E-Wallets : Did You Forget Us Again?

THE SHARIAH CONSIDERATION FOR E-WALLETS AND PAYMENT APPS.

Apps are everywhere. Everyone has a mobile phone where people start to get used to online banking, e-money, e-wallets and e-payment. All at the touch of the screen. I use it extensively and there are a few very convenient ways to survive a city without the need of actual cash in your wallet. Everything is digital and floating somewhere out in the clouds.

As I no longer use credit cards, I relied heavily on Debit Cards as my main payment medium which is linked to my Islamic Current and Savings Account. So the Debit Card deducts the amount from my account for each purchase for settlement. Technically, it is a Service (Ujr) where the Debit Card serves as a payment instrument, linked to the account based on Wadiah or Qard or Tawarruq or Mudarabah.

But at the same time, I am all-in into the tech-thingy as well. And no doubt, there must be a future in these thingies… For the past few months, I have been using these few apps. Here is a short review of 2 apps that I have to admit as my favourites.

Boost was one of the first eWallet that I downloaded. It requires me to “fund” the wallet, and when you make payment using the money in the eWallet, you can shake your phone to get “digital rewards”. So far, I have only gotten maximum RM2 for my phone shaking, with the promise of random potential rewards. I am motivated to shake, maybe I can win the grand prize (it changes from period to period). What is the Shariah contract here? Boost eWallet is funded from my Islamic bank account, so what is the contract for the eWallet? Is it a Qard (loan), or Wadiah (safekeeping)? We potentially may get a return (profit?) after a purchase by shaking our phone. Is that considered discretionary returns i.e. Hibah? Promised returns? In a way it is a promised returns but the amount is based on luck. And what does Boost do with our money when we are not using it and is it used for Shariah compliant purposes? Is it potentially a Musyarakah (partnership) or Mudarabah (profit-sharing) arrangement as customers are the Rab Ul Mal (Fund Provider) and Boost is the Mudarib (Manager) or Shirkah (Partnership). The Capital is guaranteed so it is maybe a deposit arrangement. The fact that we can transfer it back to our account sound like it is a Qard arrangement where we can ask our cash back on demand. But getting to shake for a guaranteed reward (even though it is RM0.20) may pose Qard as problematic for offering rewards.

 Fave is another app that I use, which is slightly different from Boost. Where Boost is an eWallet, Fave is a Payment Gateway where the cash is taken directly from your Bank account to settle a purchase. And depending on the merchant, you get cash back on your purchases which could be deducted from the your next purchase amount, ranging from 5% to 10% (some don’t offer cashback, but rarely). In Fave’s case, Fave do not retain any cash from you, as your cash still remain in your Bank account. So Fave seems to be more of an Ujrah arrangement, where we presume the service fee is collected from merchants instead of you. To encourage you to use this App so that Fave collects their fees, Fave gives the cash-back based on % of your purchases which seems like Hibah (gift) to me. For example, I pay for RM100 and gets a “cash-back” of RM5 for my next purchase at the merchant, so that sounds like a gift. Or is it a commission that we get for using the App, redeemable for the next purchase? I don’t know.

THE SHARIAH IMPLICATION

When we use these Apps, it is not clear the modus operandi of the operator and it seems obvious that no Shariah consideration took place on the usage as well as the contractual relationship. Should there even be any consideration or is it necessary?

In my view, a lot of products and services in the market fall into the category of “Shariah Neutral” instead of Shariah Compliant / Non-Shariah Compliant. For example a transaction may look like an Ijarah where the payment is based on rental but its documents may not be completed or contain all the tenets of the contract. Without the elements of all the shariah tenets, will it fall into either Shariah-neutral or non-compliant?

The question : If the transaction is Shariah Neutral, is there any requirement to look at by Shariah scholars? How do we decide if it is Shariah Neutral and therefore should be ignored from Shariah oversight?


Have Shariah Scholars considered the digital world or are we still only concerned on the traditional products to see their process validity and documentation? I feel there is a growing gap of what we see developing in the fintech, mobile banking and digital commerce space where Shariah may or may not have an issue on.

