Over the last few years, Southeast Asia has been one of the frontrunners in fintech adoption globally. The combination of a sizable, young, tech-savvy population that actively uses e-commerce and digital payments, extensive mobile internet coverage, and government support have made it one of the fastest-growing fintech markets globally.
The interest and the potential these services generate are the reason fintech “unicorns” are some of the world’s best-funded digital startups and are expected to generate upwards of $38 billion in annual revenue across Southeast Asia by 2025, more than triple the $11 billion generated in 2019.
Over the past two years, in particular, adoption of fintech has skyrocketed among consumers and small businesses. In Vietnam, the region’s fintech poster child, the number of startups has jumped from 1,600 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to over 3,000. Innovations abound, and the growth prospects are endless.
Based on current developments, we expect the following five trends to shape the Asian regional fintech ecosystem over the coming years:
- Digital Payments Revolution
- Ascent of the eCommerce Marketplace “SuperApp”
- Rise of Sustainable Fintech
- Frontier Technology
- Regulatory “X Factor”
Let’s examine each of these in more detail below.
1. Digital Payments Revolution
In recent years, governments in the region have implemented initiatives to update their payment infrastructures and encourage the adoption of digital payments
Nearly 90% of consumers in the region’s emerging and developed economies actively use digital banking. According to McKinsey’s most recent Personal Financial Services Survey, a majority of consumers are receptive to acquiring more services via digital channels
The impetus for the sector to mature brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has been assisted by a new wave of regulatory involvement in the space and the continued Internet and 5G technology penetration. According to Statista, 2.15 billion people utilized e-commerce in Asia in 2020, and it is estimated that by 2025, the e-commerce user count in the region will increase to over 3 billion as markets transition to a cashless, contactless world.
Cross-Border Payments Going Digital
In a related development, governments are increasingly turning to digital solutions to ease the burdens posed by international money flows.
In April 2021, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Bank of Thailand partnered to link both countries’ real-time funds transfer services to facilitate faster, cheaper, and more transparent cross-border payment arrangements. Since then, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cambodia have been involved in a flurry of cross-border connectivity announcements, with more on the way.
The Growth of Buy-Now-Pay-Later (BNPL)
Another fintech sector in this space seeing increased activity, action, and investment is Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL). According to the World Bank, the market size for unbanked and underbanked people and businesses in the region is reportedly between $55 billion and $115 billion. This equates to over 70% of the adult population not having access to banking or standard lines of credit.
Providing more convenient credit access to this community through BNPL while maintaining reasonable credit limits seems like an attractive proposition for financial inclusion and encouraging growth of the digital economy. Therefore, it is not surprising that numerous fintechs in the region have seized this opportunity to deploy BNPL solutions, replacing traditional financing choices with more practical alternative payment methods.
2. Ascent of the eCommerce Marketplace “SuperApp”
Digital ecosystems are now commonplace in Asia as more consumers choose a mobile-first strategy. In nations like Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam, highly integrated mega apps have grown to provide a one-stop-shop tool for various services. These include the following market leaders:
Such eCommerce marketplace giants are increasingly moving to develop in-house payment processing capabilities and launch digital wallets to reduce third-party processing costs, improve controls, and adapt to the local payment methods of each market. More significantly, having access to customer payment information has allowed local eCommerce markets to develop new features and goods, including insurance, credit products, and wealth management.
Fintech E-Commerce Leading the Way in Vietnam
A good example is MoMo, one of Vietnam’s first fintech startups which has grown to become the nation’s largest digital wallet, capturing nearly 60% of the mobile payments market. MoMo also enables consumers to transfer funds between bank accounts and make payments for annualized transactions of $14 billion across more than 25 million users.
Similar to other dominant regional marketplaces, MoMo is growing the scope of its offerings by entering new markets like consumer loans and motorbike insurance. As consumers become more accustomed to shopping and paying for items online, we expect to see an even greater spike in eCommerce transaction volumes in the coming years.
3. Rise of Sustainable Fintech
As the demand for sustainable finance and responsible investing continues to surge, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) measures are increasingly included in company and investment strategies. This is also the case in Southeast Asia, where governments prioritize sustainability and promote ESG as part of their economic growth plans under Singapore's leadership.
The Lion City has established itself as the biggest green finance market in the area and a hub for all of Asia. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and seven other central global banks established the Central Banks and Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial System to foster exchange knowledge and adopt best practices in green finance.
In parallel, the Singapore Exchange asked its member firms to strictly comply with the ESG disclosures. The central bank has earmarked SGD 50 million to support green fintech projects.
With the increased focus on climate finance, we expect green fintechs in the region to take advantage of this trend and partner with governments, banks, and other financial institutions to solve some of the challenges hindering green finance today.
4. Frontier Technology
As the region continues to progress with advances in connectivity and accessibility, applications of the following technologies will accelerate and shape the growth of fintech:
- Smart gadgets connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), such as smartwatches and smart bands, are increasingly popular, with household adoption of smart devices predicted to surpass 7.5% by 2023. This expansion is anticipated to increase the use of digital payments and transactions made with mobile devices.
- Fintech platforms are tapping artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to digitally analyze user data, including customer spending patterns, to offer customized credit and loan products.
- In the future, fintech companies involved in the payments industry are expected to embrace augmented reality to improve user interfaces and consumer experiences.
As digital connectivity evolves in Southeast Asia, the compounding forces of higher broadband access and better digital literacy will drive adoption of these technologies in the fintech space.
5. Regulatory “X factor”
Southeast Asian governments have traditionally adopted a rather lenient and pragmatic approach to fintech. Indeed, a supportive regulatory framework has been instrumental in helping regional fintech businesses flourish at such a rapid rate. This approach has often led to "sandboxes," which are legislative frameworks created to strengthen the financial ecosystem across several sector verticals, including P2P lending, payments, and virtual assets, as in the case of Vietnam.
Going forward, regional governments may be forced to adopt a more scrutinizing mindset due to the sector's exponential growth and the resulting market oversaturation to strike a balance between the need for growth on the one hand and industry stability and safety on the other.
Based on these trends, it is only reasonable to anticipate a rise in the pace of regulatory activity in consumer-facing domains, including money laundering, information confidentiality, and data privacy.
Conclusion: A Balanced Way Forward for Southeast Asia’s Fintech Growth
The Southeast Asian fintech scene is expected to evolve over the next few years due to changes in technology, rules, and competition.
Applications of more recent technology will become more entrenched in the region thanks to anticipated improvements in connectivity and increased accessibility as more businesses leverage technology, big data, and more integrated models for a better customer experience.
At the same time, we anticipate governments to intensify their attention on the industry, enact more laws, and adopt a more comprehensive governance strategy. For growth to continue, it is critical for governments and businesses to co-develop regulatory frameworks that encourage the safe use and uptake of new financial services in a way that fosters trust among ever-widening segments of the population.
Southeast Asia remains one of the world's most alluring regional markets for fintech. There is an enormous opportunity for value creation through financial inclusion initiatives and a digital economy redesign. We believe that this can be achieved by continued synergic partnerships between regulators, policymakers, the incumbent banking sector, and fintechs to drive innovation.
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The Author: InnReg is a team of over 30 Regulatory Compliance and Innovation Consulting experts helping fintechs succeed in highly regulated markets since 2013. InnReg - Compliance and Operations for Technology-Based BDs is listed in the FINRA Compliance Vendor Directory