We are gathered here to remember the life of GrabPay, which today ventures boldly into the great beyond as the American Express HighFlyer and True Cashback Cards— the last two to offer rewards of any real consequence— add it to their exclusions lists.
But might I be so bold as to suggest that today should not be a day of mourning. Rather, it should be an occasion for celebration, as we remember the many fond memories that GrabPay gave us.
As a wise and and not-at-all-basic person once said:
GrabPay: A life well lived
Cast your mind back to 2017: Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of these United States. 38 Oxley Road becomes Singapore’s most coveted address. “That’s What I Like” is tearing up the charts, reminding aspiring songwriters everywhere that they don’t actually need to put all that much effort into lyrics.
And as the year draws to a close, ride-hailing firm Grab decides to dip its toes into mobile payments with the launch of GrabPay. While the ostensible focus is on bringing e-payments to cash-only merchants like hawker stalls and neighbourhood shops, miles chasers quickly figure out that it’s one heck of a deal.
GrabPay top-ups are treated like any other retail transaction by credit cards. GrabRewards’ blacklist is refreshingly minimalist, with no exclusions for education, insurance, government transactions and utilities bills. This effectively means that GrabPay users can double dip on credit card rewards plus GrabPay points on virtually all their transactions.
Initially limited to just 25 merchants, GrabPay’s acquisition team works overtime to bring that into the thousands. But the true breakthrough comes in 2019 with the launch of the physical GrabPay Card. This frees GrabPay from its digital shackles, allowing users to spend their balance at millions of physical stores that accept Mastercard.
But 2019 is also when the rot starts setting in. It starts slowly at first, with the DBS Woman’s World Card nerfing points for top-ups at the start of 2019. At the time, the news is treated with a shrug, given the preponderance of alternatives. It’s just DBS doing DBS things; aren’t these the trigger-happy killjoys who nerfed Mileslife transactions for no rhyme or reason?
Then the trend starts accelerating. BOC Elite Miles (another one for the obituary list!) excludes it in March. UOB PRVI Miles excludes it from the AMEX and Mastercard variants in November. Then in December, Mastercard drops the hammer, reclassifying GrabPay top-ups as MCC 6540 (POI Funding Transactions). This immediately nerfs it from earning rewards on all remaining Mastercards on the market, since 6540 is a near-universal exclusion.
2020 is more of the same. In March, the UOB One Card excludes GrabPay top-ups, as do most American Express cards (but not all– that becomes crucial to the story later). By this point, GrabPay users are glancing nervously over their shoulder and crossing their fingers with every top-up, praying that points appear.
Not all is lost, however; the Citi Rewards Visa still earns 4 mpd on GrabPay top-ups. Could Citi’s lackadaisical attitude towards rewards actually work in customers’ favour this time (remember, there was a whole era where Citi Rewards bonused transactions well beyond the stipulated “bags, shoes and clothes”)?
But as it turns out, Citi doesn’t have to do anything, because Visa does their job for them. In July, Visa reclassifies GrabPay top-ups as MCC 6051 (Quasi-cash merchants). It’s slightly different from Mastercard, though it doesn’t make any practical difference. Like 6540, 6051 is on the naughty list of virtually every card-issuing institution.
Mind you, it isn’t just the banks who are cracking down. While all this goes on, Grab’s profitability push turns its bean-counting eyes to GrabRewards.
There’s an almighty GrabRewards nerf in March 2020, which cuts earn rates by 60% and hikes award costs by 40%. Partner redemptions like Accor Live Limitless and KrisFlyer get devalued, without notice. Those funding GrabPay through credit and debit cards see a 50% cut in points in March 2021, before the GrabPay Card/Wallet become the only way of earning points in July 2022.
And somehow, in an act of sheer grit and determination, Grab still finds a way to make GrabRewards even worse in October 2022, when it removes points for virtually all GrabPay transactions except dining and launches a ridiculous gacha mechanic for in-store payments. You now earn anywhere from 0 to 25,000 points per transaction- how do you think that algorithm is weighted?
Yet it would be unfair to present it as all doom and gloom, because there are some bright spots along the way.
In May 2021, AXS starts accepting GrabPay once again. This proves to be a phenomenal development for anyone holding an AMEX HighFlyer Card, AMEX True Cashback or UOB Absolute Cashback Card, because they can effectively enjoy 1.8 mpd or 1.5-1.7% cashback on all bill payments, whether IRAS income tax, MCST fees, town council bills, insurance premiums, etc.
OCBC and American Express run offers of up to 6.8 mpd on GrabPay top-ups, and for a brief period, you can earn miles and cashback on CPF Special Account top-ups! There’s even whispers that MAS might increase the annual limit on e-wallets to S$100,000 in 2023, which gets miles chasers into a tizzy.
But then the pendulum swings again. In December 2022, the UOB Absolute Cashback Card cuts the cashback rate for GrabPay top-ups from 1.7% to 0.3%. In January 2023, GrabPay axes support for AXS transactions.
Then, finally, the coup de grâce: American Express announces that come 4 April 2023, the AMEX HighFlyer Card and True Cashback Card will exclude GrabPay top-ups from earning rewards. There’s a last-minute rush to top-up accounts and pay off bills, though Grab, being Grab, quietly disables insurance premium payments a few days before the deadline.
What use for GrabPay now?
With the demise of credit card rewards, is GrabPay completely useless?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is that if you squint hard enough, you can still make out some use cases:
- The UOB Absolute Cashback Card still earns 0.3% cashback on top-ups, so in situations where no rewards can be earned by other cards, paying with GrabPay/GrabPay Mastercard and getting 0.3% off is better than nothing
- GrabPay remains an important conduit for cashing out other e-wallet balances, particularly Amaze. An Amaze wallet balance cannot be transferred to a bank account, but you can top-up a GrabPay wallet with the Amaze Card, then transfer that to your bank account
I’m sure the boffins in the Telegram Group will have other uses for GrabPay, some of which may or may not skirt the boundaries of manufactured spending. However, for the vast majority of individuals, there’s little point in bothering with GrabPay anymore.
The fact of the matter is that GrabPay is now so established that its main attraction can be convenience rather than rewards. That’s why it can get away with offering a pittance even to regular users- I use GrabFood and rides on a daily basis, yet my status keeps dropping because I’m not using it the “right” way. Yet Grab is so entrenched into my daily routine that I can’t imagine abandoning the platform altogether.
And that, really, is the end game.
At first, GrabPay was a no-brainer, because you earned credit card rewards for topping up your balance, and GrabRewards points for spending it.
Then, GrabPay was an option, because you could use it for certain scenarios where credit cards didn’t earn rewards.
Now, GrabPay is an irrelevance- at least if you’re interested in earning rewards.
As the average Greek philosopher Mediocrities once said, “meh”.