The Big Read: As banks go big on digital banking, spare a thought for seniors left behind
SINGAPORE — In the past five years, Madam Sangeeta Singh, 71, has seen more counters at the bank branch she frequents in Toa Payoh being replaced by automated machines.
- In the lead-up to Chinese New Year, long queues were spotted outside local banks and many in the line were seniors
- TODAY’s interviews with 10 seniors found that despite the push to digital banking that was accelerated by the pandemic, many still feel left behind
- As transactions essential to everyday life become increasingly automated in recent years, some seniors said they feel increasingly inadequate to perform basic banking tasks online
- Instead, they have to constantly ask their loved ones for help
- Banks said given the rapidly ageing society in Singapore, many of its initiatives were rolled out with seniors in mind
SINGAPORE — Retired engineer Choo Boon Hock, 72, has an internet banking account, but the only time he used it left him utterly frustrated when he found himself “going in circles” with a chatbot.
He typically asks his son for help if he needs to transfer funds urgently, but if the transaction can wait, he would rather do it at the bank himself.
He also likes to update his passbook every week, something he was doing on top of getting new notes to use for hongbao during Chinese New Year, when TODAY spoke to him this week at the DBS Bank branch in Hougang.
“I don’t mind the journey because every week I come to the bank to update this book…so that I know how much money I have left,” the Hougang resident said, pointing to his passbook.
Like Mr Choo, housewife Siti Rosmawati Rosli, 68, also prefers the human touch.
“Sometimes when the officers ask me questions in English and I don’t understand, I just nod my head and say yes,” said the Yew Tee resident with a chuckle.
“Sometimes (the officer) can see that I don’t understand and they would ask ‘Aunty are you sure?’ and explain it to me again.
“Can you imagine if I use the (automated teller) machines?”
In the lead-up to Chinese New Year, long queues had been spotted outside local banks and many in the line were senior citizens.
TODAY’s interviews with 10 seniors who had gone to various bank branches, mostly to withdraw and change money and update their passbooks, found that many feel like they have been left behind amid the big push towards digital banking, which has been accelerated by Covid-19.
As transactions essential to everyday life become increasingly automated in recent years, the seniors — who were raised in the age of passbooks and real bank tellers — said that they feel increasingly inadequate to perform basic banking tasks online and have to constantly ask their loved ones for help.
Banks' closures of branches or cutting down on the number of counters in existing branches as part of their push for digital banking have also caused further frustration to seniors such as Madam Sangeeta Singh, 71.
In the past five years, Madam Singh has seen more counters at the DBS Bank branch she frequents in Toa Payoh being replaced by automated machines.
This has made it stressful for the retired teacher every time she goes to the branch to do banking transactions.
“They close more and more counters, and the queues get longer and longer, especially during festive periods,” said Mdm Singh.
“Then you have (bank) officers telling me to use the machines so I don’t need to queue so long. But I don’t want to tell a machine what to do with my money.”
While seniors such as Mr Choo are still holding on to the booklet, the pandemic has undoubtedly led to a higher level of digital banking adoption among the silver generation.
OCBC Bank said that between 2019 and 2020, seniors who adopted its PayNow feature for funds transfers increased threefold.
The bank said that seniors aged 60 and above make up one-third of its customers who walk into its branches.
Rival bank UOB said the number of seniors who used its PayNow feature rose eight times from December 2019 to December 2022.
Still, the majority of seniors interviewed by TODAY said they hardly use their mobile and internet banking without assistance.
One common worry they had was clicking on the wrong buttons or misunderstanding something that would lead to financial loss due to fraud.
Their fears about being a fraud target are indeed justified: Last year, 790 OCBC customers lost a total of S$13.7 million in a high-profile phishing scam case.
The bank had said in January 2022 that about 80 per cent of the amount lost was during the year-end festive period and those who fell prey had provided their online banking log-in credentials and one-time PINs to phishing websites, enabling the scammers to take over their bank accounts and make fraudulent transactions.
One senior who almost fell victim to a phishing scam was Ms Siti, 62.
The administrative assistant, who declined to give her full name, said she had signed up for membership at an appliance store after buying a microwave and by coincidence, she received a link asking her to fill up her particulars on the same day.
Assuming it was the store asking for the details again, Ms Siti then told her niece to fill up the form for her, only to be told that it was possibly a scam as the phone number was foreign.
Ms Siti, who rarely uses internet banking to begin with, said she was so spooked by the incident that she deleted her banking app, and would get her niece to carry out online transfers on days she prefers not to make exhausting visits to the bank.
MORE BRANCHES CLOSED BUT SUPPORT FOR SENIORS APLENTY
The rise of digital banking means that customers can easily manage their cash, invest in a wide range of digital wealth products, open bank accounts, and apply for credit cards, home loans and personal loans without going physically to the bank branches.
OCBC Bank’s head of Global Consumer Financial Services Sunny Quek said that with branch footfall falling 10 per cent year on year, it had closed an average of two branches per year in the last five years.
