Smartcard revolution offers the possibility of hard cash (Birmingham Post England; 01/16/99) Singapore is probably the last place on earth where trade unions might be expected to thrive. Well, make that second last, to Britain under New Labour. But the home of rampant capitalism actually has a Trades Union Congress, with more than 150,000 active members. And the Singapore labour organisation was one of the first in the world to offer sophisticated smartcards. For some time TUC members have been able to use the same card to take money from cashpoints, borrow books from libraries and pay for phone calls. Standard Chartered's Singapore office has now teamed up with Visa to introduce a card that allows trade unionists to manage their credit payments and shop on the Internet. Soon these smartcard users will be able to cybershop for watches, books and CDs at dozens of interactive kiosks. One day you might be able to do without cash completely if plastic card issuers have their way. And smartcards may be the key. Millions of people already use plastic credit or cash cards, where personal details are recorded in a magnetic stripe as a matter of routine. But the companies that issue them are trying to persuade their clients to switch to something subtly different. Smartcards look like credit cards, but carry a microprocessor instead of a magnetic stripe. They can hold far more information and interact with computers and other machines in much more complicated ways. They can "store" money electronically, just as a bank's computer system records savings. The bits and bytes on the chip carry a digital signature unique to the holder, offer data encryption for security, and are smart enough to include functions the magnetic-striped cards lack. For example, smartcards can carry fine details of membership in discount clubs or frequent flier programmes. Their better potential for encoding means an individual card can be designed to be difficult to duplicate, hopefully stopping some whizz kid from stealing its owner's electronic banknotes. The millimetre-thick cards could turn out to be the next form of money, but do not throw away your wallet just yet. Card issuers are keen to exploit the potential benefits and are offering sweeteners like loyalty points or discounts on future purchases to entice customers to switch. Visa International says its goal is to replace its 150 million magnetic- stripe cards with 550 million smartcards by 2008. Meanwhile, it will issue hybrid cards with both magnetic stripes for machine transactions and chips for more "intelligent" applications. However, doubters note some serious problems. The wallets of smartcard aficionados are not necessarily getting thinner. Many different types are being created for different purposes; train and bus farecards, bankcards, phonecards and membership cards that open doors. Sceptics say there are too many. One single card for all purposes would be more convenient, but those involved with this latest computing revolution say that is unlikely ever to happen. Standard Chartered has pumped millions of dollars into smartcard technology in the last four years. Standard Chartered expects to see cards that serve as phonecards, subway cards and bankcards within a few years. However, managing your bank account over a mobile phone is an example of a function that must remain separate, according to Mr Jean Claude Deturche, marketing manager of credit card maker Schlumberger. Three banks and three telecommunications' operators in Hong Kong will launch such systems soon, where mobiles would come with two smartcard slots. One card, called a subscriber identity module card, would identify its holder. It would be issued by the telecom company and the phones would not work without it. The other would be for the bank's smartcard and would carry the electronic cash. However, even in the technological hotbed of South-east Asia, banks have generally been slow to take on board such systems because of the heavy investment needed. In Hong Kong, for example, the number of Mass Transit Railway smartcards far outstrips those issued by banks and the outlook for combining these particular cards seems remote.