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.

Steering a Shariah Decision

Click on above picture to download the article in pdf

HIDDEN TRAPS IN SHARIAH DECISION MAKING

I came across an interesting article titled Hidden Traps in Shariah Decision Making by bro Ehsanullah Agha (click on picture for full pdf article). The article summarises what we product developers have known for quite some time now, and has now become necessary tools in ensuring the products we design are approved by our Shariah Committee. It summarises the involvement of Shariah in decision-making in an IFI, as well as some of the “traps” that Shariah Committee falls into when making decisions.

The 4 “traps” mentioned are:

  1. Anchoring an opinion
  2. Adhering to the Status Quo
  3. Confirming Evidence to support a decision
  4. Framing of information

While the above is referred to as “traps”, I would rather refer these as “approaches” to solicit a decision, and perhaps all the above can come together (not exclusively) in considering a decision. Reading the above exclusively may give the impression that a product team can resort to a specific tactic in order to extract a certain decision. Admittedly, there are such cases, especially where management requires a specific decision to support a business. But Shariah Committees are often expected to be the gatekeepers for such decisioning.

A quick comment on the above points:

  1. Anchoring. While product teams do not consciously try to anchor an opinion before presenting to Shariah Committee, we often do so to provide perspective on the rationale for such proposal. This can be done by highlighting a crisis or regulatory danger to support the proposal. It becomes the baseline discussion point during the deliberation stage. And we do it to keep the discussion in focus to achieve the objective ie resolving the crisis.
  2. Status Quo. By far this is one of the main consideration of an approval by Shariah Committees. Usually we call it Urf ie customs or acceptable market practice on a certain product behaviour. Personally, decisions based on Urf is not something I prefer but it is sometimes necessary to quote as such, especially if there is no major criticism on its usage and practice by the public (which also includes religious scholars). There is nothing wrong with accepting the norms of the society; my only contention is that I may not fully understand the deliberation points when such decisions are made by other parties for the fear of missing out a critical argument that should have been known and resolved by my team. Two things come to mind; Ignorance is bliss, and Blind leading the blind.
  3. Confirming Evidence. This is also a key point where a certain decision is preferred over the other. When there is a bias for arriving at a certain decision, the product research, analysis and design (including practicality in operations) are equally biased in finding evidence to support reaching of that decision. Rightly so as mentioned in the article, the evidence to support the contract of Bai Inah in Malaysia is generally extracted from the Shafie school of thought while sidelining the rest of the opinion that is equally valid. The evidence provided for the acceptability is biased to enable the consideration to approve the structure.
  4. Framing. In my opinion, framing is a necessary tool for product development teams simply due to the amount of information available in the market. While we understand the need for a robust deliberation session with the Shariah Committee, the forums available to us (and the allocated time given) are usually restrictive. To go into full academic and technical discourse will be challenging especially when a quick decision is required. The information that we provide are those we deemed most relevant to support the proposed solution. There may be other decisions that the Shariah Committee can arrive at, if only we had provided more information. But the danger lies where the inclusion of too much information may result in indecisiveness or confusion. Sometimes too much information clouds the real issue further, and it takes time to bring things back into focus. Therefore, we frame the information relevant to the issues. The intention is not to exclude, but to include what is relevant.

A GOOD DECISION COMES WHEN ALL PARTIES ARE ENGAGED

When a product team goes into a proposal, discussion or request for a certain decision, the Shariah Committee is expected to be conversant with the topic at hand to be able to engage in a meaningful discussion. The product team brings in the technical requirements, with some general Shariah background information, market analytics and practical implication on process requirements expected by Shariah. The Shariah Committee must bring in their expertise in Shariah knowledge to dissect and analyse the team’s proposal, not just what is being presented as information but also the rationale, the intention and the technical nuances proposed for the product.

Asking the right question is important for the Shariah Committee, just as providing the right context and intention is also important for the product team. In general, the product team must not go into a Shariah proposition with the intention to manipulate, coerce or blindside the Shariah Committee into a “business” decision. The effort must show full consideration in compliance with Shariah. As much as the heavy burden placed on the Shariah Committee shoulders are real (with fines and jail-time outlined under IFSA2013 when there’s failure to execute their duties), the same burden must also be felt by the IFI’s product team whenever a product is being designed and launched. The people I work with, I see strong commitment and awareness on the need to do the right things, all the time.

WISH LIST FOR 2019

It is easy to expect Shariah Committee to be well versed in all aspects of banking and finance when the decision is required. And it is also easy to expect product development teams to be fully aware of all “relevant” information to be able to share them objectively with the Shariah Committee. Such an ideal scenario will mean all parties come to the table fully aware of all the potential issues, with sufficiently extensive information and in-depth theoretical research to support all the argument. This does not always happen in real life.

I believe the only way to bridge this expectation is to significantly increase the knowledge of all parties. We see this starting to happen at the Shariah Committee level where BNM now encourage at least 1 industry expert to sit in the Shariah Committee, even without a Shariah background. This is to promote knowledge sharing and a different point of view during decisioning, and take notice of any attempts to coerce a decision.

On this same vein, I believe the next natural step is to have Shariah-trained individuals to become product developers in IFI. Most Shariah-based graduates that we see, enter into the banking world via the Shariah department. But how about entering other departments such as sales, credit or more importantly product-development? Such background knowledge in Shariah may itself force a self-regulating approach when designing a products. The Shariah arguments will be the first filter when assessing a product; if it fails at that filter, it will not see the light of day. And Shariah Committee can take some comfort that the Shariah deliberation has already started at the onset of the product development process.

