To understand the use of blockchain technology for payments and digital money, Singapore kicked off a five-year long project known as Project Ubin.

What is Project Ubin?

Project Ubin was a Singapore research study undertaken to evaluate if blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) could be used for settling payments and securities.

The study was a collaborative effort between several important financial companies and institutions in Singapore. This includes the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), DBS, SGX, and HSBC, along with enterprise blockchain solution companies such as ConsenSys solutions and R3.

The goal of the study aimed to answer the following questions:

  1. Can Blockchain/DLT be used for payments and securities?
  2. What are the benefits of a tokenised SGD on a digital ledger?
  3. Is it a simpler, efficient alternative to the current system?

Furthermore, Project Ubin also focused on the potential of blockchain and distributed ledger technology to improve domestic transactions and cross-border payments.

When was the project launched?

The project started on November 2016 and ended in July 2020 with a research trial of almost 4 years. It was carried out in 5 different phases.

Phase 1: Creating a Tokenised SGD
Phase 2: Feasibility of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) for Real-time Settlement
Phase 3: Domestic Delivery versus Payment on DLT
Phase 4: Cross-Border Payment versus Payment
Phase 5: Enable Ecosystem Collaboration

Phase 1:

Creating a Tokenised SGD

The first phase of Project Ubin worked towards creating a working proof-of-concept to conduct payments between banks. A prototype system based on Bank of Canada’s Project Jasper was built and launched on a private Ethereum network.

Using a digital SGD called SGD-on-Ledger for the study, the first phase concluded with the feasibility of a digital dollar being used for payments and transactions.

Phase 2: 

Feasibility of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) for Real-time Settlement

Phase Two focused on blockchain technology being able to maintain banking transaction privacy and its usefulness for daily transaction settlement. Three different software prototypes were proposed by different blockchain companies, and each were evaluated based on 6 different criteria:

#1. Privacy Of Transactions

Ensuring only relevant parties will have access to the transaction data.

#2. Digitalisation of Payments

Testing the digital dollar with real-time settlement capabilities.

#3. Decentralised Processing

Resilient network with no single point of failure.

#4. Payment Queue Handling

Uniform queue systems with the ability to hold or cancel transactions.

#5. Finality

Final settlement of payments

#6. Liquidity Optimisation

Implement solutions to prevent transaction gridlock.

The prototypes were developed with three different blockchain models – Corda, Hyperledger Fabric, and Quorum. Here’s a summary of their functionality and their performance which was evaluated based on Privacy, Scalability, Resilience, and Finality (PSRF)

CORDA

  • Utilises a UTXO (Unspent Transaction Output) model
  • The system distributes the ledger on a need-to-know basis
  • Key components of the Corda design include the Corda Distributed App (CorDApp), Network Map Service, and Notary Service
  • During the evaluation phase, the system scored the following results:
    • Privacy: The algorithm renders the sender and receiver details anonymous, but the transaction amount is left visible
    • Scalability: The network can scale easily by adding new nodes
    • Resilience: The network can still operate even when a node fails
    • Finality: Transactions are resolved easily as the notary service acts as the point of finality

Hyperledger Fabric

  • Functions via a Channels design which only allow participants to have knowledge of the ledger transaction
  • A bilateral channel is created for every pair of banks in the network to maintain privacy
  • There are two multilateral channels – the funding channel and netting channel. The former allow banks to move funds, while the latter facilitates gridlock resolution
  • The key components of the system includes:
    • Chaincode: A set of codes that defines the business logic
    • Orderer: Provides a shared communication channel to clients and peers
    • Certificate Authority: Governs identity registration and certificate management
    • Fabric Peer: Receives blocks and maintains the ledger
  • During the evaluation phase, the system scored the following results:
    • Privacy: The channels act as data partitioning mechanisms and render the transaction data anonymous
    • Scalability: Banks need to maintain their own funds along with funds from MAS, which could lead to scalability issues.
    • Resilience: More orderers are needed to prevent a single point of failure
    • Finality: Conventional communications are used for transactions and the use of channels could raise issue of collusion. These issues mean the system is not fully trustless
Quorum project ubin

Quorum

  • The system is an Ethereum-based Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) and shares data on a need-to-know basis
  • Uses a Raft consensus where the leader node is assumed to be correct, and has a Zero Knowledge Security Layer (ZSL) which leverages on ZK-SNARKS to maintain a distributed and private ledger
  • During the evaluation phase, the system scored the following results:
    • Privacy: The network can only see a hash of the encrypted payload, and anyone can check the hash to know it’s trustworthy without knowledge of the transaction information
    • Scalability: The ZK-Proof algorithm would need to be improved to increase scalability
    • Resilience: The Raft consensus avoids a single point of failure in the system
    • Finality: The leader commits block to the chain and settles the finality of the transaction

While each system had its pros and cons,  the second phase demonstrated that payment transactions could be executed in a decentralised manner without compromising privacy.

