Dying notes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2012, 12:00am


My wallet has never been emptier - and that is just how I like it. Within its folds and pockets are five plastic cards, each arranged according to how often they get used. Rarely is there any cash. The reason is simple: I detest it.

Coins and banknotes are a nuisance for visually impaired people like me. Although Hong Kong has taken the unusual step of making each a different shape or size so that they are easier to identify, there remain challenges and difficulties with their use. Single notes still have to be verified by a sighted person, and ATM and vending machines negotiated. But whether someone can see or not, physical money has a host of other drawbacks that cry out for its consignment to history.

American journalist David Wolman lays them bare in his book, The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers - and the Coming Cashless Society. Cash, he points out, cannot be traced or insured, is central to tax evasion and criminal activity, is literally dirty, being covered in germs, and costs a lot to make (about 1per cent of gross domestic product by some estimates). Replace it with electronic currency and there would be less crime and corruption and better-funded government. Throw in one last matter - that it is inconvenient to get for those of us too lazy to go to the bank - and there is a convincing argument to bring on the inevitability of its demise that much quicker.

Wolman tried to get by without cash for a year and, with a few notable exceptions, succeeded. I have been doing the same for a few months now without a problem, although I have to revert to coins if I want to shop for fruit and vegetables in the wet market. Still, the manner in which our city has embraced credit and Octopus cards and Electronic Payment Services (EPS) is impressive. Even the smallest fast-food shop has a way of conveniently taking our money.

But society cannot go truly cashless without converting the holdouts, my octogenarian mother chief among them. That will be challenging as her generation believes that money has to be physically seen to be believed and that ATMs cannot be trusted to hand it over. My father lived his life without credit cards and cheque books, paying for everything with cash. The day he bought a new car is stuck firmly in my mind; at the bank, he waved off the manager's suggestion of a cheque in favour of bundle after bundle of crisp notes, which he stuffed into a brown paper bag for the journey to the Mazda showroom.

Only paying for what you can afford is a good policy, but that does not require cold, hard cash to accomplish. Sensible shopping habits and, if your finances are complicated, software or a mobile phone app, ably keep electronic payments within budget. Apart from those trips to the wet market or times when a taxi is necessary, the only occasion I can think of cash in hand being crucial is at a casino. Gambling and credit cards, to my mind, are not good partners.

I admit that when I think of money, it is piles of coins and notes. Changing that mental image is what will take us over the edge into the cashless age. That will take time and experience and some cultural shifts. When I am able to hand out lai see electronically, I will know that the cashless society has finally arrived.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post