The line was about a dozen people long. The window counter was still shut. Those in line were either looking at their phones or looking away from the street, lest they saw somebody they knew.
As I walked by the line outside the pawn shop, I pretended to look at my phone, lest I made eye contact with someone I knew.
I couldn’t help but notice two people from the kampung. They must have noticed me too, because in an instant, we silently ‘agreed’ to not notice each other. This was mid last year, after the first Movement Control Order (MCO).
Despite its proximity to Kota Kinabalu, Pekan Putatan is still the commercial hub for people in the surrounding villages, including the one I grew up in. It is where people go to use the automated teller machines (ATMs), do their ASB (Amanah Saham Bumiputera) business, transfer, or receive money, and pawn their belongings.
Some work in Kota Kinabalu, some at the nearby airport, and many are only informally employed.
A year later, after the internet service in my village was stable enough to work from home and conduct remote learning, my family and I decided to spend a few months at my parents’ home.
Every now and then, I would go to Putatan for supplies. The line outside the pawn shop was gone, but a longer line outside Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN) across the street had formed.
People were lining up for the government aid scheme. The crowd was more relaxed, and a few even called me out to say hello as I walked by.
I used to work in an area of finance that compelled me to read Bloomberg News in the morning for updates, and the Financial Times in the evening, for reflection. I enjoyed this part of my life, but trips back to Sabah always remind me that finance should also serve people who rarely feature in the business pages.
Banks and financial institutions are rapidly digitalising and offering more fintech-driven products. Despite this, the digital divide that mirrors the larger economic inequalities between communities, states and urban and rural areas, is still significant.
This is where institutions such as BSN and the post office still play a crucial role in providing communities with important financial services.
K, a childhood friend, does odd jobs and makes traditional kuih for a living and earns sporadic income, which means he only has phone credit and internet when he can afford it.
He pays the important bills in a fixed amount – RM50 for electricity no matter how short that is from the actual bill.
When I saw him outside BSN that day, he was lining up for government aid and to pay his electricity bill. He is grateful that he is able to get the aid from a BSN counter without having to open a bank account – something that is overwhelming and intimidating for him.
The services offered through internet banking have made our lives so much easier. Take bill payments or ASB deposits for example – all can now be done within seconds, using your smartphone.
But there are people who are still far from enjoying such progress in banking and technology.
In places such as Kampung Lohan Ranau, or Kapit, the use of small denominated coins is far more prevalent than the request for a transaction authorisation code (TAC) number, and gold is a physical heirloom that can be sold in times of need, instead of buying and selling contracts executed at the touch of your fingertips from a mobile application.
I believe this is true in my kampung even if we are only 20 minutes away from Kota Kinabalu.
For people in remote towns like Telupid, Sabah, and Belaga, Sarawak, the local BSN or agent is the connection to the son or daughter working in a factory in Kulim or Singapore.
It is where you go to deposit or take out RM10 from your ASB without feeling self-conscious. It is where a farmer saves her money after selling vegetables because the agent is right there behind the tamu market.
It is a pillar of numerous rural communities.
Whether these communities will change in the future remains to be seen, but for now, I am glad BSN is there to serve them.
This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.