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We look at 5 contenders in Malaysia’s super app marathon—2021’s winner is clear

When I went abroad for my studies in 2018, digital wallets weren’t all that popular in Malaysia. I remember seeing stores accept Alipay and Touch ‘n Go eWallet transactions, but there wasn’t widespread use of it yet.

But when I came home at the end of 2020, I was shocked to discover just how incentivised e-wallets had become. So many cashbacks, rebates, discounts, and coupons were offered.

I was overwhelmed with all the different promotions and reward programmes from all the different apps. So, one question struck out to me: which app is the best?

What is a super app?

The term “super app” was first coined back in 2010 by BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis, and he defined it as a closed ecosystem of many apps. This means that a super app is basically an integrated application that provides a variety of different services and offerings in a seamless manner.

Today, the front-running apps in Malaysia that fall into this category include Grab, Shopee, Touch ‘n Go eWallet, Boost, and, more recently, airasia Super App.

These super apps have made their way into public consciousness through excelling in a particular area—specifically, Grab first launched as a ride-hailing service, Shopee as a platform for online shopping, Touch ‘n Go eWallet for toll systems, Boost with its e-wallet, and AirAsia is, of course, most famous for being a renowned airline company.

As we know, though, one criterion of being a super app is that each of these apps must offer a plethora of services. Grab not only offers ride-hailing, but it also delivers food, packages, groceries, and even home services that you can pay for through its GrabPay e-wallet.

Shopee has also expanded beyond e-commerce to deliver food and groceries while also offering its own e-wallet.

ShopeeFood’s UI when we reviewed its services here

Touch ‘n Go eWallet now also acts as a popular e-wallet that aggregates a bunch of other third-party services. Like Touch ‘n Go eWallet, Boost has also broadened its scope by offering third-party services such as online shopping, food delivery, insurance, and even investment services.

And now, airasia Super App has joined the chat. The airline company has been strongly marketing the app as “The ASEAN Super App” in hopes that it will take off in the region.

The company has been making moves by acquiring Gojek’s Thai business and the food delivery service DeliverEat in Malaysia, and it has also started its e-hailing services in Malaysia.

The airasia ride team at launch / Image Credit: airasia ride

With AirAsia jumping in, the super app marathon in Malaysia has become more serious than ever before, and it sure is one worth watching.

What’s the best super app in Malaysia, and why?

Based on the scope, funding, and popularity of these super apps, there is a particular app that is clearly leading the race—the Grab super app. How did we get to this conclusion?

Scope:

Firstly, when it comes to its primary e-hailing business, Grab dominates the market. There are a few other companies in the market for ride-hailing, but Grab is always the go-to.

“Taking a Grab” has become synonymous with getting a ride. There are even specific designated drop-off and pick-up points for Grab cars all over the country.

Grab has fulfilled its core business exceptionally well, and arguably, the same can’t be said for all the other contenders.

On this firm foundation, Grab has further grown to cover an enormous bandwidth of services. The categories of services as listed on their website includes food, transport, mart, delivery, pay, airtime, hotel, rewards, gifts, and insurance. 

Compare this to Boost and Touch ‘n Go eWallet, which are mostly just used for their wallet features.

Downloads:

Sure, Shopee has also been growing exponentially, but Grab has substantially more downloads.

According to the approximated number of installs on the Google Play Store, Grab has been installed more than 100 million times while Shopee is sitting on a figure of just over 10 million.

Both airasia Super App and Touch ‘n Go eWallet are also reported to have over 10 million downloads, while Boost has over 5 million downloads. Although these numbers don’t accurately reflect the current usage rates for each app, it’s still a noteworthy statistic.

Branding:

Lately, Shopee has also been bolstering its brand by hiring big names such as Jackie Chan as well as K-Pop acts like TWICE and Blackpink to be its ambassadors.

This isn’t to say Grab isn’t focusing on its brand and reputation, though. Throughout the pandemic, Grab has been determined to showcase its support for communities through various efforts.

According to its 2020 Social Impact Report, it dedicated US$40 million to relief initiatives across Southeast Asia, which helps people see it as a friendly, supportive corporation.

Arguably, airasia Super App also has a very strong branding as it is a household name in Malaysia due to the eponymous budget airline.

However, just because it’s well known doesn’t mean it’s well regarded. AirAsia’s losses, such as AirAsia Japan’s bankruptcy, might leave a bad impression that affects the usage of its super app.

Funding:

According to Crunchbase, Grab has raised a total of US$12.5 billion in funding. Shopee’s parent company, Sea, has garnered US$8.6 billion.

But the fact is that both Shopee and Grab are still not turning over a net profit. Shopee’s parent company went public on the New York Stock Exchange back in 2017—though Chinese tech giant Tencent is the main beneficiary of the listing.

Grab’s upcoming moves will also make it a global player. It is preparing to list shares in the US after merging with the US-listed Altimeter Growth Corp. This merger will allow Grab to focus on its growth in Malaysia and beyond. From scope to branding to funding—Grab has got it all down pat. 

With strong foundations and abundant support, Grab will no doubt be able to see its ambitious plans through.

For now, the other super apps don’t come quite close. TNG Digital has RM3 billion (about US$700 million) in funding, while Boost Holdings reportedly has US$70 million. Crunchbase reports that AirAsia has total funding of US$145.7 million.

Right now, it looks there’s only more growth in store for Grab, which is why we’d consider it the leading super app in Malaysia.

But who’s to say no one will end up overtaking it down the road? Perhaps Shopee will manage to pull through in the last lap, or airasia Super App will quickly turn the tide despite being late to the game. So far though, Grab is comfortably setting the pace up ahead.

What’s the app for you?

Although Grab is winning this super app marathon, it doesn’t mean it’s the perfect fit for everyone. If you don’t usually get your food delivered or you drive yourself everywhere, then the plethora of features Grab offers could be overwhelming.

Maybe you just want to use a simple e-wallet app. That’s what I thought at the beginning, which is why I chose to download Touch ‘N Go eWallet when I first came home. In America, super apps aren’t a thing yet, and they might never be.

There, Postmates is for food, Venmo is for transferring money to friends, and Uber is for when you need a ride. I had gotten accustomed to that kind of mindset, so I thought it was weird to have so much packed into a single app.  

Eventually, though, I began to see the appeal of having everything streamlined, especially when you’re rewarded with points.

Right now, I’m slowly stacking up my points on Grab so that I reach that glorious Platinum tier which will get me priority allocation, more discounts, and an accelerated earn rate.

But sometimes I do wonder how much energy and time I actually save by just using one app. I mean, it only takes a couple of seconds to exit and app and go to another. Is a super app really that much more efficient?

Are super apps here to stay?

Certainly, all the signs are pointing to yes, but we all know disruptive innovations can sometimes come without warning.

Still, the ethos and notion of super apps definitely track well with the trends of our current society. These applications reflect the globalised and digitalised reality where humans want a streamlined, integrated experience.

But when it finally becomes clear that Grab—or any other super app—has won the marathon, what does it mean for us? Will we have to confront the drawbacks of a monopoly? Discuss the evils of a giant big corporation?

Well, no matter what the future may hold, one thing is clear: this robust super app showdown has highlighted Malaysia’s innovative and economic capabilities, marking the beginnings of a technological or innovative heyday in Malaysia.

And right now, we’re looking at Grab to continue setting an example while waiting to see if the others will pull ahead anytime soon.

  • You can read more opinion pieces from us here.

Featured Image Credit: Bloomberg / Forbes

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