Hong Kong must look beyond mobile payments to benefit from fintech
It is widely recognized that Hong Kong is falling woefully behind its main regional rival Singapore and almost all other major East Asian cities in the fintech race. But other than losing another bragging right, what does this much-lamented shortcoming mean to Hong Kong and its people?
It’s hard to imagine that banks in Hong Kong have all fallen asleep while their competitors in other cities are racing ahead of them in the fintech contest. The banks we know about are big boys who can take care of themselves very well indeed. You can bet that if they see technology that can enhance their profits and expand their market shares, they will put money and effort into adopting it.
Fintech, short for financial technology, isn’t a new concept after all, and the technologies involved in developing it are mostly available in the marketplace. Of course, proprietary software is needed to make it work. But this is not rocket science.
Many commentators have lamented that Hong Kong is lagging behind other regional cities, notably Singapore and Shenzhen, in progressing toward a cashless society. That’s the yardstick of most relevance to the public. But most people in Hong Kong don’t find the deficit to be that much of an inconvenience.
To be sure, many small shops and caterers around town accept nothing but cash in exchange for goods and services. Taxi drivers, in particular, are adamant that they will only accept cash so they can keep the small change as tips.
As long as you don’t take a taxi, or don’t feel the need to patronize those cash-only outlets, you can get around Hong Kong carrying only your credit cards and the ubiquitous Octopus card for all public transportation (except taxis), grocery shopping at supermarkets and convenience stores, and dining at most chain restaurants or fast-food outlets.
Before you do that, remember to arrange for an auto-recharge of your Octopus card. You will need to go to your bank to do this. But you will only need to do this once and then it is good to go.
Credit cards would come in handy for shopping for big-ticket items at department stores or eating out at fancy restaurants. Some specialty shops selling electronics products don’t accept credit cards, preferring direct debit bank cards instead. So, bring yours along if you plan on buying a pair of exotic headphones or a tube amplifier.
Some commentators have talked glowingly about the convenience of online shopping and
As long as you don’t take a taxi, or don’t feel the need to patronize those cash-only outlets, you can get around Hong Kong carrying only your credit cards and the ubiquitous Octopus card...”
advanced booking at restaurants and cinemas. You can do all that in Hong Kong as well with your mobile phone. In fact Amazon, which doesn’t have an operation in Hong Kong, is more than happy to send you what you ordered from its US website.
You’d be amazed how much cheaper it is to shop online for a wide range of consumer goods, particularly clothing and accessories, even after factoring in the mailing cost, than to buy the same items in Hong Kong where the vendors have to mark up their prices to cover high rentals.
Consumers’ old habits tend to die hard. Despite the convenience of the PPS payment service which has been around for many years, there are still lines of people, cash in hand, waiting to pay for their utility bills at the beginning of every month. This chore should have become antique by now.
But such incidents should not be mistaken as evidence to condemn Hong Kong’s backwardness in fintech. They are just a quirky consumers’ preference which, no doubt, will die out in time.
There are still people who harbor a deep mistrust of online payments, fearing that hackers will break into the system and steal their money. This is something that concerns even the most ardent proponent of fintech.
Consumers can only trust that the financial institutions that render fintech services have taken every step to ensure that they are secured. It’s like trusting banks to manage depositors’ money prudently.
Even if you’re a cashless kind of person, do carry some cash when you go out, just in case. It happened to me once a long while ago. After eating at an upmarket restaurant, I asked for the bill only to be told by the courteous waiter that the line to the card centers had broken down.
The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.