Finbarr Bermingham reports from the biggest fintech event in the world, with Singapore once again proving why it is streets ahead of the competition in digital trade.


More than 25,000 people from over 100 countries piled into the Singapore Fintech Festival late-last year: a staggering number and a sign of the effort – both organisational and financial – the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is pouring into this sector.

To give an indication as to the scale, there were around 8,000 people at Sibos in 2017 and while the Singapore event wasn’t specifically about trade, there were announcements and discussions notable enough to attract a decent share of the city’s trade community.

Central to this was the Global Trade Connectivity Platform (GTCN), a collaborative blockchain-based initiative from MAS and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), which was hinted at in the weeks running up to the event and which accounted for much of the trade talk at the Singapore Expo Centre.

MAS chief executive Ravi Menon announced that the GTCN would go live in early 2019 – an unusual move for those of us who have been tracking trade-tech movements. These things are normally open-ended and non-committal. Pilots and proofs of concepts come and go, but here we have a hard deadline – even if the details on the final product are sketchy still.

The GTCN, Menon said, “will be an open architecture platform that enables the seamless transfer of digital documents and data across borders, starting with the Singapore-Hong Kong trade corridor”.

Technology and fintech vendors have been invited to make proposals for inclusion on the platform, which will act as a kind of motherboard on which trade applications can operate. The first pitches were heard in a meeting running alongside the festival, with officials from MAS and HKMA present, along with a number of banks that are working on the platform’s development stage.

Shue Heng Yip proposed the platform in his time as director for financial and legal sector innovation at the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) arm of the Singapore government. Now head of digital transformation for Asia and Oceania at MUFG, Yip compares it to popular consumer tech platforms.

“It’s like what Apple did with the App Store,” he told GTR. “You build the platform, you enable innovation, but you’re still building apps. That’s in essence what GTCN is in terms of scalability and deployment of applications.”

The GTCN will tie in with the targeted go-live dates of the Hong Kong Trade Finance Platform and the Trade Finance Modules on the National Trade Platform in Singapore, both of which will look to digitise trade finance in their respective jurisdictions.

It is understood that there are multiple banks involved in the development on the Singapore side: local banks DBS, OCBC, UOB, along with MUFG and Standard Chartered. On the Hong Kong side, BEA, HSBC, Hang Seng, DBS and Standard Chartered (which are both acting on either sides of the programme) are working on the development. Technology companies such as R3 and IBM are also involved.

Meanwhile, the platform is expected to be rolled out to other markets relatively quickly. Japan is in line to be next, with South China to be connected via Shenzhen, while Thailand will also be included before long.

This speaks to the connectivity of the two host jurisdictions: Hong Kong provides a gateway to North Asia, with Singapore holding the keys to Asean.

The early work will look to use blockchain technology to restrict duplicate invoice financing, a problem which has long plagued the trade finance sector in Asia. However, it will be expanded into further areas.

Speaking on a panel chaired by GTR at the fintech festival, veteran trade finance banker Tan Kah Chye said the GTCN had the potential to revolutionise the industry.

“Currently it takes one day to take a shipment of oil from Indonesia to Singapore, but the documentation may take a week to process. If this is able to rectify this anomaly, it will be a worthwhile venture,” said Tan, who after a career with the likes of Barclays and Standard Chartered is now running his own fintech startup, CCRManager.

Anita Loh Su Hwei, managing director and group head of product development at UOB, told GTR that there is huge scope for expansion and that she hopes it will eventually be used to digitise the archaic letter of credit process.

“The potential of distributed ledger technology [DLT] extends beyond fraudulent invoices. One area of development is in digitising cross-border LCs. To achieve this we’ll need the whole ecosystem on board, including shipping, forwarding companies and customs. This would be a gamechanger and government-to-government support will be crucial in bringing everyone together,” she said.

The platform at last gives some impetus to the use of blockchain in trade, after hundreds of proofs of concepts, many of which now feel like false dawns.

