Hong Kong’s WeLab eyes Southeast Asia digital banks, exporting tech services as new growth engines

WeLab, a Hong Kong-based fintech unicorn backed by billionaire Li Ka-shing, is exploring the idea of setting up digital banks across Southeast Asia and providing its technology services to conglomerates in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

The expansion plan forms part of the target the company set last year to grow its users to 500 million by 2032, according to founder Simon Loong.

“WeLab is actively exploring different opportunities in Southeast Asia markets by applying for new licences, forming partnerships with other companies and selling our technology services to other companies,” Loong said in a media briefing on Tuesday.

“With about 700 million people in Southeast Asia creating strong demand for financial technology, we believe the expansion of our digital banking services and technology export services will be the key growth engine for WeLab.”

Last August the start-up signed an agreement with HSBC to explore a partnership in Malaysia that would allow WeLab to provide its technology support to the lender’s Malaysian units.

The group’s new digital bank in Indonesia, Bank Saqu, has secured a million users since its launch in November.

Loong said the group has now served 1.7 million digital banking users in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and over 63 million customers across Asia.

“Over 60 per cent of Bank Saqu’s customers are individuals who are entrepreneurs. Many youngsters in those countries are doing part-time jobs such as food delivery, online retailing or on-demand driving services,” Loong said. “They need digital banking services to manage their online payments and the many banking transactions need.”

He believes Saqu, which means “pockets” in the local language, can go on to serve over 200 million Indonesians in the long term.

Co-­­found­ed by Loong in 2013, WeLab is a home-grown unicorn that has expanded rapidly in Hong Kong, mainland China and Indonesia in digital banking and online lending services.

The company attracted early investment from the likes of tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Tom Group, ING Bank, Sequoia Capital and Allianz Group’s digital investment unit.

Chan Ka-keung, WeLab Bank chairman and Hong Kong’s former secretary for financial services and the treasury, said the success of WeLab showcases the city’s fintech development.

“Hong Kong was the first to introduce digital banking in Asia. The successful launch of the eight virtual banks in the city has now led other Southeast Asian countries to plan to issue digital banking licences of their own,” Chan said.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority issued eight virtual bank licences in 2019 to inject innovation and competition into the industry. They started operating the following year and are not allowed to have physical branches.

They had 2.2 million customers between them last year, up 20 per cent from 2022, according to the HKMA. The authority plans to rename virtual banks as “licensed digital banks” to boost confidence.

“Hong Kong is successful in promoting fintech and digital banking because our government, regulators and industry players work together to introduce new policies to promote the sector,” Chan said.

WeLab applied to list its shares in Hong Kong in July of 2018 before shelving the plan because of market volatility. Loong has no intention of trying again in the near future.

“We want to wait until the initial public offering markets improve further, and we also want WeLab to grow further before we will consider it,” he said.

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