For example, the issue of Aqad in the digital space. The questions that I have are the following:

  1. Are the minimum tenets the same between a transaction between people, and a digital transaction? For example the tenets of a Murabahah in the digital space. Buyer / Seller / Price / Asset / Offer Acceptance. Will the tenets in the physical world still apply in a digital world?
  2. I presume the Buyer is the customer. But the Seller is a program that shows a picture of a product and is automated. Will the Seller as an Apps (representing the Seller) qualify as a real seller under the tenet? Generally I would think so but the responsibilities of the Seller must be clear somewhere.
  3. Would an Apps Pop-Up notice sufficient to conclude an Aqad. These are sequential programming that gives notice/remark at certain points and can be timed to meet Shariah requirements. Is this sufficient for Shariah?

Maybe I have been too distracted by work that I have missed these discussions, if it has happened before and concluded.

SHARIAH NEUTRAL : IS THERE A NEED TO VALIDATE?

As far as I understand it, Shariah Neutral means a product or services that is not breaching any Shariah rules or prohibited items in its execution. For example, a remittance service, where the customer gives cash to a remittance company to transfer the amount to another party. The company provides a service and earns a commission for the service. There are no prohibited elements in such service even to the point that generally the tenets of the contract are deemed as embedded in the processes, intention and basic forms and documents. You don’t see the arabic terms or formal contractual relationships mentioned; by virtue that there are no prohibited elements, we deemed it Shariah sufficient.

WHAT IS SHARIAH’S REAL VIEW OF SHARIAH-NEUTRAL?

I may be ignorant in this area, but what is Shariah’s view on Shariah-Neutral transactions? Why is it deemed that certain transactions requires a written / documented contract with all relationships and responsibilities outlined and agreed upon for it to be Shariah-Compliant, while others are okay to remain in a Shariah-Neutral state and still be acceptable? What is the deciding criteria for qualification of Shariah-Compliant?

As we move into the digital world where buying and selling online become a norm, and payment of goods and services are effected via a mobile app, is there a need to see whether there is any presence of prohibited elements in the transactions? Is there a need to decide if there are elements of a Riba (usury), Ghrarar (uncertainty) or Maisir (gambling) in the transactions? How about justice, fairness and trickery in the documents or operations of a mobile commerce? Is it safe to assume at least Shariah-Neutral and therefore Shariah scholars can skip looking into it?

Can I now design a product that on the outset can look and feel consistent with a Shariah-Neutral approach?  With more and more Apps for commercial transaction being introduced, should I start to think about avoiding the prohibitive elements, without the need of complicated documentation and Aqad? As long as it avoids the prohibited elements, I guess it can survive unquestioned.

Does Shariah have a view on Shariah-Neutral transactions? How far do they see to decide if a transaction is Shariah-Neutral and therefore “outside” their jurisdiction.

SUMMARY

As we look forward to living into a progressively digital world, I cannot help but wonder on the necessity to have Shariah oversight online. The Apps developer won’t be going to Shariah scholars to get Shariah endorsements anytime soon, but are they aware of what they developed contains any prohibitive elements from Shariah? Often we are left out of such discussions; perhaps we ourselves feels such development falls into Shariah-Neutral and therefore requires no oversight. But then how do we decide how it falls into Shariah-Neutral territory? Are there checklists we can refer to?

These are the things that comes to my mind while I wait in line to purchase my next drink. And wondering how much I will get from shaking my phone for the rewards. I am hoping for something more than RM5 this time. Happy shaking your phone. What a different world we are living in now. Wallahualam.

Sadaqa House : The Crowdfund That Could Circulate Good

HOW TO CROWDFUND GOOD?

Little by little, we learn there are many ways to spread good. I recently had a sit-down with Umar Munshi (EthisCrowd) and we had a fine chat. About his new project, Sadaqa House with Bank Islam, which aims to collect donations to support good causes, such as funding for a child’s operation (with the National Heart Institute of Malaysia), and other small infrastructure projects. Some of the causes are well funded, but some still fall short. But what it shows is that; if the cause is believably genuine, it may well get to raise the funds it needs.