Phase 3:

Domestic Delivery versus Payment on Distributed Ledger Technology (DvP-on-DLT)

In the third phase of Project Ubin, MAS collaborated with the Singapore Exchange (SGX) to explore domestic Delivery versus Payment (DvP) settlements on two separate blockchain platforms. DvP transactions are instances where the payment for a security is made before or upon its delivery.

To test the feasibility of transacting between two different blockchains, three companies proposed their own prototypes on different platforms and were evaluated based on four objectives:

  1. Interoperability between cash and securities ledgers even if they are built on separate blockchain platforms
  2. Reducing risk by enabling recovery on cash and securities ledgers
  3. Achieving of DvP settlement finality
  4. Strengthening investor confidence and enhance user experience

Undertaking the task as MAS’s technological partner, Anquan Capital put forth a prototype that uses Quorum and their proprietary permissioned blockchain for the creation of the Cash Ledger and Securities Ledger respectively.

Deloitte also proposed a similar prototype built with Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric, while Nasdaq’s prototype was built on Chain Core and Hyperledger Fabric.

After evaluating the different blockchains and their feasibility in DvP settlements, the third phase concluded with the following results:

  • Smart contracts can be used to maintain a fair and transparent marketplace
  • DLT technology can shorten the settlement process to the point where transactions are settled in real-time
  • Smart contracts can be used as arbitrators to resolve transaction disputes
  • Blockchain allow transactions to be verified without revealing the parties’ identities
  • Liquidity may be affected as smart contracts lock assets once it is executed, and it cannot be utilised or moved until the contract expires

Phase 4:

Cross-Border Payment versus Payment (PvP)

The fourth phase of the project was a collaboration between MAS, the Bank of Canada, and the Bank of England. The parties involved aimed to explore other models to enhance cross-border payments and settlements with three recommended models.

The first two models aimed to enhance the current payment systems with improved SWIFT messaging, improve local real-time gross settlements (RTGS), and allow RTGS operators to act as “super correspondents” for their member banks.

The third model focused on the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) and Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) to facilitate cross border payments with three potential outcomes propose.

Scenario #1

  • Create CBDCs that can only be transacted within their home jurisdictions
  • Each central bank provides wallets for CBDCs only in their own currency
  • This requires commercial banks to open wallets with multiple central banks for multiple currencies

Scenario #2

  • Create CBDCs that can be transacted beyond their home jurisdictions
  • Banks can have multiple wallets with their home central bank
  • For example, a bank based in Canada can hold CBDCs for Canadian dollars, pounds sterling and Singapore dollars at the same time
  • Each central bank would support multiple CBDCs.

Scenario #3

  • Create a universal CBDC that is accepted by all participating jurisdictions.
  • This model does away with multiple currencies and utilises a single token backed by multiple fiat currencies.

The study did not settle on a single model to develop further, but it provided a starting point to evaluate future models and raised questions about policies that would have to be revised to accommodate the new digital asset.

Phase 5:

Enable Ecosystem Collaboration

Project Ubin wrapped up its final phase in 2020 with the creation of the Ubin V network.

To create the blockchain network, MAS collaborated with J.P. Morgan and Accenture to develop and create a use-case for the network. The result was a network that could handle payments in different currencies and provide connectivity for digital assets.

To accommodate transactions across multiple blockchain networks, Ubin V allowed easy and open access for participants on the network. This includes currency issuers, third-party platforms, and network users.

The Ubin V network was built on the Quorum blockchain layer which was selected for its higher performance, clear payments finality, transaction privacy, and voting-based mechanism. With its development, MAS aims for it to provide:

  • Better payments connectivity between users and their platforms
  • Automated payments and processes with secure data exchange
  • More functionalities added with smart contracts

What is the next step after Project Ubin?

While Project Ubin may have come to a conclusion, there has been a number of new initiatives launched in Singapore to further pursue the use of blockchain in payments and settlements.

#1. Project Orchid

MAS sees value in exploring retail Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) in the future, and they have embarked on a technological initiative known as Project Orchid. The main aim of the project is to work with the private sector to build the infrastructure and technical know-how to issue a digital Singapore dollar.

#2. Partior Network

Partior is a joint venture by DBS Bank, JP Morgan, and Temasek. Building on the success of the Ubin Project, it enables banks to settle cross-border payments of various currencies using commercial bank digital dollars or non-retail CBDCs.

#3. Project Dunbar

Building on the ideas and recommendations of cross-border payments in Project Ubin, Project Dunbar aims to create a multi-currency platform that operates across countries using wholesale central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). The platform will be developed on DLT technologies like Corda and Quorum which were tested extensively during Project Ubin.

Plus, the project sees Singapore’s MAS working together with the Reserve Bank of Australia, Central Bank of Malaysia, Monetary Authority of Singapore and South African Reserve Bank with the Bank for International Settlements Innovation Hub to test CBDCs for international settlements.

What are your thoughts on Project Ubin, and how do you think Singapore can benefit from blockchain technology? Share it with us in the comments.

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