Singapore’s GovCash’s use of facial recognition tech wins accolades

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

At SGTech and IMDA’s Techblazers Awards, Singapore’s Central Provident Fund won an award for innovatively leveraging emerging technologies. GovInsider speaks to the team to learn more about how their innovative solutions make it easier for citizens to receive government payouts.

Singapore’s Central Provident Fund’s use of facial recognition technology to disburse cash wins awards. Image: Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC)

For the unbanked in Singapore, receiving government payouts can be as easy as heading to an OCBC ATM machine and entering a payment reference number to receive the cash. 


Even without a bank account at OCBC, these citizens can withdraw their government benefits in cash thanks to an initiative by the agency that administers the national social security savings scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board, and the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).


At this year’s Techblazers Awards, the GovCash initiative was awarded the “Best Adoption Award”, which recognises organisations that have leveraged emerging technologies to improve user experience and embrace digital transformation. 


“The team was ecstatic, honoured and humbled, all at the same time! We are heartened to be recognised for our effort and innovation, which is rooted in CPF Board’s cultural attributes of being agile, bold, customer-obsessed and data-smart,” said Seetoh Ee Mun, Senior Deputy Director of the Finance Operations & Treasury Department at CPF.


“We would also like to express deep appreciation for our partners, GovTech and OCBC, whose expertise in their respective domains was invaluable in the process of envisioning and delivering the product.”


GovInsider speaks to the team behind GovCash to learn more about the initiative.

Phasing out cheques


Countries in Asia-Pacific such as Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand have decided to phase out cheques by this decade and Singapore is no exception. The Monetary Authority of Singapore, the country’s central bank, has decided to phase out all corporate cheques by 2025, citing falling demand and rising costs of processing.


This is why CPF had to develop alternate solutions.


“As the Centre of Excellence for Government cash disbursement to citizens, CPF Board is constantly seeking ways to future proof our operations, in particular to look for cheque replacement solutions,” says Tseng Wei Haur, Assistant Director of the Agency Schemes Governance & Planning Department to GovInsider.


While most citizens can receive government payouts through bank transfers via PayNow (a secure fund transfer service), 100 per cent coverage may not be realistic. This is why the CPF Board explored alternatives with banks and decided to develop the GovCash system.


GovCash employs GovWallet, GovTech’s digital wallet service for disbursing money and credits to citizens, as well as facial verification technology via Singpass, the country’s national digital identity platform, to authenticate citizens who wish to directly withdraw money at ATMs securely.


Now, citizens can receive all Government cash payouts, such as financial support packages, cheque-free, ahead of the Government’s plan to phase out cheques by 2025, explains Yvonne Chong, Senior Deputy Director of the Agency Schemes Management Department.


Eighty thousand citizens who previously received cheques now no longer have to wait for the delivery of cheques and queue for encashment at banks, or wait for cheques to be deposited into their bank accounts, shares Chong. This reduces waiting time by at least one day.


This also has the added benefit of reducing the agency’s carbon footprint, in line with the country’s green government plans.

Reaching the unbanked 


Citizens who would otherwise have to queue at physical bank branches during bank operating hours can now head to any of 500+ OCBC ATMs at any time of the day to withdraw payouts, using a unique payment reference number.


Less tech- savvy citizens can approach OCBC digital ambassadors at new ATM branches if they need help, or authorise third parties to withdraw money on their behalf, explains Chong.


To ensure withdrawals are secure, GovCash’s facial verification technology includes the capability to block the use of photographs, videos, or masks during the verification process. 


Tseng shares that they developed GovCash’s unique approach to cash disbursement through a pilot programme for a subset of citizens and adopting iterative design principles to tweak their solutions.


“The whole idea was to think big, start small and most importantly, act fast – from ideation to deployment, we took less than 1 year, allowing quicker harvest of the benefits,” says Tseng.


The team shares that GovCash can be scaled up to help meet the payment needs of other Government agencies.


“We are resolved to build on GovCash to continually reinvent ourselves to not only meet, but exceed the evolving needs of Singaporeans. We will continue to ask ourselves the hard questions and set bold goals to aim for, whilst maintaining the culture and supportive environment that has become an integral part of CPFB’s institutional DNA,” says Chong.