I have seen some impressively good work done by Shariah-based product developers. This should be the way forward in finding new Shariah-compliant banking solutions. Hope I get this wish next year. Looking forward to 2019.

Employee Provident Fund – Becoming Shariah Compliant

Simpanan Shariah

8th August 2016 was the date the Employee Provident Funds (EPF) in Malaysia announced the opening of its registration counters to move t he existing funds into Shariah-compliant Employee Provident funds.

The response was monumental where people came to line up to register since 7 am and lines can be seen snaking out of the offices. People had to come personally to sign the conversion form (which includes Agency appointments as part of the Aqad) and agree to the terms. There’s great relief that finally there is a Shariah compliant fund for contributors, although it will not happen immediately. Conversion starts 1 January 2017.

As to date, about 45,000 people have signed the conversion.

But many questions still arise from whether EPF will really pull it off. As usual, the suspicions and sarcasms arise on the whole process of “complying with Shariah” and what is required. The common questions are whether they have the infrastructure to manage such a big fund in an Islamic market which is perceived to be not that huge. Can it support the whole fund, or will any excess funds not invested in Islamic instruments “flow” back to the mixed market?

I am sure EPF have able fund managers. But I am surprised to hear questions whether EPF is really going “Islamic” or just another ploy to hoodwink the public. Questions such as, do they really know which company is Shariah compliant, are the Shariah Advisors reliable, do they just advice or do they have any authority or power to influence the investment strategies of EPF to comply. Can we trust them?

Before I write further, I have to say that the Shariah Advisory Committee of EPF consist of 5 heavyweights in the industry. Dr Aznan, Dr Akram, Dr Zahar, Dr Engku and Dr Kamaruzaman. Someone implied that they will eventually cave in to organisational pressure when “tough investment decisions” have to be made, but this comment do not fully appreciate the role of SAC in any Islamic Financial institutions. The SAC has a huge responsibility to ensure the operations of the funds are Shariah compliant, the income is Shariah compliant, and the distribution of dividends are Shariah compliant. Consistently. Continuously. Automatically.

So what is the process that usually happens in an Islamic Financial Institution (IFI)? How influential are the SAC to the operations of an IFI? I cannot fully vouch for EPF but the governance framework should be consistent throughout the industry. The following is what usually happens in the process of determining Shariah compliance investments for EPF to enter into, and the control processes to ensure it remains Shairah compliant.

Shariah Compliant Investment Selection, Deployment, and Dividend Distribution.

In general, the SAC and IFI must start to build a framework that meets the Shariah rules to invest and deploy these Islamic funds. The following steps usually applies:

  1. The IFI first start identifying Shariah compliant counters, companies and investments that meets the criteria set by the SAC. There are several benchmark in the market that guides these criteria such as the Securities Commission criteria for Shariah Compliant Companies, BNM listing of Shariah Prohibited Activities, or even using the Accepted Bills-i which lists non-Shariah compliant goods (if a company trades in these goods). Based on the above, the benchmark of what is acceptable is decided by SAC. Deliberated and discussed. SAC will also decide whether to follow market benchmark or adopt a more stricter stance than the market.
  2. For mixed counters or companies, SAC will also decide on an acceptable benchmarks. For example, companies which has more than 5% clearly non-Shariah compliant activities are excluded from the “approved” listing. If the activities are not clearly identifiable, the “unidentifiable” activities should not be more than 20% of all the company’s activities. Different IFI adopts different benchmarks. Looking at EPF SAC, it is likely the benchmarks are stricter.
  3. An Investment Mandate, based on the rules defined by SAC above is then formulated to outline the type of acceptable counters/companies/investment, the deployment strategy, the monitoring and reporting requirements, escalation processes, calculation and declaration of income, distribution of dividends and finally the financial disclosures.
  4. The Investment Mandate should be guiding instructions for Treasury to follow in managing the funds. Based on the mandate, Treasury finds the companies/counters/investments that meet the criteria and manage the funds accordingly.
  5. The list of the investments / companies are reviewed regularly to ensure they still remain as Shariah compliant throughout the investment period. Any companies that fall out of the criteria will be removed from the lists. Any non-compliant incidences will be escalated to the SAC.
  6. On an interim basis, Internal Audit (reporting to Board of Directors) and Shariah Review (reporting to SAC) will do their periodic audits to ensure that the Shariah parameters are always met and adhered to. Any incidences of non-Shariah compliant investments will be tabled to SAC for a decision. The decision will be whether to exit the investment, make rectification, or worse case scenario, deem the investment non-Compliant and remove the dividends received from the pool and pay them out to charity.
  7. At the end of the investment period (declaration dates), the SAC will look at the financial results, the investments made, the exclusion of non-Shariah compliant income/dividend, and overall operations of the funds. Once satisfied, the SAC signs off and income/dividend may then be distributed.

In short, the SAC not only outline the mandate for Shariah compliant investments, they are also responsible in the various aspects of the management of the funds to ensure what is paid out are “clean” dividends not tarnished by non-Shariah compliant components. There is a huge responsibility for the SAC towards the general public who rely on them to formulate the right investment mandate for them. I don’t envy such position; the burden is great but I have to say EPF had it right by appointing such heavyweights to their SAC.

May Islamic EPF continue to be a choice that is taken by the public. Wallahualam

For a full collection of the videos on Shariah Compliant EPF, click on this link: EPF-I http://www.kwsp.gov.my/shariah/videos.html