Branch footfall saw its steepest drop of 60 per cent during the circuit breaker period from April to June 2020, when the Government imposed movement restrictions to curb the Covid-19 pandemic and the bank had to close half of its branches.
The bank said it ensures that its branches are within or near major town centres, so those that have closed were in locations where other branches already serve the community.
OCBC currently has a network of 30 branches, three FRANK stores, which cater to young adults, and nine Premier and Premier Private Client Centres in Singapore, its exclusive wealth management platform.
OCBC did not say what was the peak number of branches it had before it started closing some of them.
UOB said that while it had closed 10 branches over the last five years, it also opened 11 new ones and relocated five. The bank currently has 59 branches islandwide.
Mr Benny Chan, managing director of UOB’s Group Channels and Digitalisation, said transactions at its branches dipped by about 40 per cent in the last five years, with cash transactions, funds transfers and bill payments declining more significantly as more customers go online.
DBS Bank, in its response to TODAY’s queries, did not say how many bank branches it had closed in recent years.
Ms Lui Su Kian, chief operating officer of DBS Bank’s Consumer Banking Group in Singapore, said that its 1,300 self-service machines can now perform the top five most popular over-the-counter transactions, which make up over 80 per cent of the transactions conducted in its branches every month.
As of end of 2022, it also included nine new self-service banking services at its video teller machines (VTMs), including more complex ones such as instant passbook replacement, debit card replacements and signature updates.
VTMs offer customers the option to speak face-to-face with a customer service officer.
“Together with our digital banking channels, our self-service banking services have been well-received by our customers — over 40 per cent of branch-only customers have migrated to other self-service banking channels after the branches were transformed, and more than half of our senior customers are active users of self-service machines,” said Ms Lui.
Banks told TODAY that given the rapidly ageing society in Singapore, many of their initiatives were introduced with seniors in mind.
UOB said that since June 2017, it had employed and trained a total of 364 temporary staff as “Digital Advocates” at branches to guide customers on how to use its digital banking platform.
Currently, it has 65 “Digital Advocates” deployed at 28 branches.
OCBC has the Digital Silvers programme at its heartland branches, where it conducts one-on-one training for elderly customers to learn how to bank and pay digitally and protect themselves from scams.
The bank has since seen a fivefold increase in the use of its Pay Anyone app among participants, said OCBC’s Mr Quek. The app allows users to make cashless payment and cardless cash withdrawal, among others.
DBS Bank last year also held digital literacy workshops in its branches in mature estates.
Ms Lui said the number of branch visits made by participants of its workshops fell slightly more than half between February and April last year.
Digital banking transactions performed by the same group of participants also increased by 10 per cent, she said, citing this as an example of how the workshop has helped participants embrace digital banking.
“Sometimes (the officer) can see that I don’t understand and they would ask ‘Aunty are you sure?’ and explain it to me again. Can you imagine if I use the (automated teller) machines?Housewife Siti Rosmawati Rosli, 68.”
THE DIGITAL BANKING SENIORS NEED
While banks have many programmes to help seniors adapt to digital banking, there is also a need to understand why it can be difficult for these older folks to keep up with them, said caregivers of the elderly as well as experts.
Account manager Nur Athirah Anuar, 29, said that she had taught her 72-year-old grandmother how to use internet banking more than 20 times, and every time the senior would tell Ms Athirah to send her to the bank instead.
“I think seniors need some sort of predictability and ease when banking online. The last thing they need is to be unexpectedly bounced to different channels and this can happen at the click of a button,” said Mr Nur Athirah.
Agreeing, freelance writer Judith Tan said that her 87-year-old mother still prefers to go to the branches for her banking needs as she wants to see the teller’s face to “make sure that person is not lying”.
Ms Tan, 59, said more effort needs to be put in to reassure seniors and raise confidence in the digital platforms of banks where they have parked their life savings.
“Right now, she feels very inadequate…not confident in herself. There is this fear of pressing just one button and losing S$10,000,” Ms Tan said of her mother.
Sociologist Shannon Ang of the Nanyang Technological University said the push towards digital banking without paying enough attention to the needs of seniors is not an isolated issue — it adds to the many accumulated ways in which Singapore society has moved ahead at the silver generation’s expense.
The assistant professor noted that the “common but unfortunate” view is that seniors need to be open to learning and embracing technology, and giving them the resources to learn, such as structured training courses, is seen as the solution.
“The issue with this is that ultimately the onus is placed on older adults to ‘catch up’ with the pace of businesses, banks, and other institutions.”
However, he said, this is unlikely to work as the seniors who would probably benefit most, such as those isolated, less educated and time-starved, are also likely not the ones who would use these resources.
“I think seniors need some sort of predictability and ease when banking online. The last thing they need is to be unexpectedly bounced to different channels and this can happen at the click of a button.Account manager Nur Athirah Anuar, 29, who said that she had taught her 72-year-old grandmother how to use internet banking more than 20 times.”
A better way to approach this is to shift the onus to institutions, including banks, that are trying to digitalise, said Asst Prof Ang.
