Tech-loving Singaporeans still prefer to pay in cold, hard cash

To make Singapore a cashless society, the government is now planning to develop a common quick response, or QR, code that can be scanned with smartphones to make payments. By Melissa Cheok

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In tech-savvy Singapore, where almost everyone has a smartphone, nine out of 10 people still prefer to pay for everyday transactions the old-fashioned way – with cash.

Like Theresa Loh, a 27-year-old sales clerk. She queues up with thousands of Singaporeans everyday at sprawling food courts across the city state that serve up cheap local delicacies like chicken rice and spicy noodle soup.

And like thousands of lunchgoers, she pays in cash. Typically, food stall owners don’t accept anything else, but it’s also Loh’s preferred mode of payment. She says it’s more convenient than swiping her bank card.

Digital devices are often restricted to specific providers and “in cases when you can use them, machines sometimes break down or cannot process a payment, so it’s just easier to stick to cash,” Loh said in an interview as she queued in line to buy fishball noodles.

Preference for cash in Singapore is higher than the 88 per cent average across Asia Pacific, according to a recent report from Paypal Holdings Inc. In Singapore, 43 per cent of those surveyed by Paypal said they use cash most often, compared to 25 per cent in China.

The government wants to change that. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent a large part of his annual National Day speech last month urging Singaporeans and businesses to embrace new technologies, including electronic payments. He pointed to China, where you can use a mobile-phone app to scan a barcode and buy chestnuts from a Shanghai roadside seller without any exchange of cash.

“In Singapore, we too have e-payments, but we have too many different schemes and systems that do not talk to one another,” Lee said. “So people have to carry multiple cards, and businesses have to install multiple readers. It is inconvenient for consumers, it is costly for businesses. And the result is, most of us still prefer cash and cheques.”

To make Singapore a cashless society, the government is now planning to develop a common quick response, or QR, code that can be scanned with smartphones to make payments, like at the Shanghai vendors. The central bank and other government agencies also recently called for ideas on implementing low-cost electronic payment systems at food courts.

The array of digital payments options available may be part of the problem of why Singaporeans are resistant to going cashless: 63 per cent of Singaporeans cited confusion over payment methods as a reason for sticking to cash, according to Paypal. Even businesses are overwhelmed, with 65 per cent finding it difficult to keep up with current digital payment trends, according to the survey.

Vishnu Varathan, head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore, said the government can help businesses by subsidizing the costs of implementing a unified electronics payments system.

“I don’t think Singaporeans are against it,” he said. “We’re currently comfortable with cash but we just need a push in the right direction.”

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