This initiative is not so much different from the Tabarru’ concept of Takaful, which means mutual assistance using donations, and it can achieve so much more than Takaful.The idea of Takaful is “the many contributors helping the few“. Here, in the EthisCrowd space, the understanding is that it is “the many contributors helping the one“. For example the funding of the operation’s cost of a heart patient (child) where the contributors of funds are asked to fund the cost of getting heart treatment. It is basically a rougher/simpler form of Takaful.

Well I say job well done, and this is testament to the power and innovation of Islamic structures  where it can go further than just collections, finance and banking functions. It espouses the concept of mutual assistance and takes it to the next level of donation-giving. It is purposeful, transparent and convenient. My first experience was that the whole process of donating is seamless and easy. I urge friends to give Global Sadaqa and Sadaqa House a try and maybe spread a little cheer to the needy. The initiatives are simple and it helps spreads goodness in people’s heart (no pun intended!).

I do applaud the efforts by EthisCrowd because it does really provide an alternative platform where there is funding facilities outside the safe confines of a banking institution. With Global Sadaqah, hopefully charity is taken to a new, higher level where donations are hard to come by (as they provide no monetary gain to customers). This is where appealing to someone’s religious or moral consideration play its part in attracting individuals keen on doing good, even from Non-Muslims individuals. At the moment, they have amassed a huge number of followers / community to support their initiative, regardless of race and religion.

But most of all, this platform is easy to use and this is what Islamic fintech should be; to provide easy & mobile access to the unbanked segment while adhering to the requirements of Shariah for solutions that work.

Hopefully we see more spreading good initiatives championed by Islamic Banking entities and Institution that cares about the growth of Islamic finance while helping communities. May we find more ways to see these initiatives become successful in the future. Wallahualam.

Connecting the Dots : Islamic Fintech

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION?

This posting is in the danger of being written too long, but I think it is necessary to close this year with this topic, simply because it looks at the future. The word “Islamic Fintech” has been buzzing for quite some time now and there have been pockets of excitement on what it should mean. Many financial institutions have jumped onto the bandwagon declaring they are also part of this new wave of what a bank could offer.

While all these are still early stages of development, I do notice a lot of effort is built into “digitalisation” and “apps-based application” and “efficiently and convenience” of EXISTING banking processes and relationships. These enhancements are still driven by financial institutions and centred around improving traditional processes for banking services, or short-circuiting the credit processing elements of financing. Although enhancements via technology is an important aspect, these should not be defined as “fintech”. There is an element of fintech in process improvements, but PROCESS IMPROVEMENT itself are not fintech.

DO PEOPLE NEED BANKS?

Traditionally, banks always hold the impression that “People need Banks, one way or another”. It is this understanding that the bank can continue investing into their brick and mortar business model, with customers always coming to them when they need capital, financing funds or products and services. The competition is that who can deliver existing products in the most efficient manner, with technology as the enabler. Money is spent to improve accessibility to the bank’s EXISTING products, services and proposition.

In improving processes, banks just needs to concentrate on all the products and services offered and build the corresponding infrastructure to ensure efficient delivery with technology. It can be “Apps-driven” based on inquiry or transaction-based, with new features attached to existing products. It is just creation of new delivery channels which will deliver existing products to customers faster than before.

But that in my view is NOT what fintech is all about.

IF FINTECH IS NOT PROCESS IMPROVEMENTS THEN WHAT IS IT?

The easiest google/cut/paste definition of Fintech is that “fintech is a new financial industry that applies technology to improve financial activities and FinTech is the new applications, processes, products, or business models in the financial services industry, composed of one or more complementary financial services and provided as an end-to-end process via the Internet”. The key words I believe are:

  • New Financial Industry
  • New Application
  • New Processes
  • New Products
  • New Business Model

While “Process Enhancement” can help support the “New Processes” element, but I think it falls short of the idea for fintech i.e to re-think the business model of financial services. The idea of fintech should be this: Understanding what the requirements of the Gen Y customers are and how they work, develop the products and services on platforms that they are most familiar with, and the proposition that the bank can offer on their chosen platform. It is a total re-think of delivering products and propositions to the up-coming Gen Y potential customers.

