2C2P | Payments Powerhouses: How to Build a Global Fintech Hub with…
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Payments Powerhouses: How to Build a Global Fintech Hub with Reuben Lim

In this instalment of Payments Powerhouses, we take a closer look at the vibrant fintech space, and Reuben's role in bringing together the many parties shaping the future of fintech in Singapore and beyond.

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With over 15 years of experience in business development and management, Reuben Lim is Chief Operating Officer at the Singapore FinTech Association (SFA), where he spearheads initiatives that strengthen the fintech ecosystem in Singapore. He has empowered large enterprises and SMEs to uncover valuable revenue and growth opportunities through active business partnering and strong leadership. He has led teams across various industries, including aviation, real estate investment, marine, and intellectual property.

Reuben graduated from the Singapore Management University with a degree in Business Management, Magna Cum Laude and holds a Graduate Diploma in IP Management and Innovations Management from Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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Welcome to Payments Powerhouses, Reuben. To kick things off, could you tell us what the SFA is and why it was set up?

Reuben: In a nutshell, the SFA is a non-profit trade association. We facilitate collaboration between all market participants and stakeholders in the fintech ecosystem. Members can engage with stakeholders, including regulators, financial institutions, and vendors across other industries, to find solutions to issues and promote best practices in a collaborative, open, and transparent manner.

All companies are welcome to join us. Fintech companies would be our ordinary members, and non-fintech companies would be considered associate members. There's no difference in terms of treatment, except when it comes to the appointment of the Executive Committee, in which we would like to have more fintech representation.

For our listeners who may be curious, how does the SFA work with MAS?

MAS, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, has been a very active and supportive partner. For our neighbouring countries, the system is set up where there’s a central bank, a regulatory body, and a separate department, division, or agency that focuses on promoting the whole ecosystem. In Singapore, all these three bodies sit under one authority called MAS.

That is amazing because under one umbrella, with one direction, there is full oversight of how central bank regulation and market development come together and align. As a result, we are very privileged to have the opportunity to work with MAS’ different departments and to play the advocacy role. As the voice of fintech, we help our members present thoughts and trends to MAS, get feedback from MAS, and determine how to bridge the gap between the two.

What are the SFA’s current focus and priority initiatives?

It has always been about how we can best support our members in Singapore and overseas, across the wide range of companies and verticals that comprise fintech.

We can illustrate this using a two-by-two matrix. On the vertical axis is the funding level, which can range from pre-seed stages all the way up to listed companies and unicorns – and we do have a good number of unicorns in Singapore. On the horizontal axis is the business model, which includes B2B2C (business to business to consumer), or what we call embedded finance. So, the spread we have goes across remittance payments, wealth management, and digital solutions, as well as cross-border payments, wallets, cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and DeFi.

Regarding initiatives and priorities, we really want to support as many of these members as possible, albeit it's quite hard to have one initiative to support everybody. But by and large, all our activities and plans are broken into three pillars: know your industry, strengthen your business, and expand your business. And on top of that, we layer advocacy.

Fintech is such a broad space. Are there any particular segments or areas that the SFA is currently prioritising?

I’d like to emphasise that all our members are important to us. That said, priorities change over time, depending on requirements and circumstances such as trends, regulatory climates, and the attention required. For example, a few months ago, when MAS issued the marketing guidelines for Digital Payment Token (DPT) services, all our resources and attention were directed to that to ensure our members’ concerns were addressed.

Earlier this year, the SFA formed the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) working group as an industry-led initiative. What is the purpose of this group, and how has it progressed since its inception?

Buy Now Pay Later is very exciting. It has a different meaning and impact in different countries and regions, but it advocates financial inclusion. In the past, you'd need a bank account, credit scoring, and credit rating before you could even get credit. BNPL offers credit to support needful, immediate purchases without these prerequisites.

While it's a form of financial inclusion, guardrails must be put in place to protect consumers, as there could be potential risks. Things are moving relatively fast, especially in Singapore, and BNPL doesn't currently fall under any form of regulation. What's amazing about Singapore players is that they are very forthcoming; they're open to being guided so they can operate soundly and provide the best services for consumers.

We’re very close to completing the first draft of guardrails. This will undergo the scrutiny of the members of our BNPL working group until we get to the point where we feel the guardrails can effectively protect consumers while being something our players can adhere to.

Additionally, our BNPL working group is intentionally made up of all the existing providers in Singapore, regardless of their size. This means everyone has a voice in curating that code of conduct. So, while there are guardrails, they are created in a way that companies will still have a fair chance to compete.

Let's switch gears a little. We’re now starting to see some startups laying off hundreds of staff. Do you think this trend will spill over to Asia?

