by Noah Tan on

When Madam Goh Min Li heard Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talk at length about how Singapore would soon transition to a cashless society and become a Smart Nation during last year’s National Day Rally, she began to feel a palpable sense of discomfort.

After all, for most her life, the 72-year-old homemaker had used either cash or cheques for all of her financial transactions.

And while Madam Goh possesses an ATM card, she uses it solely to withdraw cash. Other functions, like bank transfers and making purchases using NETS, are almost alien to her.

The one time she tried making a bank transfer at an ATM machine, about seven years ago, she accidentally keyed in the wrong account number, and the tedious process of reversing the transaction – which her son had to help her with – scarred her from ever attempting to transfer money electronically again.

So understandably, the thought of living in a cashless society scares her.

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“At my age, I find it’s hard to learn new things, especially when it comes to technology,” Madam Goh told The Pride. “I’m not sure how long it will take me to get used to paying for things using the computer or (mobile) phone.

“On the other hand, using cash is simple and straightforward. There’s no need to register for anything, no need to go onto different websites…it’s convenient for a lot of us (elderly) and I really don’t see why there’s a need to go cashless when everything is working well now.”

Make no mistake about it, though – Singapore is going cashless, whether Madam Goh likes it or not.

Indeed, according to a 2017 report by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Singapore is one of the most “cashless payment-intensive” country in the world. Education Minister and Monetary Authority of Singapore board member Ong Ye Kung recently estimated that more than eight in 10 consumers in Singapore have already adopted e-payments.

This trend is expected to continue in the coming years, with the government spearheading Singapore’s transition to go cashless. For example, all ticketing machines at MRT stations will only accept cashless top-ups by 2020, while public agencies have started to use DBS’ PayNow application to perform certain financial transactions.

Amidst Singapore’s cashless drive, however, citizens like Madam Goh face a real danger of being left behind in society.

Granted, there are courses available for senior citizens to aid them in their transition to a cashless society. But, some elderly remain sceptical, especially in light of recent high-profile cybersecurity breaches.

Retiree Mr Tan Ah Heng, 75, said: “Recently, I read about people hacking into SingHealth, which makes me worry about people doing the same to our money if we put it all online. If even an organisation like SingHealth can get hacked, and the PM’s data stolen, how can I trust that my money will be protected?

“It’s a whole new system…I’m hesitant to trust something that I can’t physically see or touch. What if the system crashes? How are we going to buy anything when that happens? Even if it’s for an hour or so, it can be hugely inconvenient if we can’t make any purchases during that period because of a system error.”

According to National University of Singapore sociologist Dr Tan Ern Ser, however, cybersecurity is just one of several common concerns the elderly have when it comes to going cashless.

“Most elderly are not literate in the first place,” Dr Tan told The Pride. “But, this problem can be overcome if the applications use visuals, rather than text. Using bigger fonts (on their mobile phones and applications) will help as well, as the elderly may have poor eyesight.

“The elderly are also fearful of making mistakes when they use technology, and worry that adopting (cashless payment systems) could increase their risk of being cheated by those who are more tech-savvy.

“However, I think this can be overcome if applications are designed to be senior-friendly and as such, are simple to use. I also recommend that these applications show the exact amount that they have to pay – in large font – so they won’t run the risk of getting cheated.

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“Finally, some elderly simply do not own a smartphone and are either unwilling or unable to get one. In this case, I think teaching them to use a multi-purpose card, like EZ-link, may be the best option.”

With Singapore aggressively pressing ahead with the Smart Nation movement, the elderly will have to learn how to live in a cashless society sooner rather than later.

Professor Kalyani K Mehta, head of programme (Master of Gerontology) at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), estimates that it could take anywhere from “three to five years” for the elderly in Singapore to learn, and use, cashless payment modes.

However, Professor Kalyani believes the onus is not just on the elderly to adapt to a cashless society. The government, as well as the rest of society, also has a part to play in easing the transition process for them.

For example, she suggests that the government can “set up a hotline…for seniors to call if they run into problems”, and that this line “should be in service for 12 hours in the day and be manned by friendly and helpful adults”.

Professor Kalyani added: “The rest of society can also be empathic (to the fact) that it is a difficult transition for seniors and so, should not mock them if they fail to grasp the concepts quickly.”

Dr Tan warned that failing to help the elderly adapt to a cashless society would have far-reaching consequences for them.

“They will feel lost, disempowered, afraid to venture out, and be very dependent on family members who have gone cashless,” he said.

Agreeing, Professor Kalyani says that Singapore society would be adversely impacted if the elderly were left behind in the country’s move to becoming a Smart Nation.

“The society has many ‘divides’ and the digital divide is one of them,” she explained. “One of the main distinguishing features of a civilised society is how it treats its seniors with consideration. If we do not include seniors (in the move to a Smart Nation), it will impact every aspect of our lives – political, social, economic, family and workplace settings included.

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“It is important, albeit challenging, that we help them gain confidence (to use technology and cashless payments). We have to reach out to those who are not fluent in English, and ensure that the elderly have suitable phones to execute cashless payments.

“Lastly, we have to encourage their loved ones to ‘teach’ them, and if necessary walk the journey with them. Adult children, in particular, must realise that they are key to helping their ageing parents in this transition.”