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The Big Read in short: Coping with the inevitability of banking, e-payment services disruptions

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.

The outage follows two DBS online banking and payment services disruptions earlier this year, after which the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) imposed an additional capital requirement on DBS.  

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.

Experts say that while bank disruptions are undesirable, it offers an opportunity to learn valuable lessons on remaining resilient in an e-payment landscape, as banks, businesses and consumers can all do their part. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

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. 

While digital banking disruptions are not new, Ms Lim May-Ann, director of the Fair Tech Institute at Access Partnership 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.

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.

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.”

THE BIG PICTURE 

As digital payments become more of a norm here and service disruptions can and will occur, remaining resilient in a digital payment landscape involves building 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 Yen Teik, a senior lecturer of Finance at the National University of Singapore (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. 

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.

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.

“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.” 

In the long term, Ms Lim from the Fair Tech Institute 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”. 

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.

Dr Gordon R Clarke, managing director of payment services consulting company Monetics also suggested that consumers can consider keeping enough funds in their mobile payment apps, such as in a GrabPay wallet, as a contingency. 

THE BOTTOMLINE 

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. 

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.

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 millennials.

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. 

While working towards being a predominantly cashless society may be a goal, resilience in Singapore’s financial landscape cannot be only measured 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

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.”

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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