Malaysia trip, part 5 SIDEBAR: The quest for Singapore’s Bitcoin ATMs

Possibly Singapore's only surviving Bitcoin ATM

Possibly Singapore’s only surviving Bitcoin ATM

HONG KONG — As you can guess from the dateline here, I’ve come to the end of my Malaysian adventure, and I’m still running behind in talking about it. This post is a sidebar to the forthcoming narrative about my three days in Singapore. It’s about my efforts to find Singapore’s Bitcoin ATMs (plural), and finding perhaps the only surviving member of the species.

I’m still a cautious booster of Bitcoin, the computer-based “cryptocurrency” that’s been behind both scandals and successes in the financial world. For my purposes, it’s a relatively low-cost way to channel Chinese yuan from my Chinese bank account to American dollars in my US bank account. Depending on market prices, sometimes it’s a no-cost way to move money, and if you time transfers right, somewhat profitable. I move funds roughly once a month, after payday.

Usually, I use two exchanges, BTCC, which is based in China, and Coinbase, in the USA. [Coinbase is not technically an exchange, but it does permit you to move between dollars and bitcoins. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it an exchange for now.]

Buying bitcoins in China used to be a piece of cake, using a Chinese version of PayPal called Alipay, or even direct bank trasnfers. But China’s banking authorities got nervous about how much yuan was flowing into Bitcoin, and then presumably out of the country into Euros and dollars, so they added new restrictions to make obtaining Bitcoins less convenient.

Now, I knew Singapore had Bitcoin ATMs — in fact Kuala Lumpur supposedly did as well — so I decided I could skip using the BTCC exchange this time by buying bitcoins at an ATM, then sending them to Coinbase to deposit (as dollars) in my bank account.

Fun fact: Reports of Bitcoin ATM locations online are invariably out of date. This meant my grand notion of saving time by using an ATM was more a waste of time (and shoe leather) than anything else.

Just a couple of years ago, Bitcoin ATMs were All the Thing. At least three manufacturers had created user-friendly machines that accepted fiat currency (dollars, for example) and returned the equivalent amount of bitcoins to a user’s paper or smartphone bitcoin wallet instantaneously. They were marketed as the quickest way to get the average consumer into the Bitcoin universe.

In 2014 Singapore alone was reported to have four or five Bitcoin ATMs scattered around the city. Kuala Lumpur had at least two.

Two years later those numbers are, as far as I can tell, one and zero.

Well, that didn't stay long!

Well, that didn’t stay long!

On the first day of the Chinese New Year, I went to one Singapore ATM location listed as operational in 2014. I figured it was likely the ATM would be inside a shop closed for the holiday, but it was close to where I was sightseeing, so I popped over to have a look. Here’s the sign I found in the shop window at Funan Digitalife Mall (on Hill Street).

That ATM probably only stayed there a few months!

Another ATM was supposed to be in the Citylink Mall, which was easy to get to by subway, but articles online reported it had been moved from that location to the offices of Singapore’s main Bitcoin boosters — in Chinatown.

So, here’s the thing. I had just spent almost half a day in Chinatown on New Year’s Eve, taking photos, grabbing dinner and soaking up the holiday atmosphere. Had I known this ATM was within spitting distance of the Chinatown subway stop, it would have made my remaining time in Singapore somewhat more enjoyable.

Well, I found the ATM (pictured above), which was in a cubbyhole alongside the WorkLor clothing shop — then closed for Spring Festival. Gratified that I could accomplish my mission, I had the machine scan my smartphone’s bitcoin wallet QR code, put in a Singapore $100 bill and got … nothing. The machine rejected the bill. So I tried a $50. Same result. Finally, I checked the screen, which said, “Please insert $2 bills.”

Two dollars! You gotta be kidding me!

I had one $2 bill with me, put it in and this time the operation was a success, albeit quite a limited one.

The owners of this Bitcoin ATM have a Facebook page, so I sent them a message later that evening asking what was up. It turns out that they were short on bitcoins, so the machine was limited to issuing only tiny amounts. I explained that I would be leaving Singapore the following afternoon, and had planned to buy somewhat more than $2 worth of Bitcoin before I left. They promised to load the machine up, and the next morning I hopped over to Chinatown *yet again* and obtained the bitcoins I wanted.

This entire episode demonstrates both the advantages and disadvantages of Bitcoin. It’s a fairly seamless way to transfer money around, once you actually get the bitcoins in the first place. As a new technology, the infrastructure still needs to be built out.

These ATMs were marketed as the easy way to obtain bitcoins, but the initial excitement has been cooled off by tight financial regulations and the obvious perils of putting machines containing (potentially) hundreds of dollars in publicly accessible locations.

Great idea in theory. Difficult to put into effect in practice.

As for Singapore’s ATMs, their disappearance has more to do with operational issues than government regulations or theft, according to Bitcoin Singapore ATM staff. The machines have to be monitored, which takes time away from owners’ other activities, and renting space for standalone ATMs is expensive. Singapore is a Bitcoin-friendly jurisdiction (as is Hong Kong), but it’s also an expensive city to work in.

The Citylink Mall ATM was moved because the rent in the mall was too high, and the new location is closer to the owner’s “day job” office.

Ah, the vagaries of a new technology. Was the telegraph this slow to take off?

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