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Financial literacy can remedy sluggish growth in Malaysia’s internet economy, says analyst

Collectively acquiring basic financial knowledge can lead to massive payoffs in innovation.

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Southeast Asia’s internet economy is growing at an exponential rate, but Malaysia isn’t keeping pace. According to the e-Conomy SEA 2019 report released by Temasek, Google, and Bain & Company, Malaysia only accounted for USD 11 billion in the region’s USD 100 billion internet economy in 2019.

The figure is lower than amounts generated by Indonesia (USD 40 billion), Thailand (USD 16 billion), Vietnam (USD 12 billion), and Singapore (USD 12 billion), even though Malaysia is the third richest Southeast Asian country in terms of GDP per capita.

The report also predicts that by 2025, the global internet economy is expected to hit USD 300 billion, with Malaysia expected to contribute an estimated USD 26 billion to the pool. In order to hit that mark in the next five years, Malaysia has to overcome financial illiteracy issues that are holding it back, industry insiders say.

Financial illiteracy is dead weight

Financial literacy is the knowledge needed to understand all aspects of money, such as budgeting, taxes, savings, bills, and investing, according to Forbes.

Released by the Financial Education Network, the National Strategy for Financial Literacy 2019–2023 guideline reveals that one in every three Malaysians regard themselves to be lacking in financial knowledge. It is unsurprising that the country’s internet economy has not been growing as quickly as it could be. According to Mohammad Ridzuan Abdul Aziz, president of the Fintech Association of Malaysia, unfamiliarity with the basics of finance is why many people and businesses cannot produce innovative fintech solutions.

The phenomenon also affects the quality of talent needed by Malaysian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)⁠—many of which are underbanked and face large funding gaps due to underdeveloped digital skills. Aadarsh Baijal, a partner at Bain & Company that specializes in the firm’s digital practices in Southeast Asia, said that “talent is an issue faced by many internet economy companies [in Malaysia], exemplified by the lack of readily available talent with digital, tech, or engineering skills, or expertise in running new ventures and startups.”

Aadarsh Baijal, partner at Bain & Company’s digital practice in Southeast Asia. Photo courtesy of Bain & Company.

The effect of low financial literacy among SMEs, and how this might impact Malaysia’s internet economy growth in the long run, is a major cause for concern. Currently, SMEs make up 98.5% of the country’s businesses, as stated by the Malaysian Department of Statistics. In 2018 alone, SMEs contributed MYR 521.7 million (USD 137.8 million) to the country’s gross domestic product.

What compounds this problem is the fact that low financial literacy is also a challenge inherent in consumers. According to the e-Conomy SEA 2019 report, 40% of the Malaysian population is underbanked and underinsured, with no access to credit cards and long-term savings products, and 15% are completely unbanked.

If underbanked consumers cannot even access credit tools, it is unlikely that they will look to other digital, technology-driven financial solutions. “The underbanked usually don’t have the right income level. And banks often tell them they are not sure about their current jobs and the reliability of their income,” Baijal explained.

The unbanked population, meanwhile, presents the most difficult challenge for the digital financial services ecosystem. It will also take the longest to solve this problem, as it involves getting each unbanked individual to set up a bank account. As with the other markets, Malaysians who are underbanked tend to live in rural areas, where infrastructure for internet connectivity and technology-based education is often inadequate. Plus, there is hesitance to approach banks.

“There is this tendency to shy away from registering for bank accounts because the banks require you to pay minimum fees or put in a minimum balance amount, which these people simply cannot afford,” Baijal said.

Doing the right thing in the next five years

The underbanked population will serve as the biggest growth engine for digital financial services players in Southeast Asia in the next five years, says the e-Conomy SEA report. Serving the unbanked is the most challenging task, as acquisition and penetration efforts require a major investment for most internet companies. Mobilizing the underbanked, meanwhile, is easier, as many are already internet users who simply need to have greater financial access to build credit.

Doing so—particularly by targeting those who are already internet users—will likely require increased web-based engagement and more technological infrastructure, especially in non-metro areas. According to Baijal, this understanding is based on the premise that users will eventually turn to technology to reduce their cost of living, as well as access new products and services.

From this perspective, the financial awakening of the underbanked could contribute greatly to Malaysia’s internet economy. Baijal foresees the number of underbanked individuals in Malaysia decreasing dramatically in the next five years. “This is because a lot more people are going to have access to payment solutions such as credit cards. We will see a lot of other interesting solutions for personal financial management, savings, and investments, and a smaller deck of insurance products that are easy to buy,” he said.

Providing financial education to the general public, as well as across schools and organizations is, of course, just one part of addressing the low level of financial literacy in Malaysia. “Improving access to financial services also helps,” Baijal said, adding that the relationship between financial knowledge and financial services works in two directions. “While higher financial literacy might lead to broader financial inclusion, operating an account or using credit may also deepen consumers’ financial skills.”

Systematically solving the gaps within the digital financial services ecosystem is another big part of addressing financial literacy issues in Malaysia. According to Baijal, it’s still a major challenge in the country, as many underbanked SMEs face a lack of credit history and high operation costs. “They are either unable to get access to credit, or they are charged high interest rates to offset the higher risk.” But things may change in the next five years.

How? A large portion of the projected revenue in Southeast Asia’s internet economy in 2025 will likely come from opportunities in digital lending, Baijal predicted. He added that lending initiatives can help underbanked SMEs gain access to credit, build their scores, and learn to reflect on their financial standing and economic contribution. Room for business-to-business opportunities exists to mitigate this transition and boost financial literacy levels among SMEs.

“You have some digital lenders [in Malaysia] today. Their offerings are not as good yet. But they are all figuring it out and improving their products and services every year. Once their lending services get to an inflection point, they will become scalable and everybody will be able to easily use them,” Baijal said.

With Bank Negara’s new licensing framework for digital lenders, things will become easier for the Malaysian digital lending landscape. The framework’s guidelines address unbanked segments, as well as the aspects of consumer protection and business conduct.

Regulatory policies across Southeast Asia are also becoming more open, with governments increasingly supporting the development of digital financial services. In this context, Malaysia still has room for improvement.

“The Malaysian government has to ensure that the country will become an attractive place for innovation, investment, and talent. It should support established financial institutions in digitizing, as well as nurturing innovative fintech or consumer tech platforms,” Baijal said.

He added that these could be in the form of supportive regulations. Bank Negara Malaysia’s recent announcement about five new virtual banking licenses, as well as the electronic know your customer framework, a mandatory system that banks must use to digitally streamline and protect their customer identification processes, is a great start to improving financial infrastructures for underserved companies, he said.

Ultimately, Baijal concluded that the hallmark of a progressive internet economy is based on financially inclusive systemic support for individuals and companies.