I attended the Singapore Fintech Festival last week, and despite its name, it is not really about Fintech, but about the future of Singapore as a financial centre.
I first heard about the Singapore Fintech Festival when Sopnendu Mohanty, the flamboyant head of Fintech at MAS, and his team, presented at Oxford Said Business School 6 months ago. I had followed the initiatives of Singapore with great interest, but was blown away by Sopnendu’s presentation, and the long-term vision of Singapore in Fintech – which was much more than Fintech, but really their views on the future of finance.
MAS very kindly invited me to participate at the Festival (as a judge for the Hackcelerator, and a moderator-speaker at the conference), and I was very keen to spend the whole week in Singapore, meet with interesting startups, and see the latest developments. The timing was also perfect since the Fintech HK week was the week before, and Echelon just after, which allowed me to have a very packed 2 weeks in Asia.
I didn’t have any special expectations for the Singapore Festival – I knew it would be a great opportunity to discover new startups, meet new people, and learn about the Singapore ecosystem – but since it was the first event, it wasn’t like Websummit or Money 20/20 where you know that the whole community will be there…
This is only when I was in Hong Kong the week before that I realised that the Singapore Fintech Festival would be much bigger than I thought – people were talking about 10,000 participants, i.e. the largest Fintech event ever organised. At the end, 12,000 people registered, and the only reason why it wasn’t higher is because MAS shut the site down…
Overall, there were dozens (hundreds?) of events taking place during that week, and I only attended a few of them. Some of the highlights of the week (for me) were:
- Launch of DAX (DBS Asia X)
DBS launched a 16,000 sqft innovation space on the first day of the Festival, and the event was packed!
I finally had the opportunity to meet Rob Findlay in real life, who does amazing things at DBS, and it was wonderful to be on the same panel as Ayesha Khanna who’s doing great things not only in Fintech, but also in education. What was even more impressive is that at the same time, there were 22 other innovation labs holding events in Singapore. I don’t know if it’s the largest concentration of innovation labs in the world, but there are definitely a lot in Singapore…
- Final of the Hackcelerator
This was an exciting moment, and the event I was really looking forward to – I wanted to meet the best Fintech startups in Asia, and see how different they were from Europe. I was extremely fortunate to be on the jury for the Hackcelerator (with very impressive people, representing both traditional finance and Fintech), and was therefore on the first row to listen to the 5-minute pitches of the 19 finalists. (They were the top companies selected for the 100 problem statements). The startups were in general very impressive, and for many of them, I wanted to know more after the 5-minute presentation.
The finalists were in different categories (below), and what was noticeable is that most of them were in the B2B space rather than B2C – which definitely makes sense in the context of Singapore.
The winners were FitSense, Aida and Beacon. FitSense’s value proposition is to help create insurance products from device data, but what impressed me the most was their on-boarding process that was incredibly frictionless. Regtech was definitely one of the most talked about themes of the Festival, and Aida was a great example of applications of AI to banking (in that case compliance and risk). And Beacon reminded us of the opportunities for Fintech to have a social impact: it is a solution to help the visually-impaired use mobile banking through multi-sensory interactions.
Other startups I found particularly interesting were Identitii (a bit similar to Ripple for information overlay on top of existing payment rails), HiHedge (interesting way to gamify investment strategies), Thinknum (using online data as trading indicators), Flowcast (predictive analytics for lending business), Tikkr (insuring “moments” of people’s lives), Cardup (using credit cards to pay for large expenses such as school fees), and aPrivacy (securing messaging tools such as WhatsApp or WeChat for banking communication). The other presentations were very good too, but resonated less with me.
- Fintech Conference
There were two days of heavy content at the Fintech Conference, with leading speakers from Asia, Europe and the US. I missed most of the presentations though! That was the drawback of trying to meet as many of the 12,000 attendees as possible…
I didn’t miss my own presentation though, where I was in discussion with Samuel Tsien (CEO, OCBC), Nigel Dobson (GM Wholesale Digital, ANZ) and Makoto Shibata (Head of Global Innovation, MUFG). We had a fascinating discussion about the impact of Fintech in Corporate Banking, and why it seemed that Corporate Banking had been less impacted by technology than say Retail Banking, Asset Management, or even Capital Markets. I was very pleasantly surprised to be discussing APIs, Open Platform, Cloud, Blockchain (of course!), Ecosystem and Collaboration with these senior bank leaders. The conclusion was that much was happening in Corporate Banking, but it was more behind the scenes and therefore less visible. However, I don’t think anyone underestimated the potential for disruptors to take away business, especially in the transaction bsuiness.
- Fintech Awards
They were held at Universal Studios! This puts the bar very high for any other Fintech event in the world…
The Fintech Awards were awarded to 10 Fintech startups that shared more than S$1m between them, which is a huge prize even at a global level. But the highlight of the evening was certainly the speech of the Deputy Prime Minister outlining the Fintech initiatives in Singapore: from the funding of proofs of concept to the investments in Singapore startups, from the launch of the Wharton executive programme to the 2,500 internships in Fintech, etc.
And this is where I am very impressed with what Singapore is doing, not only in Fintech, but in finance in general. If we take a step back, we all know that finance will be deeply transformed by technology – and Fintech (startups) is just a small part of it. This is a threat or an opportunity for large banks, but also for countries. And it seems that in a world where the dominance of places like London or Hong Kong is being challenged, Singapore is going full steam ahead to claim the prize of financial (and not just Fintech) capital of the world. Whether they achieve it or not is another question, but that doesn’t seem that crazy in a world where “big is beautiful” has now been replaced by “nimble and fast is beautiful”.
In other words, Singapore is doing a “Mega Digital Transformation“ of their financial industry, and just like any digital transformation, one of the biggest challenges is to transform the culture and improve the skills of the individuals. This is therefore no surprise that there was an emphasis in investment, but especially in education – from university level to mid management to executive education.
The main objective for Singapore is to become a leading financial centre in the 21st century, and Fintech is one of the means to achieve that end. There will clearly be challenges, e.g. the small size of the domestic market, the small number of entrepreneurs, etc, but I’ll definitely be following with great interest.
Singapore is also a beautiful proof that we are now in a world where anything is possible – whether you’re a startup, a large bank or even a country. I hope that we will see much more of these initiatives around the world, because 1) we need this to accelerate innovation in finance, but also 2) we need this to help banking professionals, old or young, to adapt to this fast-changing world.
If you want to have a sense of what’s happening in Singapore, have a look at this:
Video of the Festival (and remember it’s from a finance regulator…)
- Initiatives launched at the Fintech Awards in investment and education.
- A picture that speaks for itself (from Chee Ong Bee‘s Linkedin update)
- 100 problem statements, i.e. the list of priorities that MAS identified for Fintech in the Hackcelerator
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