SHARING OF FINANCIAL WALLET

As much as banks and financial institutions like to believe the financial wallet cannot exist outside the regulated financial system, the evidence is slowly being presented as otherwise. Companies are finding ways to survive, live and thrive outside the banking system with facilities and opportunities in the New Economy, slowly eroding the traditional banks’ share of financial wallet.

Big Data companies have proven that their database is far more powerful (and valuable) than the database an individual bank would have on its existing customers. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies goes through thousands of transactions within blockchain and is only realised into banks network when actual physical cash is needed. eWallet lets value resides in tech platforms for purchasing and sales of goods and services (more like barter or exchange of goods and services), and up to a certain extent provides microfinancing. Prepaid and loaded value arrangement provides free seed funding and capital for businesses, without the cost of borrowing incurred via banks. Peer to Peer (P2P) arrangement links crowdfund Investors to Entrepreneur without complicated documentation with speed and transparency levels never seen before. Sharing of risks and profits (including potential pay-offs) are now more understood as compared to traditional financing arrangements. Mudharabah, Musyarakah, and Ijarah may now have a place in an economy where equity participation is expected and sought after.

“FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” ARE JUST A SINGLE ELEMENT IN THE UNIVERSE

Technology can now provide a single-point possibility of all our needs; goods, services, food, shopping, bills payment, money transfers, investments, borrowing, deliveries, medical, transport, social interaction, travel, holidays, education, careers development, information and even branding. Financial services can be integrated into all these elements, now driven via apps. But for this new infrastructure, the various “relationships” are needed to be identified and re-looked and re-engineered. With the proper Shariah compliance consideration.

This “single point” proposition is where tech companies play a crucial part. Rethinking the financial model must happen with the involvement of tech companies due to the advantage of everything being on the internet (internet of things). There are still a lot of limitations to what a bank can do, understandably due to financial regulations. The space of where banks are continuously competing (or evolving) is the “FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” box above, and maybe payment gateways linked to service providers. But tech-companies? The revolution of technologies move so quickly that regulations will continue to struggle to catch up.

In the diagram above, I attempt to identify some of the areas of traditional banking where fintech can come in and provide a like-for-like solution or even fully replace the proposition by traditional banks. Certainly a lot of the consumer touch-points can be easily replicated in a technology platform, and crowdfunding and crowdsourcing can replace traditional financing and working capital requirements as well. Some services are still embedded into a banking structure (such as Current Accounts or Treasury product propositions) but over time, such products may be linked to fintech and the banks may eventually become ancillary service providers rather than main bank, earning just fees for services provided.

The landscape of what a bank offers will ultimately change in the next few years, when consumers no longer go to banks for financing, services, remittance and settlement of business transactions. As the new generation grows up with tech and becomes financially affluent, their expectation of how a banking experience should be will also dictate the model a bank adopts.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

So where do I see the banking industry in the next 5 years? Personally, I think a “price-comparison platform” will emerge, as seen nowadays in the travel/hotel/tourism industry. Information from all the financial service providers are flowed into a single platform, and consumers are able to immediately compare products, services and prices on a single platform and choose their solutions. Instead of customers subscribing to multiple banks offering different products and services (at different pricing), they only need to subscribe to a single platform where all information on the products are available to select. This is where the promise of fintech can thrive; accuracy of information, convenience of access, and speed of transaction.

It is a matter of time the various industries converge. We may think regulatory pressure will halt some of the progress but mostly it have been reactive regulations. And the challenge is that these developments are driven by tech companies which has no loyalties to banking regulations as their scope of business cuts across various industries. It will be a period of “non-regulated” until the market starts to recognise the need to regulate and managing the risks. A regulatory sandbox will be usefull, but if the “New Economy” moves faster than the speed where regulations are being formalised, there will be a lot of speculative and arbitrage opportunities for the market to gain.

