Reading time: 14 minutes

Written by Jaye Tan (Associate Author) | Mentored by Ong Chin Ngee | Reviewed by Ian Lee

LawTech.Asia is proud to conclude the second run of its Associate Author (Winter 2019) Programme. The aim of the Associate Authorship Programme is to develop the knowledge and exposure of student writers in the domains of law and technology, while providing them with mentorship from LawTech.Asia’s writers and tailored guidance from a well-respected industry mentor.

As part of a partnership with the National University of Singapore’s alt+law and Singapore Management University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Club, five students were selected as Associate Authors. This piece by Jaye Tan, reviewed by industry reviewer Ian Lee (Lead Investigator, Merkle Science), marks the second thought piece in this series. It examines the regulatory challenges of cryptocurrencies.


In June 2019, Facebook announced that they were launching their own cryptocurrency Libra Coin under the Libra Association. Already facing governmental scrutiny over privacy issues over the social network, the announcement exacerbated intense attention from not only United States lawmakers and politicians, but the general public. On 23 October 2019, Mark Zuckerberg was subject to over six hours of questioning – elucidating the key concerns lawmakers have with regard to the regulation of cryptocurrencies. These regulatory challenges are not unique to the US, but apply worldwide to regulatory authorities dealing with the budding technology. With the legislation of the Payment Services Act, Singapore has set a regulatory framework which may be the leading framework for countries to adopt going forward.

I. Introduction

At the start of January 2017, the price of Bitcoin was US$1,000.[1] Within a year, the price of Bitcoin reached its peak of a staggering US$19,783 on 17 December 2017.[2] “Cryptocurrency” and “blockchain” soon became the biggest buzzwords in the mainstream media, grabbing headlines everywhere in the news. Financial institutions, tech giants, business owners and investors scrambled to understand the digital asset, and how they could adopt the technology and enter the industry.[3] Such speed, however, could not be said to be shown by governments with regard to regulatory measures to guide investors in the field. Some state governments struggled to understand the digital asset and technology, with countries such as China initially resorting to banning cryptocurrency exchanges.[4] Others, including the United States, however have held a neutral stance and have simply issued guidance and statements on the legality of cryptocurrencies[5], and have not officially provided a comprehensive regulatory compliant framework. As such, the industry of cryptocurrencies has often been described as the “Wild West”.[6]

Moving two years forward, Facebook formally announced in June 2019 that they were co-founding the non-profit and independent Libra Association together with 28 other major partners, and were launching their own cryptocurrency Libra under the organisation.[7] Once again, cryptocurrencies were brought into the spotlight. This time however, the reception towards Libra was unfavourable (to say the least). Coming not too long after Facebook’s recent privacy issues, US politicians and law-makers responded rapidly and adversely towards the announcement of Project Libra. On 23 October 2019, Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before the House Financial Services Committee in Congress and was subject to over six hours of questioning and critiques during the hearings,[8] revealing the concerns law-makers harbour over cryptocurrencies, as well as elucidating the absence of a proper regulatory compliant framework for cryptocurrencies.

This article will cover an explanation of cryptocurrencies, the main regulatory challenges that the scrutiny of Libra has highlighted for cryptocurrencies, the struggles foreign jurisdictions such as United States have faced with regulation of cryptocurrencies, Singapore’s legal regulatory framework towards cryptocurrencies, and my final thoughts on the future that lies ahead for Singapore to lead the way on such regulations.

II. Cryptocurrencies – Types of cryptocurrencies and ICOs

A. What’s a cryptocurrency? What is a blockchain?

Blockchain technology is the technology that is behind most cryptocurrencies– it is important to note that blockchain and cryptocurrency are not one and the same, which is a common misconception.

At its very core, blockchain technology is essentially a secure way to store data that is almost impossible to modify. The name “blockchain” comes from the manner of data storage, with “blocks” that contain a certain amount of data chained with one another. Each block verifies data which is in the previous block. With this chain and linkage, modifying data in a block would mean altering the entire blockchain.  

Most cryptocurrencies today are based on blockchains which operate on distributed ledger technology (“DLT“). A distributed ledger is a form of accounting of data that is managed by peer-to-peer networks that are governed by protocols on how additional blocks are added to the chain.[9]

Cryptocurrencies, as a general term, literally refer to the wide variety of digital tokens that operate on cryptography and blockchain technology. From a legal perspective, it is important to differentiate the different types of cryptocurrencies as each digital token serves vastly different purposes and possesses unique characteristics. As will be discussed later on, it is critical for regulation framework to distinguish and identify the distinct type of cryptocurrency.