It also helps emphasise how far ahead of the pack MAS is. In Hong Kong, there’s a feeling that the approach taken by HKMA to fintech is not as joined-up as its erstwhile rival authority. Certainly, MAS has the upper hand when it comes to promoting its fintech activities – this festival was the biggest PR job the industry has ever seen, and it seems to be working.

“Their [MAS’] decision making is streamlined. They know what they want and also they are more ambitious and will undertake more risk. They set the standards for everyone else. On my previous trip to Asia in October, every other central bank I met with was aware of what MAS is doing, and many of them wanted to start up their own projects,” David Rutter, the CEO of blockchain consortium R3, told GTR of working with MAS – a sentiment that was shared by most in attendance.


Three trade-tech startups that caught the eye at the Singapore Fintech Festival

Trade Ledger

What is it?

A Sydney-based “deep tech” company established by former SAP staffers, Trade Ledger’s technology extrapolates data from supply chains to provide credit and fraud analysis, reducing the lenders’ risk assessment process from 30 labour hours
to seven minutes.

Why does it stand out?

With the credit gap in Asia, lenders need to think about how they can improve and expand their books. CEO Martin McCann cut his teeth automating supply chains at SAP, and says that the technology can extract data richer than any other from supply chains, providing a credit picture that is completely different to what lenders are dealing with right now. This sort of technology could help remodel trade finance risk assessment and reduce the barriers to entry for small businesses.

What do they say?

McCann tells GTR: “We can pick up the invoice in real time, along with all the messaging back and forth from trading parties about the invoice, to determine the creditworthiness of that invoice as an asset. That’s never been done in real time and we can do it for every single invoice in a bank’s portfolio. Typically where they do asset verification they might do it for the top 10% by value, which would be 2-3% of the total invoice volume. We can do it for 100%.”


Culum Capital

What is it?

A newly-launched online marketplace for
trade and supply chain finance deals, Culum is targeting the Singapore and Chinese markets and has been incubated by the
China Merchants Group.

Why does it stand out?

The people behind this have got 90-years combined banking experience, led by Ginnie Chin, managing director, who has worked in senior trade finance roles at Standard Chartered, HSBC and RBS. Culum is combining its experience with an origination team, handpicking the investors that can access their marketplace and choosing the deals they wish to fund. The link-up with China Merchants Group should help open plenty of doors in the Chinese market.

What do they say?

Chin tells GTR that the company is exploring a range of technology options aimed at improving their system, but that they have already attracted investors: “We deal with accredited individuals, local Singaporeans or otherwise. We also deal with fund houses, family offices – we see more and more of them looking to this alternative investment space, simply because the return is still very productive. In the more mature markets like the EU, UK and US, they’re facing a demand issue. There’s a lot of supply but not demand, so we’re seeing them come out here to look for deals.”



What is it?

A supply chain finance company in a Korean market that is dominated by big players. Fin2B is currently working with Korean retail giant E-Land Group.

Why does it stand out?

The product here is not exactly new, although there appears to be very few non-bank lenders poking their head above the parapet in Korea. What is interesting here is the geographic target Fin2B has. The company is targeting the Vietnamese market, sectors of which are dominated by Korean conglomerates. Samsung products account for 20% of Vietnam’s entire exports – entire supply chains have come up around their investments. Targeting the Korean and Vietnamese market seems like a smart move, then, given the huge linkages in trade and supply chain.

What do they say?

CTO Duke Lee tells GTR: “We are interested in expanding into Asia but our main target is Vietnam. We’ve been going there every month and are just about to launch there. There’s a heavy Korean presence there, in 2015 30% of all FDI came from Korean companies, a distant second was Japan, with 10%. Korean companies are bringing their accounting practices, which is good for us, it’s the same thing. In Vietnam we’re not competing with other companies as the space hasn’t developed. We’re only competing with the banks.”