The other day I was shopping at the supermarket, and while I was ringing up my purchases at the automated checkout counter, I made a quick survey of the area and noticed that the number of cashiers had dwindled significantly.
I have no qualms about shopping without human interaction (although, I am ambivalent about technology forcing out jobs that could help a person with little employment options put food on their table).
But I am not addressing this demographic in this article. You see, while I was marvelling at the speed — and magnitude — of technology’s relentless march on our society — making a mental note that cashiers were probably going to be an endangered species soon, replaced by silicon-skinned robots — I felt a small bump on my arm, knocking me out of my reverie.
“Oh, sorry, sorry!” came the soft, feeble but profuse apology.
I looked down. She was an old lady of a frail frame and a hunched back. I figured she was pushing 80 or perhaps even older.
“Can anyone help me?” she muttered with a lost look in her eyes as she wobbled across the aisle with her shopping cart in tow. Customer attendants were scarce and her barely-audible voice could not reach the cashiers on the other side.
I’m ashamed to say I did not react quick enough, but thankfully, she managed to find a cashier quickly.
But this doesn’t negate the fact this poor little lady is living in a world that is going through an upheaval; a technological tsunami that will engulf those too slow to react.
And it’s not just the elderly who are in danger of getting swept away.
On another occasion, I decided to catch a taxi the old-school way (Grab and Uber’s surge prices were through the roof). At the end of the trip, I saw a row of cashless payment options displayed on the driver’s dashboard; one offered a discount of a few dollars.
Curious, I inquired about it but to my surprise, the middle-aged driver, who relied on the GPS during the trip, said it wasn’t ready. He said that the company had introduced a whole bunch of new payment options but for some reason, the tech wasn’t quite all there yet.
And more importantly, they had introduced them in such quick succession that he was ill-prepared and struggled to learn their mechanisms. He said that many riders had similar requests but he wasn’t able to accommodate them.
For the longest time, the only cashless payment methods were either debit or credit cards. It was simple and intuitive. You swiped a physical card, or in some cases, entered a pin and that was it (providing there is a stable connection to the authorisation system).
Now, I’m not equating scanning a QR code to disarming a bomb, if anything, it’s probably quicker and easier than inputting a pin into a machine; But there are so many competing standards as more mobile payment apps elbow their way into what is already an abundant and crowded ecosystem.
It’s no secret that the Singapore government has made technological disruption in all sectors, especially the financial space, as a core pillar of its national agenda. This year, it embarked on a mission to wean the population off cash.
And even though the country’s central bank has cautioned retail investors on the volatility on cryptocurrencies, it remains open-minded about crypto transactions (although the same can’t be said of some private financial institutions). And I pray the government do not give serious thought about replacing fiat currency, at least for a long while.
If Singapore is indeed committing to the ethos of innovation on its purest interpretation, it’s going to feel a bit like the Wild West for a while; and this town ain’t big enough for so many players (nor is there a need to).
But to what end is this endeavour for? Was there a national consensus that demanded that new cashless payments be the new norm? Was there an urgent problem that needed fixing — a proverbial pothole that could be filled by payment apps? Did a survey reveal that people here were sick of using cash or that they were unsatisfied with their existing bank cards?
In August, Minister of Manpower Lim Swee Sway said he felt like a country bumpkin when he visited China and discovered that even street hawkers used WeChat Pay. He bemoaned Singapore’s lagging position in the e-payments space, despite its top-grade technological infrastructure and literacy rate.
But circumstances are very much different in China than in Singapore. Without going into the weeds, the Chinese have a big problem with banks, e-payment options like WeChat Pay made people feel at ease with thinner wallets. E-payment modes were no so much about disrupting but rather, leapfrogging existing methods. There was a fundamental pain point to be tackled and Alibaba, Tencent and the rest of the gang provided the perfect antidote.
In Singapore, there isn’t really so much of a pain point as a slight inconvenience. Going to a hawker stall only to find out you are a few pennies short? No problem, just go down to an ATM or a 7/11 store to withdraw cash. No cash to pay for clothes? Just wave your credit card over the payment terminal and it’s done.
Most, if not all, Singaporeans have accepted cash or bank cards as the status quo for decades and never so much grumbled.
Regardless, the first wave of mobile payment modes in Singapore have barely managed to secure a beachhead and already, a deluge of competitors from new players as well as established institutions have entered the field.
The country is being bombarded with new payment standards faster than people are adopting them.
And it looks like, going forward, this will be the trend, at least for a while: different institutions fighting it out for the hearts and minds of consumers and businesses alike — regardless whether they even give a damn or not. Barring any impassable barriers, the country looks dead set on the path of reducing reliance on bills.
Then, amid all the rubble and tumble, there will be people on the fringes who are oblivious to the revolution.
They are going to walk up to a hawker store and dig out their purse only to realise they need to download a specific QR payment app.
They are going to ask what the hell a “QR code” is, to which either a customer and or store owner will painstakingly but patiently (good luck finding that) guide them through the steps of downloading the app, linking up their bank accounts, hope to God the phone doesn’t malfunction.
Then, they might go to another food centre — under a different company — and try to use the same app only to realise they need to download a different one.
I know that’s a fairly cynical line of thinking, and I know the government, in time, will be actively reaching out to the less tech-savvy groups to get them up to speed. I’m also fairly confident of a dominant provider emerging (I’m not placing any bets on who though).
But this will be a long process. We, as the tech-savvy denizens, need to be patient and considerate to those slower in catching up.
The government is going to need a whole army of service staff and run long outreach campaigns through community programmes and newspaper to effectively convey its agenda to people from every stratum of society. They also need to be convinced that the new way of paying is not only better than the old one, it is also secure.
And that won’t be easy, because, as the saying goes: “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” People don’t want — or need — a solution if they don’t see a problem.
Image Credit: ronniechua / 123RF Stock Photo