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The Big Read: With no foolproof way to prevent banking and e-payment services outages, what can businesses and consumers do?

SINGAPORE — A long-awaited date with her national serviceman boyfriend for Ms Nazrana Shaheen ended up being cut short, no thanks to a banking services disruption by DBS Bank and Citibank on Oct 14.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question on major banking disruptions that have lasted more than an hour in the last five years in April this year, then Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that seven banks have reported a total of 17 disruptions to their digital banking services that lasted more than one hour since 2018. 

The seven banks are Singapore’s “domestic systemically important banks” (D-SIBs) and serve the bulk of the nation’s retail banking customers.

The D-SIBs are DBS Bank, OCBC, United Overseas Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, Citibank, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Malayan Banking Berhad.

Mr Tharman said that the root causes of these service disruptions ranged from lapses in managing system upgrades to software bugs and misconfigurations in digital banking systems as well as back-end systems and components.

The prevalence of such service disruptions has inevitably raised questions on how reliable and safe the e-payment landscape in Singapore is, amid the nation’s ongoing push to become a more cashless society.

With the internet — which itself is not immune from disruptions — being one of the ways in which cashless systems can be affected, some financial experts have pointed to the efficacy of offline modes of payment or banking systems, such as mobile e-wallets.

However, they also caution that offline payment applications come with their own set of challenges for both businesses and consumers.

Consumers, for example, may lose their physical e-wallets such as the Ez-link card, said Ms Lim May-Ann, director of the Fair Tech Institute at Access Partnership.  

Dr Lee Yen Teik, a senior lecturer of finance at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, noted that offline payment methods pose operational challenges for businesses such as reconciling offline and online transaction data, as discrepancies can complicate accounting and auditing processes. 

DEFAULTING TO ‘IOU’ SYSTEM 

While many businesses offer a range of payment options including cash, some told TODAY that the Oct 14 bank disruption threw them out of kilter, especially since they were used to receiving predominantly e-payments.

Ms Faith Koh, owner of ice cream cafe O Happi Place, said that her staff and customers were left “puzzled” for a while as they initially assumed that their payment terminals were having an issue. 

“We had a beeline of customers whose DBS and Citibank-issued cards didn’t work. We restarted our devices, checked the connection, and nothing worked. Then we saw the notification from the news and realised there was an outage.”

At SOL by Bespoke Dining Club, a newly-opened gourmet convenience store on Lazarus Island, founder Samuel Quan said that limited internet connectivity on the island left everyone clueless that Saturday afternoon.

“No one on the island knew that there was a DBS outage as they do not have connection on certain parts of the island, specifically in my store, and our store’s wireless connection is unstable.”

Instead of making customers wait indefinitely, Mr Quan told them to leave first with their purchases, and pay him via PayNow when services resumed. 

Likewise, Ms Nadya, who was unable to withdraw cash or use her credit cards, had no choice but to promise the restaurant that she would return to settle her dining bill once banking services were restored. She even showed the staff the TikTok clip she had filmed of ATMs bearing the message “this terminal is temporarily offline”. 

“Fortunately, a lot of the vendors were empathetic towards customers, so they accepted the ‘I owe you’ until I paid them the following day,” she said.  

Many other businesses also had to embrace the trust-based system on the spot.

Ms Sidney Lim, co-founder of NearesTTen Curated Thrift Store, chose to let 13 affected customers walk out with their items without paying, anticipating that they would be able to transfer the owed payment once digital banking services were restored.

“We requested them to leave us a direct message on Instagram, including a photo of their items and the total price. Our part-timer also recorded down all the Instagram handles (of those) who owed us the payment as it would be easier for us to keep track and tally the sales,” she said.

The total amount owed came up to around S$510, which Ms Lim was able to recover over a period of two days after bank services were restored.

PREFERENCE FOR CASHLESS PAYMENT: BUSINESSES 

While some businesses resorted to manual tracking during the banking services disruption, others said they were mostly able to continue with business as usual, with customers paying via alternative payment modes.

Mr Colin Chen, founder of cafe Hello Arigato, which has four outlets across Singapore that accept only cashless modes of payments, said that its business was largely unaffected as customers used cards from other banks or opted to pay via GrabPay, an e-wallet.

As the cafe uses an international payment services provider and not terminals from the affected local banks, its payment terminals remained functional.

“Once customers realised the payments weren’t working they swapped to another card that worked, so we’re lucky that there were other banks or credit card providers that weren’t affected.” 

