
They say blockchain could be a boon for the region’s poor and middle classes because of its ability to record immutable data and provide frictionless transfers without a third party.
The potential applications of the technology to improve citizens’ lives are many—from expanded insurance and low-cost remittance services to peer-to-peer networks that could make it easier to save and borrow money.
In the long run, though, blockchain’s biggest legacy could be increased economic and social efficiency, which will only serve to fuel the livelihoods of everyday Southeast Asians.
“There is no doubt that the integration of [blockchain] technology into processes such as funds transfers will help increase efficiency, reduce risks and drive down overall costs in the financial ecosystem—all of which will, in turn, benefit consumers,” Ghosh concluded.