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Cashless in Singapore: Going wallet-free for a weekend

SINGAPORE: ‘Girl ah, you have no cash ah?’

It was late morning at a crowded hawker centre in Toa Payoh, and I was holding up a line of people as I struggled to pay for my breakfast with a mobile phone that stubbornly refused to recognise my thumbprint.

I sighed in frustration. My breakfast choices had already been narrowed down significantly by the lack of stalls at this hawker centre that offered me the option to go cashless. And after finally locating a stall with the distinctive QR code sign on its front, queuing up and placing my order, my phone’s thumbprint scanner decided to fail me.  

I began to panic, my mind running through the various options available to me in lieu of cash. Could I ask the hawker for grace and return another day with cash? Borrow money from someone else in line?

But thankfully, there was another option.

“Uncle, FlashPay can?” I asked, as I extracted my card from where I had stashed it under my phone’s casing. With a grunt and nod, he assented, and with a reassuring beep from the reader, I was on my way.

TEETHING ISSUES

It seemed like it would be a tall order to survive without any cash for a weekend, and live to tell the tale. But after researching and writing a previous story on the availability of cashless payment options in hawker centres, I was encouraged to see how doable it could be. To sweeten the deal, I had also found out that some cashless payment modes like Liquid Pay offered discounts and incentives for customers who pay through their app.

Liquid Pay currently offers a voucher through its mobile app for 20 per cent off food at selected hawker stalls. (Photo: Lianne Chia)

So I optimistically left my wallet at home, and walked out to the hawker centre with just my iPhone and credit card, which also has NETS FlashPay capabilities.

But I had not expected to run into problems right from the get-go. With my phone’s thumbprint scanner out of order, I could no longer make payment via my banking app’s QR code function or Apple Pay, both of which required me to scan my thumbprint before payments could go through.

Slightly demoralised, I found a table, sat down and tried to enjoy my breakfast while looking up solutions to my thumbprint scanner woes. But I was soon distracted by the tapping of a cane next to me.

An elderly lady had approached my table, proffering three packets of tissue paper. I smiled at her, but shook my head, indicating with hand gestures that I had no cash to spare – in fact, no cash at all. Feeling a twinge of guilt at her pleas, I waved her away, telling her that I would buy from her next time.

All in all, not a very auspicious start to the weekend.

TAP AND GO

It had been a frustrating morning, but there was a silver lining: I had finally discovered how to fix the thumbprint scanner issue after deleting and re-adding all my saved fingerprints from my iPhone. And trying out Apple Pay for the first time restored my faith in the convenience of cashless payments.

It was fast approaching lunch time, and I had agreed to meet a friend at a restaurant downtown. Having been duly warned of my cashless status, he suggested that he pay for lunch first, and I transfer my share of the meal to him via PayNow, a funds transfer service made available in July that allows customers to transfer money with just the recipient’s mobile number or NRIC.

The interface of a banking app when transferring money to a recipient registered with PayNow. Customers will also have to key in a one-time password before the transaction will go through. 

I had initially decided to go with that option. But when we were queuing up to pay at the cashier, my curiosity was piqued by the customer in front of me, who was holding her mobile phone to the card scanner and placing her finger on her phone’s home button.

I decided to give it a shot too.

When I reached the cashier, I said confidently, “I’d like to pay by Apple Pay, please,” hoping my tone would mask my inexperience with the system. He smiled and nodded. “Please place your phone on the scanner.”

Paying for food again via Apple Pay. 

It sounded like he had done this many times before, and it must be a popular method of payment, I thought to myself. And no wonder: Just a few seconds after I opened my Wallet app and placed my finger on my phone’s home button, I was rewarded with a check mark appearing on my phone screen, indicating that the payment had gone through.

Having settled payment with the restaurant, it was now time for my friend to pay me back. Thankfully, he had already registered with PayNow, and with a few taps on his phone, it was all sorted.  

A HIT-AND-MISS SITUATION – EVEN IN SHOPPING MALLS

On the whole, it seemed easy enough to live without cash, as long as I stayed in areas like shopping malls or upmarket cafes. Getting around was also a breeze, thanks to ride-hailing apps like Grab and Uber, which utilise credit cards as a primary option for payment. And I discovered a bonus: By opting to go cashless with Grab, I was rewarded with additional rewards points, which I could redeem for more discounted rides.  

But going about my daily life without the reassuring comfort of cash made me realise that for now, it is unlikely people in Singapore will be comfortable going out without their wallets and using their mobile phones for all transactions.

Take, for example, the night I tried to buy a parking coupon from a stranger after realising I had run out of coupons after parking. After offering to pay him the 60 cents via PayNow, he declined and instead told me to just take the coupon for free.

Or my experience looking for a place to buy a lunch and a drink after a Sunday exercise class in the deserted CBD. Most stores and restaurants in the area were closed on weekends, and a walk to two nearby hawker centres yielded sparse results.

Most stalls in both centres were closing, and when I approached those that were still open, stallholders said apologetically that they only accepted cash. When I asked them why, the answers were generally the same: They felt it was too much trouble to get the systems up and running, and lack of demand for cashless payment from customers.

A hawker centre in the CBD on a Sunday afternoon. Most of the stalls were closing, and those that were still open for business did not accept cashless payment. (Photo: Lianne Chia)

And indeed, why would customers make the switch, when there were so many ATMs located prominently within the hawker centres? Ignoring my growing hunger pangs, I forced myself to walk away.

Even in shopping malls, it was a hit-and-miss situation. After giving up and walking towards a shopping mall in Tanjong Pagar, I made a beeline for my favourite bubble tea shop. But I went away disappointed – and still in need of a cold drink – when I was told in no uncertain terms that it was “cash only” for them.

By the time I got my food and drink, it was 3pm, an hour and a half after I had begun my search, and my patience with the cashless experiment was wearing thin. All I wanted to do was grab a train back home and stay there for the rest of the weekend.

But first, there was one more transaction I had to make: My ride home. As I arrived at the train station, I saw a middle-aged woman fumbling with her wallet at one of the cash top-up machines. As I walked past she dropped her wallet, and coins went rolling everywhere.

As I bent to help her retrieve the coins, I realised this was a situation that could have happened to me any other day.

But as I used my card to tap my way seamlessly past the train gantries, I smiled to myself. It would not happen today. 


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