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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

We Have Less Time than We Think: Singapore's Sopnendu Mohanty

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

We Have Less Time than We Think: Singapore's Sopnendu Mohanty

Jo Ann Barefoot

I met today’s guest, Sopnendu Mohanty, about 18 months ago. I moderated a panel on blockchain for last year’s MIT Fintech Conference, and Sop, who is the Chief Fintech Officer of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, was a panelist -- explaining how MAS was building a regional innovation hub that included blockchain strategies. Since then I’ve seen him three more times -- once at Harvard, which he visited with the visionary head of MAS, Ravi Menon; once when I spoke at MAS’s enormous conference last fall in Singapore; and last at a regulator gathering in Jakarta this year, where we recorded this short conversation.

The thing that strikes me most is that, when I first met Sop, he was way ahead of nearly everyone else in thinking about regulating fintech and regtech for regulators -- and that the last time we talked, he had widened that lead even further. On these issues, he might be the most forward-thinking regulator in the world.

The Jakarta meeting was extraordinary. Funded by the Omidyar Network and the Gates Foundation and organized by the amazing Fintech Stage, it drew regulators from six continents, all coming together to share problems and solutions on how to modernize regulation as technology transforms finance. Many were from the developing world, where rapid mobile phone adoption and mobile money services have outstripped traditional regulatory frameworks. Many, though, were from developed countries grappling with how to become innovative, themselves. Notably absent was the United States.

In Jakarta, Sop and I ducked into an empty conference room during a short break and had this talk, as a teaser for a longer episode on his next trip to the U.S.

Singapore is widely regarded as a top world leader in regulatory innovation, right up there with the UK Financial Conduct Authority that started the worldwide movement toward governments adopting innovation agendas. That movement is burgeoning -- recent research by the Aspen Institute finds that more than twenty nations have launched or are exploring regulatory innovation initiatives. MAS was either the second or third one, depending how you count (Australia was early too). MAS has built a “tech stack” that includes giving innovators wide latitude to try new things, as well as “co-creation” of some regulatory change with industry and a sandbox for experimentation.

I’ve become convinced that regulators actually need sandboxes and reglabs, because hands-on testing will be the only way they can learn fast enough to keep up with today’s technology change. Here’s my recent article making that argument!

In our talk, Sop explains MAS’s  “pragmatic” approach, which emphasizes small-scale experimentation, partnering with industry to solve specific problems, and learning from industry which, he says, generally knows more than government does.

When you talk with Sop, you feel a palpable sense of urgency. I think that’s why his thinking is evolving so fast -- he believes we’re running out of time. He worries that the financial system will suffer a calamitous cyber attack and that we have to move much more aggressively to “future-proof it.”

Of course, Singapore has an easier challenge than we do in the U.S., since it’s smaller and has a vastly simpler financial system and regulatory framework (every country has a much simpler regulatory framework than the United States). When I pointed this out to Sop, though, he had a response that has been haunting me ever since. I think you’ll find it thought-provoking.

I’ll be speaking again at the MAS Fintech Festival in November and urge you to come. Last year it drew a stunning 13,000 people. This year, he thinks that could double!  That would surely make it, by far, the world’s largest financial conference. It will be an exciting place to be.

So, enjoy my conversation with Singapore’s Sopnendu Mohanty!

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We have great new shows coming up. We’ll be posting the series I recorded from the floor of the ABA’s annual Regulatory Compliance Conference, including one with Gene Ludwig and Alistair Renee of IBM’s Watson Financial on how artificial intelligence will transform compliance. In addition we’ll have Sanjay Jain, who helped build India’s revolutionary “tech stack” project to capture customer identity on more than a billion people. We’ll have the exciting startup, Petal, and we have several coming up on anti-money laundering.

Keep innovating!