When asked why Hello Arigato would choose to remain a “cashless and digital-centric business” in the face of possible service disruptions or down time, Mr Chen said that the benefits from an accountability and accounting standpoint outweigh the impact of these outages. 

“Our transaction data and payment numbers can be reconciled more accurately, which our accountants love. And with that we get more up-to-date data on finances and cash flow of the business,” he said. 

Another business that accepts only e-payments is Ella, a robot barista with nine locations across Singapore.

Mr Keith Tan, founder and chief executive officer of Crown Digital, a startup that runs Ella, said that their services were unaffected as the payment terminal they use was not from one of the affected banks. Users can also order and pay via their mobile app, which can be linked to a user’s credit cards. 

Though unaffected by the recent outage, Mr Tan said that accepting only digital payments means that the unmanned coffee robots have to rely on “robust” service providers, as they are dependent on the reliability of the latter’s payment gateway and cloud services. 

For example, Mr Tan ensures that the robots are on an enterprise grade bandwidth for their network connection, to ensure high availability to customers. 

While a previous outage this year where mobile app payments for Ella were halted by an internal development error was “painful”, Mr Tan said that these disruptions do not deter him from keeping the business cashless. 

“The benefits and seamlessness and digitalised operations just far outweigh the cons. For me, it’s looking forward — stay vigilant and abreast with the latest industry best practices and we will be fine.”

Experts similarly told TODAY that for some businesses, the benefits of accepting only digital payments — such as streamlining operations and reducing the risks associated with handling cash — eclipse the potential drawbacks and impact of service disruptions. 

“The convenience and speed of digital transactions also enhance customer experience,” said Dr Lee from NUS Business School.

Agreeing, Dr Gordon R Clarke, managing director of payment services consulting company Monetics, said that record keeping automatically provided with digital transactions can help business save time both on issuing change and on cash reconciliation.

LESSONS FOR BANKS, BUSINESSES AND CONSUMERS 

While digital bank disruptions are not new, Fair Tech Institute’s Ms Lim said that the Oct 14 outage was “unusual” as it impacted both the online and method-to-offline payments for some banks.  

“PayNow and credit card payments were offline, but what was disruptive was that ATMs — the route-to-cash — were also offline.”

Ms Lim said that the latest disruption demonstrated a “vulnerability that Singapore and our banks need to review and address”. 

To prevent this from happening again, “a rethink and redesign of the internal banking information system architecture” may be needed.

“How robust were the failover systems and what worked or did not work in this particular outage?” was one question to consider, said Ms Lim.

Some experts also highlighted vulnerabilities such as systemic risks from centralised data centres. 

“The fact that banks might opt for the same top-tier data centre or other IT service provider amplifies the likelihood of a systemic outage, which leads to more severe consequences for both businesses and consumers,” said Associate Professor Cindy Deng Xin from the banking and finance department at Nanyang Business School. 

“It is worth noting that when we’re dealing with large transactions, a bank’s IT system and data processing can get pretty complicated….these technological hiccups are not always easy to prevent,” she said. 

Any issue with a data centre key component, including servers and hardware, cooling, and power supplies, could lead to the outage for their customers.

However, Assoc Prof Deng added that while this month’s disruption was tied to a technical issue at the data centre Equinix, this can be a valuable “learning experience” for banks. 

The MAS said on Oct 19 that both DBS Bank and Citibank were unable to fully recover their systems within the required timeframe. Under MAS’ requirements, the unscheduled downtime for a critical system affecting a bank’s operations or service to customers must not exceed four hours within any 12-month period.

While MAS does not have oversight of data centres, it “expects banks to establish contractual agreements with data centre providers that incorporate MAS’ requirements on system availability”. 

Mr Wong Nai Seng, regulatory strategy leader of consultancy firm Deloitte Southeast Asia, said that notwithstanding regulatory requirements for payment service providers to maintain robust systems, brief service disruptions may nonetheless occur from time to time due to technical glitches, cyber attacks or other incidents.

Noting that “no IT system is infallible”, MAS said: “Banks and customers should have contingency measures in the event of service disruptions caused by IT outages.”

BUILDING RESILIENCE IN E-PAYMENT LANDSCAPE

As digital payments become more of a norm here and service disruptions can and will occur, remaining resilient in a digital payment landscape involves better habits and preparation on the part of consumers and businesses, experts told TODAY. 

