By Anshuman Daga and Liz Lee
SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Ride-hailing group Grab, gaming firm Razer, AirAsia, telecoms firm Axiata and lender CIMB are among companies looking to apply for digital banking licences in Malaysia, sources told Reuters.
Some of these companies have begun talking to consultancies as they explore a possible foray into digital banking, the people familiar with the matter said.
Across Asia, regulators are opening up banking to new digital players, encouraged by a boom in mobile connectivity and the prospect of tech firms - not shackled to expensive physical branches - offering low-cost financial services.
This month Singapore said it received 21 applications for five digital bank licences.
In December, Malaysia's central bank announced plans to issue up to five licences to new online banks offering either conventional or Islamic banking under a proposed licensing framework set to be finalised by the end of June.
"The path to profitability will be regional expansion in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations)," said Sivaram Krishna, who leads digital banking strategies for Accenture in Southeast Asia.
He said anyone applying for a licence in Singapore would consider seeking a licence in Malaysia as well.
"The minimum capital entry requirement is substantially lower for them and it's a much bigger market," he said.
Malaysia has said it prefers bidders whose equity is controlled by local companies.
The people said Razer - whose fintech unit led a consortium for a Singapore application - was in talks with a local conglomerate for a Malaysian licence. Local lenders Hong Leong Bank and Maybank are also considering bidding for a licence, the people said.
Razer Fintech's CEO Lee Li Meng told Reuters the company had extensive operations in Malaysia in the digital payments space and would evaluate the digital banking opportunity.
One option for Axiata is to apply through Axiata Digital Services, which houses all of the group's digital ventures and owns the e-wallet Boost. AirAsia's financial services venture, BigPay, operates an e-wallet that comes with a prepaid card.
Ant Financial and Touch n' Go's e-wallet is the largest e-wallet service in Malaysia with 6.9 million registered users. CIMB, which owns a majority stake in Touch n' Go, is exploring a licence bid, the people said.
In a report issued on Wednesday, Fitch Ratings said new entrants would be likely to target "under-served retail and small and medium-size enterprise segments, which typically have a higher risk profile and lower income".
Axiata Digital said it had signalled interest for digital banking. Grab and AirAsia declined to comment. CIMB did not respond to Reuters queries, while Ant Financial said it was too premature to comment.
Maybank declined specific comment but said that under its existing licence, it could also operate as a digital bank without having to apply for a new licence.
Under Malaysia's draft proposals, digital banks have to offer products and services to address market gaps in "under-served and unserved segments" and maintain 100 million ringgit ($24.5 million) in capital initially and ramp that up to 300 million ringgit.
($1 = 4.0730 ringgit)
($1 = 1.3499 Singapore dollars)
(Reporting by Anshuman Daga in Singapore and Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur; Additional reporting by Alun John in Hong Kong; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Barbara Lewis)