MS Explains: Why Singaporeans Queue For ‘New Notes’ Every CNY
Singaporeans love to queue. We queue for food, for the newest Apple product, and every Lunar New Year, some of us queue for new bank notes.
The popularity of this phenomenon can be seen every year, when local banks UOB, OCBC, and DBS launch their Lunar New Year pop-up ATMs for new or “fit-for-gifting” notes.
This is compounded by the fact that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) issues around 100 million new notes annually for festive gifting.
The pop-ups are always a crowd-puller, drawing long snaking queues — especially on the first day — with people of all ages rushing to get their hands on the fresh, crisp notes.
DBS’ pop-up ATMs, for instance, were introduced in 2015 and have been a hit ever since. It was reported that there were 450,000 transactions at the POSB pop-up ATMs in 2020 during that year’s festive season.
This begs the question: What drives Singaporeans to continue to queue for new notes without fail?
This is despite the fact that the smart nation is one of the most technologically and digitally advanced countries in the world.
Explaining the culture of gifting new notes
According to experts MS News spoke to, deep-rooted customs and traditional values may be one of the reasons driving this enduring phenomenon.
Dr Pamela Goh, a lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), shared that the Lunar New Year marks a new beginning when there is a new moon. She said:
Part of the New Year’s culture includes many other long-standing norms, such as spring cleaning to clear the bad from the previous year and make way for a fresh, clean beginning of another.
As the concept of making space for the new and clean is ingrained in Chinese culture, people would jump at the opportunity to obtain new cash notes — all to start the new year on a good note (pun unintended).
“It is about doing as much as one can to fulfil the concept of welcoming a brand new year with new things and beginnings,” said Dr Goh.
Similarly, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology of National University of Singapore (NUS) Tan Ern Ser explained that CNY is about doing a reset and discarding the bad.
It is also a time to herald “a great start for the coming year in terms of luck, fortune, happiness, health, wealth, prosperity and everything good in abundance”.
Gifting new notes in red packets is a way to invite these good things and start the year on the right footing, added Prof Tan.
Queuing for new notes may be due to herd mentality
Another possible reason for this desire for new cash notes can be attributed to the human tendency for herd behaviour, Dr Goh said.
This refers to “an alignment or convergence of thoughts and behaviours of everyone in a certain group”, or simply, a need to conform to the opinions and ways of a large group.
“Humans tend to emulate the actions and opinions of others especially if there is some kind of benefit, whether real or perceived, to obtain from it,” said Dr Goh.
“Even more so if this benefit comes by only when we imitate other people’s actions, and we would be at a ‘disadvantage’ if we do not do so.”
She noted that new notes might not be as important to the receivers of the red packets as they are always on the “winning end”.
After all, new notes or not, they are still receiving money.
There is more pressure on the givers due to the “influence of a long-standing culture and behaviours of others”.
Although there are long queues at these ATMs, some Singaporeans do not share this mentality.
25-year-old Ashley Wong told MS News that her family has never been too particular.
“To my parents, notes from any ATM is new,” said the content creator. However, they do still check the notes they’re gifting for stains and pen ink.
Her aunts who are in their 60s, however, are more “nitpicky” and have said that they prefer brand new notes.
Ms Wong attributes this phenomenon to “saving face” — where people try to avoid looking bad in front of others.
Digital age challenges traditional way of gifting money for CNY
That said, Prof Tan noted that these practices are not set in stone — especially in the digital age where people are starting to use digital transfers.
Similarly, OCBC has an e-Ang Bao option that allows users to schedule their gift for a later date. DBS also has an eGift and QR Ang Bao as digital and phygital alternatives.
In 2023, DBS observed a “growing preference” among its customers for these eco-friendly and convenient gifting solutions.
Generally, the digital gifting trend recorded robust growth, with more than S$15 million gifted via DBS QR Gift and eGift during CNY. This was a 30% increase from the previous year.
Digital gifting was most popular among married couples without children and young singles between 17 and 34, said the bank.
A DBS spokesperson told MS News that although demand for new notes will always be there among a more senior group, there is a shifting trend.
Last year, the highest uptick in digital gifting was observed among seniors above 62 years old. There was a 25% increase in senior customers using the QR Ang Bao and/or eGift.
The average amount gifted via digital alternatives was S$50.
Whether physical or digital, it’s unlikely that receivers of red packets will complain.
As surmised by Prof Tan: “What matters is not the newness of the notes, but the amounts received, digital or real cash.”
Still, it’ll be a long while before traditions erode, judging by the reception towards the pop-up ATMs. On 24 Jan, The Straits Times (ST) reported snaking queues at two POSB pop-up ATMs — the first day the new notes were made available.
This is despite the MAS issuing a statement urging people to choose the more sustainable fit-for-gifting notes for Chinese New Year instead of getting new notes from banks.
One 75-year-old retiree shared with ST that she had queued at the same ATM for the past seven years.
Another UOB customer that MS News spoke to shared that he had been withdrawing new notes from the bank for eight years every Lunar New Year.
When asked why he used new notes, he said: “Because it’s [the] New Year. New Year the tradition is new note.”
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