To ensure business continuity in the immediate period of a service disruption, fail-safe measures are needed, they added.

Dr Lee from NUS Business School said that businesses should maintain a backup manual system such as cash or paper-based transactions. 

They could also enhance the resilience of their payment system by implementing real-time monitoring for immediate disruptions alerts. 

Another way could be activating other modes of payment in the event of an “extended service disruption”, such as accepting cash on delivery on an interim basis for online-only shops, said Ms Lim from the Fair Tech Institute.

Mr Chen from Hello Arigato said that his staff had been trained to accept cash payment in case none of the e-payment alternatives work. 

In the long term, Ms Lim said that building resilience for business in a digital landscape involves adding a “buffer” through offering multiple methods of payments to customers.

Professor Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at NUS Business School, stressed that entirely cashless businesses should not be dependent on one family of payments, to avoid “putting all of one’s eggs in one basket”. 

Agreeing, Assoc Prof Deng suggested that businesses could acquire multiple point-of-sale terminals for both banks and mobile payments if cost is not a significant concern. 

For Mr Rodney Sim, group commercial manager at gastrobar GudSht, e-payment is the “primary payment option” at his business, which accepts a range of e-payment methods including QR Code payment, all major credit cards, Nets and buy-now-pay-later options from Pace.

“With Singapore’s ongoing development towards becoming a smarter nation, the continuous exponential growth in e-payment usage is undeniable,” he said. 

At Woofie, an unmanned thrift store, sales on Oct 14 were lower by an estimated 10 per cent as compared to their usual sales for a Saturday, said co-founder Desiree Chang. 

The shop currently accepts two main modes of payments, PayNow or Paylah, and exact cash payments as all items are priced at S$10. 

Ms Chang added that this was the first time it had been affected by a banking services outage, and the store now plans to explore adding alternative methods of payment such as GrabPay and ShopBack.

Consumers, too, should not be totally reliant on just a single mode of payment. They should instead have some cash on them always, and expand their repertoire of digital payment options, the experts said.

“I know people who just go around with their mobile phone with them — though it looks cool, it’s not so practical. Even just some spare cash for small vendors or in the case of breakdowns could serve as a form of insurance,” said Prof Loh.  

Dr Clarke of Monetics also suggested that consumers can consider keeping enough funds in their mobile payment apps, such as in a GrabPay wallet, as a contingency. 

Mr Dayan Koven, Accenture’s managing director of financial services in Singapore, added that it is important for consumers to “approach payments with intention”. This means staying informed about the pros and cons of going cashless, including cybersecurity concerns and guarding against scams. 

“While cashless payments offer convenience and a seamless experience, they also make individuals reliant on technology and internet access, which may lead to additional costs. Consumers should also acquaint themselves with different cashless payment methods to choose the one that suits them best.”

DEFINING RESILIENCE IN ‘LESS-CASH’ SINGAPORE

While cash was still widely used a few years ago, Mr Koven said that the transition towards a cashless society was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated contactless methods, online-only retail and saw a rapid adoption of technology. 

The Accenture Payments Survey 2022 found that 76 per cent of respondents in the Asia-Pacific used digital wallets for payment transactions at least five times a month, compared to the 63 per cent opting for cash. 

Singapore’s journey towards an increasingly cashless society has been bolstered by initiatives such as the Heartlands Go Digital programme, introduced by Enterprise Singapore in 2020, to spur the adoption of e-payments and digital commerce solutions among heartland businesses. 

The popularity of e-payments with merchants also comes from the functionalities it provides to businesses, including providing transaction data for analytics. 

Ms Megan Lim, who owns the cafe Overrice, said that the e-payment terminal she uses, Oddle, provides her with “first-party customer data”, including customer lifetime spend, visit frequency, and the most recent visit.

“This allows us to offer personalised and exceptional customer service, such as recognising and rewarding a regular customer a free dish as the e-payment terminal displays the customer has been to the cafe for over 10 times,” said Ms Lim. 

Many businesses also told TODAY that contactless payment is the preferred mode of payment for their target market.

For shops like Solace Studios, an unmanned self-photo studio in Haji Lane, founder Keith Kok said that around 70 per cent of sales are made from cashless options such as credit and debit card payments and digital wallets like Apple Pay, though their photo-taking machines also accept cash.   

He attributed the high uptake of e-payments to its customers’ demographic, which is a younger, “more tech-savvy” crowd comprising Gen Zs and millenials.

