The Transformative Power of Finance for the People

By Hon Yuen Ng

At the end of the day, financial inclusion should not be a privilege, but a fundamental right.

In Singapore, access to financial services is a given. Cash is just an arm’s length away – through the over 220 retail bank branches, more than 2,600 ATMs scattered strategically across the city-state, and the expanding network of over 4,100 cash withdrawal touchpoints. From mature estates to the burgeoning suburbs, financial inclusion is a thread woven into the fabric of society. 

But venture out from Singapore into the rest of the region, and the tapestry of financial access changes dramatically. Here, the narrative is not one of abundance, but of scarcity and fragmentation. For instance, just 2,355 km away from Singapore, the Philippines has been facing challenges and barriers in its banking and payment system for years. Despite the country’s rapidly growing economy, the share of adults with bank accounts in the Philippines remains below 35%. 

As financial technologies evolve, there is a growing opportunity to bridge this divide, not just in the Philippines but throughout the rest of the region, offering empowerment through digital solutions and education. The potential for smartphone penetration, which is expected to reach 82% of Asia’s population by 2025, offers an opportunity to leverage technology to provide targeted financial services to the underserved.

Roadblocks to financial inclusion
However, the road to financial inclusion is fraught with challenges. In regions with vast unbanked populations, traditional banking models often fall short. The infrastructure for physical bank branches is inadequate, particularly in rural or economically disadvantaged areas. 

Moreover, the unbanked often lack the literacy to navigate complex financial products. While digital payments carry the potential to provide people with a simple and convenient way of performing financial transactions, factors such as a lack of trust or weak internet infrastructure have led to a slow adoption to digital payments. 

Finally, the unbanked frequently do not possess the necessary collateral to secure standard loans. Without collateral, the risk factor for banks increases, often leading to higher interest rates or outright disqualification for potential borrowers. This underscores the importance of finding alternative means of securing loans for the unbanked, which do not rely on traditional collateral requirements. 

Empowerment Through Financial Technology
The digital revolution brings with it a promise of inclusivity, especially for the unbanked. Technology, when implemented right, is a game-changer for financial inclusion. Digital wallets, online banking, and fintech apps allow users to perform financial transactions from their mobile devices, bypassing the need for physical bank branches. This is particularly empowering for underbanked segments, as it offers convenience and access to financial services that were previously out of reach. 

But first, this shift would require elevating financial literacy. Education is essential – the public needs assurances that their digital transactions are protected, their savings are safe, and their financial identity is secure. This requires transparent practices from service providers, robust cybersecurity measures, and clear communication regarding privacy policies and user rights. 

Cybersecurity measures such as fraud management solutions that detect, analyse, mitigate and deter fraud attempts can provide an ease of mind and instil greater sense of trust with the public. Advanced technologies such as biometric logins can also provide an additional layer of security to prevent unauthorised access and identity fraud, ensuring that only the rightful account holders can initiate financial transactions or changes to account information. 

To achieve the broader objective of inclusive finance, financial institutions can also enhance loan accessibility for the unbanked by adopting alternative credit scoring methods that go beyond traditional credit histories. This includes analysing transactional patterns, consistent bill and rent payments, asset data from bank accounts, and proof of income. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is playing a pivotal role in this shift, enabling the processing of large volumes of loan applications efficiently and impartially, thus broadening credit access and reducing the risk of bias.

Paving the Road to Financial Inclusion
The transformative power of finance lies in its ability to bring down barriers and create a more inclusive and equitable economic landscape. Through technological advancements, education, and a commitment to societal values, the finance sector can empower individuals and influence positive change in the world. 

As the sector continues to evolve, the potential for finance to serve not just the economy, but also the people and the planet, becomes increasingly clear. At the end of the day, financial inclusion should not be a privilege, but a fundamental right that enables equitable participation in the economy for all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status.

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