During the pandemic-era Bitcoin boom, Singapore emerged as a major player in the cryptocurrency industry, attracting entrepreneurs and investors worldwide. However, recent events have raised questions about the city-state’s crypto future.
In 2022, a $60 billion wipeout of digital coins by Terraform Labs Pte caused the Three Arrows Capital hedge fund’s unravelling, both of which were based in Singapore. This incident triggered a $2 trillion market crash, sending shockwaves throughout the crypto industry.
A month ago, a co-founder of Three Arrows Capital, Su Zhu, was arrested and jailed in Singapore for failing to cooperate with liquidators. Meanwhile, pictures of Kyle Davies, another co-founder, being led away by police captured the industry’s downfall. Both were banned for nine years from any regulated activity by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
Terraform Labs mastermind Do Kwon fled Singapore, was arrested in Montenegro, and now faces extradition to South Korea or the US on fraud charges. These events have left the crypto world in turmoil.
Singapore’s regulations have always leaned towards professional and high-net-worth investors while ensuring safeguards. The city-state managed $3.65 trillion in assets in 2022, predominantly from abroad.
MAS aims to steer clear of risky speculative trading by retail investors, such as Bitcoin and meme tokens like Dogecoin. This approach has led to a cautious approach to marketing tokens to the general public.
By next year, Singapore intends to have one of the toughest consumer protection regimes for cryptocurrencies while maintaining a facilitative approach to tokenization. Ravi Menon, MAS’s managing director, expressed this vision, emphasising the need to strike a balance between regulation and innovation.
Regulators in Singapore initiated efforts to tighten consumer protection even before the 2022 crypto market crash. They limited digital asset-related advertisements in January of that year and halted the lending of tokens to earn interest. Retail investors now face stringent suitability assessments and a possible ban on borrowing to purchase tokens.
Singapore’s strategy is to start with a light-touch approach to fintech and then adjust as risks become more significant. This approach has been evident in its handling of cryptocurrency regulation.
Crypto risks extend beyond speculative tokens. The 2022 FTX scandal revealed a multi-billion dollar shortfall that couldn’t be repaid to customers. Several FTX executives faced fraud charges, while co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried awaits a jury verdict in a New York trial. Notably, Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings Pte incurred a significant write-down on its FTX investment.
Other financial centres worldwide are also adapting to the crypto landscape. Hong Kong is reshaping its approach to protect investors while promoting digital assets. In the European Union and Dubai, new regulations are being established. The US, led by SEC Chair Gary Gensler, is clamping down on crypto, but legislative clarity remains elusive.
Despite the chaos in the crypto space, blockchain technology continues to offer opportunities to enhance the financial industry. MAS has initiated projects to explore the benefits of blockchain, such as cost savings, efficient settlements, and cross-border payments. These advancements could revolutionise financial operations.
In recent months, several major players, including Coinbase, Crypto.com, Sygnum Bank AG, Circle Internet Financial, and Ripple Labs, have secured licences in Singapore for digital payment token services. The city-state is becoming a hotspot for cryptocurrency companies.
Singapore remains a contender to become Asia’s leading crypto hub, should the industry continue to recover. Rival Hong Kong faces challenges due to an alleged fraud incident at JPEX, which has disrupted its crypto ambitions. Traditional financial institutions are also experimenting with blockchain, aiming to enhance back-office operations, manage risks, and streamline capital-market transactions. Singapore’s crypto journey is an ever-evolving story that continues to unfold.