A week in SE Asia with the Prime Minister and UKTI
Rolls Royce. Airbus. Lloyds of London… Blockchain. Wait, what?
It started with an unusual email from a government official asking for a call. Strange emails are more or less par for the course for the CEO of a bitcoin company, but a few minutes into the call, I realized something groundbreaking was happening. For the first time, a bitcoin company was being invited on an official tour with the leader of a nation.****Not just any leader, mind you, but the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, home to London – the seat of global financial power.
The official voice on the other end of the receiver was inviting me to join a delegation of executives from a who’s-who of top-tier UK companies (including Airbus, Rolls Royce, Lloyds of London, and Arup among others) traveling to Southeast Asia with the PM.
From July 26th to July 30th we visited Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. I spoke to senior regulators, bank CEOs, telecommunications executives and other leaders about the future we are working towards as an industry – an open financial platform in which anyone can participate.
I came away with a few impressions:
The economy of Southeast Asia is growing rapidly, but the financial services that should support that growth are weak
Indonesia alone is projected to move from the world’s 16th largest economy to the 7th largest by 2030. Despite rapid economic growth and tens of millions of consumers entering a consumer class, only 20-30 million Indonesians out of 250 million have a credit or debit card. Of those, fully 70% are under 35 years old.
The overall outlook is remarkably similar throughout SE Asia and is characterized by rapidly growing economies that are going increasingly digital, with high smartphone penetration amongst predominantly under 35 populaces.
In broad terms, heavy financial infrastructure, i.e. large corporate finance, investment banking, and private equity funds are relatively well-developed in the region. Consumer and SME level access to stable, trusted digital financial tools capable of transferring value within the region is less advanced and is perhaps a key market opportunity for fintech companies in London.
Much of the world still knows very little about the Bitcoin Protocol
It is incredibly easy to become immersed in one’s own environment. In my world, it sometimes feels as if nearly everyone knows what bitcoin is, how it works, and that it will change the world.
We’ve come a long way in spreading the word over the last four years, but we are nowhere close to being done. Almost everyone I spoke to in SE Asia either had only the vaguest idea, or had barely heard of bitcoin. Interestingly, the few exceptions were regulators and bankers in Singapore.
State Dinners do not last long
If you are like me, you assume an official State Dinner would last several hours – especially if you saw the five to seven course menus. Wrong – the longest was just 5 blocks (52 minutes) and the shortest was just 3 blocks (37 minutes). High speed dining indeed.*The UK is serious about being the global leader in our space*
The UK has long taken a pragmatic regulatory approach to bitcoin and fintech (as seen, for example, in thoughtfully allowing P2P lending framework to mature from within the industry itself). In the current global regulatory environment, it isn’t easy to take this road less traveled, but the UK, led by David Cameron has done precisely that. The UK approach is to lead, to encourage fintech in Britain, and to carefully weigh the advantages, risks and potential policy implications related to the Bitcoin protocol.
It was an honor to speak with the Prime Minister about bitcoin and Blockchain’s leadership role – doubly so because it happened at such a critical moment in our industry. The convergence of fintech, bitcoin, and global opportunity were affirmed when Mr. Cameron even made reference to his understanding of the technology in official remarks.
Looking back, it was the quiet moments that mattered the most: speaking with cabinet members in a conference room, exchanging drafts with staff on a plane to Jakarta, and hearing the news (before it became news) from the members of the traveling press. These were the invaluable insights that made the trip worthwhile.
4 – Days
5 – Cities Visited
41 – Hours Flown
6 – Mentions of bitcoin by a PM
After all, who wants to sleep when you can talk bitcoin!?