Singapore’s Fintech Honcho Has Vision of Asian Silicon Valley

Singapore sees more investments pouring into financial technology firms this year as the city-state seeks to become a regional hub for capital raising in areas from payments to robo-advisory, according to a top central bank official.

Such investments have risen from around $20 million in 2014 to a record $1.1 billion last year, and more is expected this year, Sopnendu Mohanty, the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s chief fintech officer, said in an interview.

“We don’t have Silicon Valley, but we are trying our best,” he said. The environment the country is building enables these fintech players to “find opportunities to see if their early ideas translate into real value in the long run.”

Mohanty, who spent 17 years at Citigroup Inc. before taking the position at the central bank in 2015, is in the fintech role at a time when the industry is fast evolving. The MAS’ aspirations are central to Singapore’s aim to fortify its position as a global financial center where incumbent banks and contesting tech firms compete to provide services to consumers and corporates, though it is also a gatekeeper of standards as companies roll out their businesses.

Mohanty has been involved with efforts like Partior, the joint venture between JPMorgan Chase & Co., Temasek Holdings Pte. and DBS Group Holdings Ltd., that’s a new blockchain-based platform for payments, trade and foreign-exchange settlement. He is also keen to expand a cross-border payments infrastructure, that has kicked off with Thailand allowing people in both countries to almost immediately move money via their mobile phones through government-backed systems.

Money Transfers, Licenses

With the Thailand link now established, India is a focus, Mohanty said. Other countries in Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia may follow, as well as countries further afield like Africa.

“We hope India comes into this platform within next year,” he said. “If we can connect our system with India’s -- we have done a huge test of our system -- we hope other countries will also follow onto this platform.”

Meanwhile, the MAS is still processing the applications of companies seeking licenses to operate services in payments and crypto exchanges in the city, Mohanty said. These companies have been operating under a grace period since the regulator made the new Payment Services Act effective in January 2020. More than 300 have applied, and the MAS is reviewing how best to speed up the process as well as balance between encouraging entrepreneurship and regulation, according to a Singapore minister in January this year.

Among the prominent firms seeking the MAS licenses are entities of Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. and Ant Group, Binance Holdings Ltd., as well as Alphabet Inc.

“Giving licences to somebody is a premium, it is not something to be taken lightly.” Mohanty said, without giving a timeline for when the first license would be issued. “We are ensuring that whoever gets an MAS license will be credible.”

Here are other comments from Mohanty during the interview:

Central Bank Digital Currencies

Central bank digital currencies have become an issue of focus as China advances with its digital yuan, which is in the testing phase. They’re usually in one of two categories, either a retail CBDC that’s held directly by citizens and companies, or a wholesale CBDC that’s restricted to financial institutions and is primarily for interbank payments and financial settlement.

Singapore was ranked number three in a PwC index released in April that measures progress of interbank/wholesale CBDCs. Retail, like the one China is planning, is a different story, though, according to Mohanty.

“In the Singapore context, it is not obvious that a retail central bank digital currency would be useful because today, you can already send money to each other at zero cost and with a few clicks. What can you do better than that?”

Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies

Singapore and its private sector have taken steps to bolster its presence in cryptocurrencies, from the Singapore Exchange Ltd. moves to become Asia’s pricing hub for Bitcoin and Ether to DBS Private Bank starting Asia’s first bank-backed trust solution for crypto. At the same time however, the government has repeatedly warned its citizens about the risks of trading crypto like Bitcoin.

“I haven’t touched Bitcoin till now. It’s a speculative asset,” Mohanty said. “It’s common sense that nobody should indulge in assets they don’t understand. It’s so volatile and it’s so complex. MAS is doing a lot of work through parliament speeches and messages to tell people to be careful. And if people still go out and buy such risky assets, it is their choice.”

However, he added that in terms of exchanges, “we know that the world is moving to digital currencies – so, CBDCs and stablecoins and all these other things.”

“The first thing which is getting institutionalized are the exchanges. The common platform, like Partior, they are becoming the backbone. And once this backbone gets created, then the transactions flow through this backbone and eventually becomes more mainstream. There is a value to this shift in how you think about payments and currencies.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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