Like all macro trends, they tend to start from the West and move into this part of the world within three to six months, barring some of the larger markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. What scares me is that the cycle of such troughs and peaks is getting shorter. You used to see fluctuations over about 10 years. Now, these happen every three or three and a half years.

I feel that restructuring is necessary. Startups in general, not only in fintech, go through a phase — valuations go crazy, the good ones will succeed, and the bad ones or the not-so-good ones would also benefit from the wave. This situation we’re going through right now will test every individual startup’s business model, business operations, and forecast, and I think it's a good exercise to go through. I'm happy to note that most of the members in SFA have really solid business plans and business models.

Mergers and acquisitions is another trend cutting across the whole technology space at this moment. Sometimes it may not make sense to start creating technology from scratch when it is already available. Additionally, with acquisitions, you acquire not just the technology but also the talent, business, and network. So, M&A happens across all sectors, but more evidently in fintech, where things move a lot faster.

Fintech companies are also facing high turnover rates. What do you think is the catalyst for this ‘jump ship’ mentality, and what do you think the industry could do better to attract, nurture, and retain talent?

One thing to note is that fintech doesn't just compete for talent within fintech. For example, a fintech talent can move across to larger tech companies like Meta, PayPal, etc. Within the tech environment, there is no one main driving force for ‘jumping ship’, and I do agree that we’re observing retention periods getting shorter. There are a lot of broad suggestions we can share as to how companies can potentially retain talent, but it largely boils down to individual companies and their company culture.

We have come across fintech companies with average employee retention of three to five years, and ones with much shorter lifespans, around a year to a year and a half. We can also compare B2B and B2C companies, as their business models and target audience are radically different. Therefore, their culture would also be radically different. However, culture is also very subjective to what the founder and the senior management feel is suitable for the business and the company.

Of the various key factors, remuneration is definitely one of them. We all have financial commitments. We hear of cases where people move for a very slight increment, and some get double the increment. Other factors include flexibility, timing, and company mission and vision. Many employees who stay on with the founders or with the team because they believe in what they can achieve together. This goes beyond culture itself; it is that drive when you wake up in the morning, the difference between being excited to go to work or dreading to go to work.

Another difference that we see is the company scale. For a 10-person team or five-person team, the founder or executive director would have more time to make a direct impact. But as it progresses to a 50-person, 200-person, or 1,000-person team, the company becomes a corporate, and this transition may lead to waves of hiring and changes, also because the company’s needs in talents would change.

I’d also like to highlight that the SFA has developed a talent strategy, including initiatives where we form a working group of Chief People Officers from some of the larger fintech companies to get more insight. From our conversations and research, we produce a fintech talent report each year, and we’ll release this during the Singapore FinTech Festival.

Speaking of the SFA’s strategies, with Singapore being one of the world's leading fintech hubs, have there been collaboration opportunities or activities with other fintech associations?

Seven countries in ASEAN have fintech associations, and there’s always been a loose connection among us within the region. However, this year, we have actively brought everyone together and tightened this relationship. I'm very excited to share that we’re currently discussing forming an active alliance and will likely be making an announcement during the Singapore FinTech Festival, so stay tuned.

In due course, we hope to be known regionally or globally as one market, despite being from seven different countries. We want to be able to support players by making introductions and creating an in-road for businesses. We’re taking a significant step this year, but at the same time, the SFA is very privileged to have connected with many other associations around the world through our past efforts.

Sounds amazing! Apart from that, is there anything else we can keep an eye out for in Singapore’s fintech space this year?

There are quite a number of exciting things lined up! First and foremost, we have the MAS Global FinTech Hackcelerator. We also have the SFF FinTech Awards, a collaboration between MAS and the SFA.

And the Singapore FinTech Festival is back, and this time, it will be a physical event at Singapore EXPO. I’d strongly encourage everyone to participate in this.

To wrap up, would you have any advice for aspiring professionals looking to enter the fintech industry?

Keep your eyes on this sector because fintech is here to stay. The space will only get broader and broader.

In my opinion, 10 to 15 years from now, the term fintech may even disappear. The reason is that every financial institution needs tech, and with embedded finance coming up very strongly, even traditional companies like CapitaLand and Singapore Airlines will also have a fintech component.

Nonetheless, the skill sets you acquire in one particular fintech company may be beneficial in supporting your career growth in other non-financial spaces. You would still be able to leverage your skills, knowledge, and network in the future.

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Payments Powerhouses is a monthly editorial series interviewing the movers and shakers of the payments and wider fintech industry in Southeast Asia and beyond. If you’d like to be featured on Payments Powerhouses, reach out to us here.