BANGKOK – While United States regulators are still trying to figure out how to think about cryptocurrencies, Thailand’s government is already mapping out its own central bank digital currency.
This is just one of numerous examples how Thailand has emerged as one the most interesting cryptocurrency and blockchain countries in Southeast Asia in 2018.
Since the start of the year, the Thai government has become increasingly outspoken and welcoming of cryptocurrency projects and exchanges. In just a few months, Thai regulators have made notable progress, from setting up cryptocurrency company licenses to permitting exchanges and ICOs. More importantly, the country has attracted foreign companies by providing clear and explicit guidelines for foreign blockchain companies to operate.
It’s a pattern that we are seeing across Southeast Asia, and one that blockchain and cryptocurrency startup founders should take note as they think about global expansion.
Southeast Asia regulators are keen to understand cryptocurrency and blockchain
To understand how a small country like Thailand can move so quickly in the blockchain space, it’s crucial to understand the strategy of regulators and local companies. Unlike their U.S. peers, most Asian blockchain companies and exchanges work with local regulators right from the beginning, even as they are first building their products and growing their communities. These teams use formal and informal relationships to get buy-in from their respective local governments in order to bolster their credibility. This pattern is particularly true for Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand.
However, it isn’t just startups that are trying to curry ties with government officials – these relationships work in both directions. Take for example Pundi X, which is a technology company building out a blockchain-based point of sale solution in Southeast Asia and globally.
Its CEO, Zac Cheah, is Malaysian and local to the Southeast Asia region, and discussed with me how regulators are engaging with the startup community:
I think government is morphing and changing and many governments that we know are not you know exactly the ones that we say that are lagging behind. They, in fact, have like people, young or not so young people, that are very knowledgeable about what is happening right now. So in fact sometimes when we go to core blockchain meetups, we actually see some very core people from the regulatory side […] they know that this will change the landscape a lot so I think they are trying to think through the, if I may, the ‘tokenomics’ of how they want to get involved.”
No longer Thaied up in Regulation
These types of regulatory engagements are encouraging signs for the region and particularly for Thailand, where regulators have been working quickly to provide a legal path for blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies.
In June, Thailand’s government legalized seven cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin cash, Ethereum classic, Litecoin, Ripple, and Stellar). It has also permitted a limited number of cryptocurrency exchanges and broker-dealers to apply for operating licenses. Then in July, the Thailand SEC permitted additional digital token issuers to file for applications.
In the same month, the securities regulator categorized ICOs into three types: investment tokens, utility tokens, and cryptocurrency. As should be clear from this timeline, the speed at which these regulators execute decisions has surpassed that of most countries in the West as well as the rest of Asia.
Part of that speed is that in Thailand, regulators have shown an openness to knowledge exchange. For example, recently the Thailand SEC held a dialogue with Vitalik Buterin and the OmiseGo team on the status of exchanges and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). For Thailand, having a local, knowledgeable, and well-established team such as Omise is very helpful to building a clear regulatory environment for companies.
In fact, we are seeing foreign companies already starting to gravitate towards Thailand’s crypto opportunity, with both Western and Eastern businesses seeking opportunities in the country. In early July, Bithumb, the second largest cryptocurrency exchange in Korea, announced that it plans to open in Thailand after receiving the required regulatory approval from the local government.
IBM and Krungsri, one of Thailand’s largest financial institutions with 8.6mn credit cards, sales finance, and personal loan accounts, announced a five-year $140 million engagement to build out digital banking, including blockchain technology. The crypto momentum will likely continue in Thailand, and more announcements and developments should come in the second half of the year.
Not only has it become open to private cryptocurrency companies, but the Thailand government is also testing its own blockchain technologies. For example, it has allowed the Thai Bond Market Association to create a “BondCoin,” a custom token on a private blockchain between permissioned participants including issuers and investors alongside regulators and registered firms.
Then just last week, Bank of Thailand (BOT) outlined a preliminary roadmap for ‘Project Inthanon,’ its central bank digital currency (CBDC) initiative. This is following similar projects initiated by other central banks, including the Bank of Canada, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Monetary Authority of Singapore. BoT plans to work with eight participating banks to start building a prototype.
The announcement of Project Inthanon says: “The BOT and the participating banks will collaboratively design and develop a proof-of-concept prototype for wholesale funds transfer by issuing wholesale Central Bank Digital Currency (Wholesale CBDC).”
Phase 1 of Project Inthanon will involve development and testing of key payment features such as a liquidity-saving mechanism and risk management. It is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2019, and its outcome will be very telling of Thailand’s progress in Southeast Asia.
Building Strong Local Thais?
For new companies going into the region, it may become increasingly more difficult to enter. Traditionally, a large part of doing business successfully in many parts of Asia requires forming the right connections and business relationships. As the blockchain space evolves, regulators are establishing more stringent requirements and higher standards to accept additional tokens and exchanges into the country. They’ll likely be influenced in their decisions by existing teams that they already have a relationship with. That dynamic is something cryptocurrency companies should think about as they build out their communities in Asia, as the most established countries may not necessarily provide the most opportunities.
One positive though is that we are still in the relatively early stage of adoption in Southeast Asia, and every country in the blockchain adoption phase is at different stages. A healthy competition between Southeast Asian nations is still brewing, which may benefit newcomers. That said, the strategies used to enter one of these markets will almost certainly change and mature compared to when these opportunities were very green.
In the long run, it’s very possible for many cryptocurrency and blockchain companies to develop a codependency with their respective local government. This doesn’t just apply to Thailand and Asia but to the rest of world too. Each region’s regulators will want to further advance their own interest and form allies with local token companies. So for a project that is thinking globally, forming too close of a relationship with a small set of regulators may pull the company in directions that it otherwise would not want to.
Ultimately, for a cryptocurrency company going into any foreign markets, it is important for one’s team to have a multi-country strategy to avoid developing biases and become overly influenced by one local government. However, to succeed locally, the teams on the ground will also have to be very deeply knowledgeable and experienced in understanding the business culture and regulatory environment there.
As Thailand proves, the ground is changing rapidly on which countries are most open for blockchain and cryptocurrency business, and adapting to these changing market dynamics is critical to the success of startups and companies in the space.
By Joyce Yang