The first question that races to mind, if you are stuck at a cashier today, would be whether you can pay by other means. Visa card? Thankfully, yes. Cash, too.
The Nets outage this afternoon, which lasted nearly two hours, took many consumers and merchants by surprise because it hardly goes down.
This is likely the first time in decades, reported The Straits Times, that its cashless payment services were down in such a fashion.
The problem was not due to a cyber attack and no personal data was lost, the Nets folks were quick to point out. Quite rightly, it is their job to reassure people.
Instead, it was a “connection module” that connected Nets to the other banks that had failed, according to The Straits Times. It had to be reset.
The authorities have already started asking questions and expect a detailed explanation. Though two hours may cause widespread inconvenience, the fortunate thing is that services resumed quickly enough.
That’s the thing about a digital service in a cashless, smart nation. When it works, nobody gives two hoots about it. When it goes down, taking with it the certainty of everyday life in a connected society, you can expect an uproar.
The bad news is that things will get more complicated as we plug in more “modules” and add more features to our payment systems. Things will get more complex, not less.
The EFTPOS (Electronic Fund Transfer at Point of Sale) system that faced problems today is 30 years old. All this time, it has served people well by being largely reliable, accurate and fast. That’s the minimum requirement for any electronic payment system.
As Singapore tries to go cashless, the challenge will be building systems that are just as robust, if not more so, even as they become more complex. If you tell people to forego the hassle of cash, you have to ensure that your cashless option is always available.
The irony of the Nets downtime today is that it reminds everyone how easily we take for granted things that work seamlessly in the background.
Future systems may be newfangled and cool, but they are also vulnerable as they become more interconnected. They will not win people over if they cannot be trusted to run without problems, at least for decades at a stretch.