These Institutions should bear the responsibility of minimising the burden that they impose on their most vulnerable users when implementing digital tools, whether it has to do with design, accessibility, cost, privacy, or the need to re-learn processes, he added.
“There must be mechanisms to enforce, compel, or incentivise institutions to be inclusive in their efforts to digitalise — institutions especially vital ones dealing with banking, health, and housing should not be able to get away with reaping the benefits of digitalisation while passing on the costs to vulnerable groups,” he said.
“At a minimum, this would mean ensuring proper pre-implementation research is done to see how specific digital tools may help or hinder older adults in their everyday lives. We seem to do this for the environment, why not for people as well?”
HOW DO WE GET THERE?
The digital divide — which has left many seniors getting the short end of the stick — has long been a subject of national concern.
In 2020, then-Nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Anthea Ong said in an adjournment motion speech that there is an urgent priority to close this divide as more needs to be done to help “digital outcasts”, such as seniors and persons with disabilities.
In response to Ms Ong’s speech, then-Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran stressed that digital inclusion has been “at the heart of the Government’s national digitalisation effort”.
Mr Iswaran said digital readiness is not just about hardware and connectivity, but also about the literacy and skills to derive its full benefit.
That is why the Government has rolled out initiatives such as the Silver Infocomm Initiative, launched back in 2007, which provides a range of programmes for seniors at different levels of digital skills and in vernacular languages to meet their needs.
On Friday (Jan 20), Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo told reporters that the Government is looking at ways to enhance digital inclusion and is in the process of consulting stakeholders.
"This will, of course, include groups that work with different communities on the ground so that we get a better sense of what more we can do to strengthen digital inclusion," she said in Davos where she was attending the World Economic Forum.
She reiterated that a priority of the Government is on building skills and capabilities so that people can get the best out of their digital engagements.
"It's how people can navigate the digital world with a sense of confidence. And confidence comes from skills," she said.
"How can we build this up and do so in a manner that doesn't rely only on the public sector’s efforts?"
““There must be mechanisms to enforce, compel, or incentivise institutions to be inclusive in their efforts to digitalise — institutions especially vital ones dealing with banking, health, and housing.Sociologist Shannon Ang”
Ms Ong told TODAY on Thursday that as Singapore charges ahead as a smart nation, there needs to be a human-centred and empathy-based approach in the design of digital services.
“If we base our planning solely on statistics and cater only to the majority segments of our customers, then we will think of those that constitute the small percentage as 'negligible' statistics.”
Ms Ong acknowledged that banks will continue to consolidate and optimise their physical branches as their customer base becomes savvier.
But banks could consider providing personalised services to those who still insist on going down physically to its branches, such as providing them with the option of booking a transport service that can take them to the branch nearest to them that is perhaps no longer within easy access, she said.
“This would make them feel less burdensome to their loved ones and therefore less excluded and disempowered, which can all contribute to their mental well-being, or lack of, in this case."
MPs of constituencies with a high concentration of seniors noted that the issue of accessing banking needs has been raised by residents themselves.
MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling said that in 2015, three banks decided to close their physical branches in her ward, which affected seniors who were very reliant on these branches for their banking needs.
Ms Tin added that it was also challenging for the seniors to travel long distances to the next branches because of their age and other physical conditions, and she and her team had to appeal to the banks several times for some support.
As a result, DBS Bank agreed to increase the number of ATMs and even went one step ahead to create a digital banking lobby with VTMs at MacPherson Community Club, said Ms Tin, adding that this helped mitigate some of the impacts.
Radin Mas MP Melvin Yong said that during the pandemic, his team launched the Silver Click! Programme in the constituency, where seniors, especially those who lived alone, were given a free tablet, a free data SIM card, and twice daily shows via video conferencing app Zoom, to help them stay connected with their neighbours as they were encouraged to stay at home.
Mr Yong added that the seniors were visited by volunteers who taught them how to use the tablet and the Zoom app, and the seniors “had no issues” learning how to do so. At its peak, Silver Click! had over 100 seniors tuning in daily.
“This goes to show that we can encourage digital adoption if seniors understand the need for, and feel comfortable using the technology.”
Mr Yong said when it comes to money and hard-earned savings, it is understandable that seniors prefer to deal with their banking needs in person.
Hence, he encouraged the banks to consider expanding video-ATM services and incorporating them into their websites and mobile applications, so that seniors can have that assurance that they are dealing with legitimate bank personnel even when done through electronic means.
Bishan-Toa Payoh MP Saktiandi Supaat urged banks to also make an effort to communicate changes made in respective branches, such as when ramping down counters or increasing the number of VTMs, to customers.
Asst Prof Ang said that measures such as retaining enough staff to offer traditional services, providing guidance on using digital tools where needed, or designing their apps and digital services with seniors in mind have merit and may solve the immediate need, but do not fully address the issue of digital inclusion of seniors.
“Instead, I think banks should do what banks do best — help to finance efforts such as in research, product design and services aimed at improving the lives of older people, including those that ensure they benefit from efforts at digitalisation.“Banks can be the financial lubricant for positive social change,” he said.