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Powering Freedom through Digital Financial Solutions

As news of the new COVID-19 variant makes its way through news portals, Malaysians continue to hold their breath in fear of another wave of infections. Among our worried citizens is Pak Hamid (name changed for privacy), who fought many uphill battles trying to keep his small business alive throughout the pandemic.

Pak Hamid is not alone in his struggle. Between Movement Control Order (MCO) 1.0 and MCO 3.0, 12%[1] of Malaysian SMEs have been forced to close. The impact of these closures continues to ripple throughout our country, and we see its effects in the form of our unemployed relatives, the absence of our favourite hawkers despite the reopening of the economy and pleas for donations on social media.

Well-meaning researchers have pointed out that going digital will help hawkers stay afloat, but this is easier said than done. Hawkers such as Pak Hamid continue to struggle with registering their businesses on online platforms, what more having to upload photos of his products, tracking orders as they come in, or having to answer the confusing: “Which e-Wallet do you accept?”.

While Malaysia’s internet connectivity rivals that of first-world economies at 88 per cent[2], 55 per cent of our community remain unbanked and unqualified for conventional financial assistance which could help them survive these difficult times and partake in the ideal future that our Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP) envisions.

As we rebuild our nation in a world where COVID-19 has been declared an endemic, we need to ensure that each Malaysian has equal opportunities to achieve financial independence so we can truly prosper together.

This journey begins with financial inclusion which goes beyond granting more people with access to pre-existing financial solutions. In Singapore[3], a software engineer noticed that hawkers were struggling to read online orders. Understanding that these uncles and aunties were more familiar with WhatsApp, he converted the order sheets into order forms which would stay on WhatsApp. Within eight months, this small project has been adopted by more than 230 Singaporean hawkers, sparking meaningful digital transformation for the community, and helping them keep the lights on.

To create meaningful change, as the engineer correctly did, we must include the voices of the communities we serve. Innovation must consider how different segments of society perceive technology and the challenges or complexities those technologies may present to them. Empathy in innovation is simplifying the challenges faced by each segment when building a digital or financial solution that best suits their needs.

In a focus group discussion recently organised by Green Packet, the underserved population surveyed shared that what matters most to them is instant service that allows them to earn an income as swiftly as possible to ensure they have the cash in hand and the financial freedom to look after their businesses, families, and future.

As we move forward, digital financial solution providers must realise that the best solution is often the simplest. Uber explored an SMS-based booking service[4] for clients in rural areas where smartphones are uncommon. Microfinance providers allow businesses to protect themselves at the cost of one iced Milo per day, breaking up monthly costs into manageable daily payments. Traditional electronic Know-Your-Customer (e-KYC) systems in some countries have been replaced with a referral system within business associations to overcome documentation delays in onboarding small-time merchants. During Ramadhan 2020, bazaar hawkers in specific locations (such as the famous Bazaar Ramadhan Kelana Jaya) formed a Facebook page to advertise their goods.

Malaysia’s B40 and underserved communities have worked within the ‘limitations’ that made conventional financial solutions less accessible to them for the past six decades. As a nation, it is time we re-evaluate these ‘limitations’ so that we, as pioneers of a new generation of digital financial solutions, can offer opportunities that address these decades-old challenges and unlock financial inclusivity for everyone within our community.

In tandem with the country’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 and the 12MP which commits to make Malaysia a nation that achieves sustainable growth for all, let us re-evaluate what financial inclusivity means to the Pak Hamids of our community and work towards empowering them with the right tools and support so that these individuals and communities can grow with greater resilience and achieve financial freedom to build the life they deserve. Only by financially liberating all our communities, especially the B40s, will we be able to fully invest in the future of our country. And Pak Hamid will not need to shutter his humble source of pride built on years of toil.

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Ku Kok Peng heads Green Packet’s Group Strategy Office, which work in close alignment with Green Packet’s five core business units that underpin its growth strategy to be a leading player in Malaysia’s journey towards digital transformation. Green Packet is a leading global technology solutions company listed on Bursa Malaysia.

[1] https://themalaysianreserve.com/2021/06/08/50000-smes-face-closure-under-mco-3-0/

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/975058/internet-penetration-rate-in-malaysia/

[3] Hawkers go digital during covid19 circuit breaker, Straits Times, https://www.straitstimes.com/multimedia/hawkers-go-digital-during-covid-19-circuit-breaker

[4] Uber testing cab bookings through calls and SMS https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/uber-testing-cab-booking-through-calls-sms-in-local-languages/article28446934.ece

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