Michael Sainsbury
May 26, 2016

Can the FinTech bubble save us all?

Election 2016

Can the FinTech bubble save us all?

Malcolm Turnbull: "brilliantly sensed that the nation was weary of over-promising ..."

It is a question that is doing the rounds. “Are we in a fin-tech bubble, I think we are.” At least that was the message from among a phalanx of speakers at Singapore’s Innovfest Unbound startup event held at the fancy-pants Marina Bay Sands complex from last week.

I mean, where else do you get a sprawling tasty “Western-style” bento box in your lunch bag and hot and cold running cappuccino at the coffee stand.

Yes, FinTech was everywhere in Singapore last week, a way that the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (that is PM Mark 1, the one that voters wanted) could only dream of. And if he just took a minute, he would see it offers him a second chance.

For a moment, late last year, Mr Turnbull appeared to have brilliantly sensed that the nation was weary of over-promising, under-delivering second-raters trapped in the past economically and politically. That Australians were exhausted by endless fear campaigns.

Mr Turnbull’s fresh message of hope, underpinned by the now parodied “never more exciting time to be an Australian” resonated, and resonated not because he had wowed them with a big idea – Australian voters hate big ideas – but because he was speaking a new language.

Australia is a tech-savvy nation. Here was leader that understood the opportunities on offer.

Aching hip pockets have laid waste to most other concerns. This one is about the economy, stupid. The punters have focused their growing collective anger on the usurious, government-backed banks that treat customers with contempt and overcharge them for the privilege.

There is no surer sign of an economy in trouble.

When the bank issue boiled over just ahead of the Budget, Mr Turnbull’s team was unprepared, and saddled with a new inexperienced Treasurer. (Some would say a rolled gold diamond encrusted dud)

Mouths agape, the PM’s minders watched helplessly as the mindless promise of Royal Commission was all it took for the Opposition to take up the initiative.

Cue panic. Yet the answer, as the fictional Eva Peron sings in Evita, was there all the time.

As InnovationAus.com was mooching around the buzzy conference in Singapore, we realised that it was the future promised by Mr Turnbull come to life.

One by one, Asia’s capitals are jumping into the game, pouring in incentives.

Yet two weeks into the election, Australia has reverted to being The Land That Time Forgot and Groundhog Day all at once.

Australians know the salad days are over for the time being. The hip pockets are starting to hurt, but the politicians are making the dreadful mistake of telling consumers and small businesses – the economy’s most reliable weather vanes – they are wrong.

At the same time, Australians are seeing technology disrupting their own businesses, they see it helping them. They use it constantly, day-in, day-out.

They are using technology to dodge the egregious cost of every day living, to save time, to escape the endless yawning ennui of cable TV. To shut the kids up, to stay in touch with family and friends. To help them stay fit.

Australians know that this is a double-edged sword. They feel they have been let down, by and large, by governments flying blind and trapped in the past in that parallel universe known as the national capital.

Mr Turnbull’s technology-centric message about opportunity resonated so well not because it was something new, but because at last here was someone who appeared to live the same century and understood the opportunities – not just the threats.

In a similar way, Singapore’s technology strategy was born of a tired and stale government, guaranteed to retain office by its gerrymander, when it looked set o be embarrassed by record low vote last year.

The Singapore Government’s long-term messages based on security and safety (good old fear) has stopped working. How safe can a place get?

So the government placed a bet on the future, on a Smart Nation strategy that has thrown up FinTech as the markets favorite bet.

Instead of losing ground, the government won extra votes as it stayed on message.

Two years after mapping out the Smart Nation strategy, Singapore’s singular focus on technology with FinTech at the top of the food chain has become an enviable tech hub.

For sure, FinTech is probably bubble now. All gold rushes are. As a former banker Mr Turnbull knows about the power of banks and he also knows about the power of disruption. After all it paid for the harbourside mansion

And there is no sure sigh of imminent technology disruption when the incumbents start signing the new technology tune.

Last week in Singapore the big banks were crushing the startups on their race to embrace the forces that promise their destruction.

They seem to hold the desperate hope that by doing so, they can control them for long enough to reinvent themselves.

They understand they have little choice. Australian banks will tell you the same thing. Yeah, right.

InnovationAus.com has been critical of Mr Turnbull’s wafer thin in tech strategy, aimed at turning Sydney into Asia’s FinTech hub. We were hopping for a bit more, instead we got put on hold and the muzak is still playing.

Yet the Prime Minister’s nose for getting into the right sector, for where the right deal is, is formidable. He has an enviable track record.

Becoming Prime Minister is an unwinnable prize unless you run your own race and back yourself. When Mr Turnbull has backed himself over the years, from Spycatcher to Ozemail to Goldman Sachs (even to his execution of Peter King as the sitting member for Wentworth and eventually Tony Abbott), he has come out on top.

It is time, Prime Minister, to do what you do best. Be a confident know-it-all who is way ahead of the curve.

Pick up the narrative of a tech-savvy nation that backs itself, its brains, and has a brash can-do culture.

FinTech – yes there is a point here – can help the Prime Minister hit the ball out of the park. He can turn the voters hatred of the banks into a central part if his narrative of hope.

It’s the power of technology that will force the banks into a radical customer-centric overhaul via real competition and the transfer power to customer.

The promise of the market dismembering the banks with disruption by FinTech was the clear message from Singapore. It is a question of if not now, then when?

Joining the chase for that prize, and targeted others like agtech and healthtech where Australia has expertise, boosts Australia’s chances of a better future immeasurably by institionalising the tech and innovation sectors.

That’s the Singapore answer. The alternative is Greece.

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