This was echoed by Mr Koven, who said that one key reason businesses prefer to remain cashless is shifting consumer expectations, which now tend towards “frictionless payment experiences” and “smooth and secure transactions”.  

Ms Koh from O Happi Place said some customers also prefer to make e-payments because of the various “built in-promotions and loyalty programmes” that incentivise them to make digital payments. 

She cited examples such as earning GrabRewards points when paying via GrabPay, earning a 5 per cent rebate on a subsequent visit for ShopBack payments or even earning miles and discounts when paying via KrisPay.

Mr Koven added that having multiple platforms provide customers more “flexibility, control and an improved payment experience”.

“Businesses benefit from increased brand trust, a competitive edge, and broader consumer reach,” he said.

Enterprise Singapore announced in July that nine in 10 heartland enterprises have adopted at least one e-payment solution, such as Nets, FavePay and GrabPay. 

According to a 2023 survey published by German statistics company Statista, Singapore’s adoption rate of cashless payments was the highest in Southeast Asia at 97 per cent, based on payment methods at Singapore retail points-of-sale in 2022. 

Still, Singapore has some way to go before it can catch up with countries such as China has even higher levels of e-payment adoption.

While China has two main vendors in WeChat and Alipay, Ms Lim said that Singapore currently has no “leading” e-payment mechanism, with a more fragmented payment market consisting of many e-payment options.

Ms Lim added that this fragmentation increases resilience as consumers now have more options.

Prof Loh noted that merchants and consumers in China were given incentives to adopt e-payment, such as the vendors charging almost zero commission for merchants, which made participating in the digital payment landscape more attractive. 

For consumers, the ubiquity of local banking infrastructure with widely available ATMs and bank branches across Singapore, coupled with a “long-standing loyalty to cash” among older Singaporeans, make a shift to digital payments a “long-haul effort rather than a quick change”, Dr Lee said.

While working towards being a predominantly cashless society may be a goal, resilience in Singapore’s financial landscape cannot be measured only by the degree of cashlessness, some experts said. 

Technology issues aside, Prof Loh said that the consideration of going cashless should be “socially-oriented”, particularly considering accessibility for segments of the population that may not be e-payment savvy

“Trying to pace our adoption of being fully cashless is not because we are afraid of technology but because we want to leave no one behind”. 

Agreeing, Fair Tech Institute’s Ms Lim said that Singapore’s rapidly ageing population should be kept in mind when defining resilience in an e-payment landscape.

“Resilience comes in many forms — ease of payments and frictionless transactions are one part of it, but if you want to protect older folk from things like scams, you may actually need to re-introduce some friction into the system, to ensure safeguards are in place.”

Ms Koh, from cafe O Happi Place, said that she converted her business from being entirely cash-less to accepting cash payment, after realising that many older persons in the neighbourhood preferred to pay cash when they stopped by.

Dr Clarke said: “It is not realistic to eliminate cash entirely, but it will likely become less commonly used, as in the Nordic countries.”

Sweden and Norway are two examples of countries that have reduced cash in circulation by over 50 per cent in the last 10 years, mainly by introducing mobile instant payment systems, said Dr Clarke. 

“Singapore should move towards a “less-cash” rather than a “cashless” society for reasons of convenience, security and cost,” he added.

In 2021, then-MAS board member Ong Ye Kung had told Parliament that Singapore does not aim to be a cashless society, even as it promotes e-payments because “it is efficient, convenient and green”.

“Cash will continue to be a familiar and convenient way to transact,” said Mr Ong. 

For some like 70-year-old retiree Joyce Tan — who does internet banking on her laptop to settle monthly bills but is “not entirely comfortable” with using mobile banking services due to reports of scams and malware — encountering restaurants where she can only pay via mobile payments or QR codes is still a new experience for her.

While she has done mobile payments at stores where there are no other options, Ms Tan said she has a “love-hate” relationship with making e-payments on a phone. 

“We came from a time where everything was cash on delivery and paid by cash, so having to change to very modern systems sometimes gives us some doubt.” 

Even as digital banking life here resumes normalcy, Prof Loh said the Oct 14 disruption served as a reminder to stakeholders of the importance of not taking the e-payment ecosystem and its vulnerabilities for granted.

“No system is foolproof and watertight. By adopting particular technology, we should go in with the expectation that once in a while things might go awry, and we should be prepared and mindful of the possibility of that happening.”

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