This also means the New Economy brings new risks that the consumers are not aware off. While the banks have been fine-tuning its risks that it takes over the past half-century or so, the fintech companies may not see the elements of risks other than technology risks or systemic risks. Almost all the risks faced by banks are also prevalent in fintech companies or non-banks, plus the specific risks by fintech companies. They might be great at integration of technology, but banks are still masters when it comes to understanding financial risks.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

As I mentioned, banks understand risks better than a tech company. A tech company understand speed, efficiency and channels better than any banks can have. At the moment, banks are developing “fintech” on their own which is mostly a process improvement project. Tech companies are developing “banking services” on their own as well, where it linked investor’s money and economic entrepreneurs via technology. The question is really, “why not a bank consume or enter into a partnership with tech companies to provide a solution beyond traditional banking?” We have started to see this trend where banks attempt to purchase outright a tech company and use the company as an incubator for new products and services. It should look into having a different operating structure which encourages new ideas, innovation, internet-based solutions, as well as delivering to a larger segment of consumers (including the Unbanked segment).

The end-result might not look like what we recognise as banks we see today. This could be a separate line of business for banks, where the element of technology integrated into the wider economy is more dominant than its traditional banking products and services. You could have Bank A offering the traditional products and services, and Bank A-Tech offering fintech solutions to a new generation. The same bank catering to 2 business lines, employing different delivery channels.

But breaking away from such traditional infrastructure may take time, and the greatest fear is that the market cannot wait. Fintech companies may be able to offer similar proposition in half the time required, and this will not motivate fintech companies to join-venture with a financial institution. In an environment where new opportunities arise at the blink of an eye and regulations have yet to be formalised, the temptation to go on its own will drive innovation by the fintech companies, leaving behind banks. Fintech companies have the capability to look at consumer needs and develop the solutions from the bottom, and flow the linkages to the top. Connect the dots where the solutions provider are linked together in a platform.

Will fintech companies be the next driver in providing financial solution? I know my answer to that question. It is perhaps just a matter of time where future banking is done outside of a bank. Perhaps the model of banking needs to be re-imagined.

Wishing all my readers a Happy New Year in 2018. I appreciate the support I have received so far. But the new world beckons and hopefully we can do enough to ensure the continuation of the banking industry. I hope Islamic Banking can play a bigger role in taking the industry into this exciting online generation.

Report : Islamic Finance Development Report 2017

Click on picture to go to report

Information on Islamic Banking and Finance performance has always been an interest of many practitioners, myself included. Yearly we scour the best looking and informative reports on the internet that is full of data on the industry, especially when it covers the global markets as well. Sometimes we find an average one, but nowadays there seemed to be an abundance of available reports. Some have “good” contents, but when I come across “great” one, I am tempted to put it on my site. For future reference, off course!

What we always love to find out is the performance of the Islamic Banking industry locally and globally, as it will provide reliable data to management on the latest trends that contributes to the bottom line. And presented in simple and clear infographics will only ensure some of the slides will be “cut and pasted” for speaker presentations, being quoted in many sessions. This reports provide all those opportunities.

More interestingly, this report provides insights on what has been going on in the world. For example, items such as Value Based Intermediation (VBI) espoused by BNM was also mentioned. There is talk about Islamic Fintech, Awqaf Funds and other local going-ons, including CSR initiatives. I would say this report covers many new areas of interest in Islamic Banking and Finance.

It also has a four-slide presentation on the most recent dispute on Sukuk involving Dana Gas. This was a real concern by many many parties over an extendable period of time. Nonetheless, this report make a good job summarising the key issues about the Dana Gas case, until its resolution. What a good write up for layman.

I hope these kind folks don’t mind me posting their report on my site. As mentioned, this website was maintained aimed to be a repository of the many discussions on old and new issues. If you want to download the report yourself, click REPORT : ISLAMIC FINANCE DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2017. Also find other reports and this report in the Knowledge Centre.

Happy Reading