I will categorise cryptocurrencies into five categories: (1) virtual currencies; (2) digital tokens that are deemed to be securities; (3) stablecoins; (4) utility tokens; and (5) digital tokens that confer community contribution or governance rights over the blockchain. I will be focusing on the first four categories of cryptocurrencies.

B. Virtual currency

The most common and most widely talked about of all cryptocurrencies are virtual currencies. Quite simply put, these cryptocurrencies are a digital tokens of value used as a medium of exchange. The most famous of all virtual currencies is Bitcoin. As mentioned above, these virtual currencies run on a blockchain. 

C. ICOs and utility tokens

Since the start of 2017, over US$14 billion have been raised through Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs“),[10] Given the not insignificant sum of money, there are two questions that needs to be answered. First, what exactly are people investing in? Second, how is it possible that so much money can be raised so quickly?

In a very general sense, ICOs work conceptually similarly to an Initial Public Offering, or IPOs. For those who are unfamiliar, IPOs are events where companies issue shares on a stock exchange for money. Companies can do IPOs for a variety of reasons. These include raising money for expansion or creating greater value for their company in comparison to a sale.  

In an ICO for a decentralised application (“dApp”), the team working on the project will provide its participants a form of digital assets called tokens in exchange for their capital contributions. These tokens can function in a lot of different ways depending on the project. However, most typically, when an investor buys a token as part of an ICO, what they usually receive are cryptographic tokens. These represent their ownership or right to use the service that the dApp provides. These would be utility tokens.[11]

 I will draw an example to give a better understanding of how utility tokens work. Most readers should be familiar with the concept of dating apps – like Tinder. The basic idea behind such applications is that the user downloads the application, sets up a dating profile and based on geographical location can swipe “left” for no and “right” for yes on another person’s profile to match with them and the user would only be able to chat should there be a match. 

In a hypothetical scenario, a company that is developing their dating application on a decentralised blockchain wishes to raise money for their project. The developer team desperately wants to build the application as soon as possible. As such, they do not want to go through months of sourcing for investments through a venture capital firm or big company. The solution the company comes up with is launching an ICO. The idea is that anyone can contribute their cryptocurrencies into this project, and essentially serves as a form of crowdfunding. In this dating application, utility tokens that are offered will allow the users to access this decentralised dating app and use it to access certain functions within this specific network. For example, the user may use the utility token to be allowed unlimited swipes, or even to access a list of users who have chosen to match with the user.

However, it is important to note that most projects have failed to deliver on their utility promises and what people were investing in were not the project, but the “promise” of a financial return via the project or their self-perception that the price would rise. Only a small minority were actually buying the token for its utility. Many projects would fail to deliver, leaving token holders little legal recourse. As such, one key regulatory issue would be whether a token should be classified a security because it was sold as an investment despite not designed to be a security.

D. ICOs and security tokens

Similar to utility tokens described above, “security tokens” can be categorised as digital tokens as they offer returns and dividends (or rights) in exchange for purchase. They do not, however, have any actual utility, and as such resemble securities. They are also usually offered for sale through an ICO. As we will discuss below, security tokens need to be identified to comply with securities law for consumer protection.

E. Stablecoins –  Libra Coin

Digital tokens known as “stablecoins” aim to correct a criticism often targeted at virtual currencies such as Bitcoin for having high volatility and as such failing to be a stable medium of exchange and storage of value.[12] As such, stablecoins have a set price and value, which is pegged to a fiat currency or financial asset, or in the case of Libra, a basket of assets.  

Libra Coin is a self-proclaimed stablecoin. The White Paper released by the Libra Association in 2019 states the organisation’s claims of aiming to deliver low volatility and high liquidity to the holders of Libra by pegging the currency to a reserve that consists of “safe assets” such as bank deposits and short-term government securities.[13] As described by the Libra White Paper, Libra is designed to become a “new global currency” that will complement existing fiat currencies as a for-profit “currency of currencies” to create a “seamless, global, safe, and inclusive payment system” based on modern digital technologies.[14] In April 2020, the Libra Association released a new White Paper, entailing their plans to include new “single-currency” stablecoins on top of Libra Coin, that would be supported by a reserve of cash or cash-equivalents and very short-term government securities denominated in that currency and issued by the home country of that currency.[15]

Libra was announced by Facebook on 18 June 2019. It has yet to be launched. Image credit: Coinswitch

III. Regulatory issues arising from Libra

The announcement of Facebook’s Libra Project has unleashed a huge wave of backlash by American law-makers and politicians. In the last few months of 2019, US politicians constantly repeated their concerns over Libra. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s concerns that “Libra should not be allowed to move forward unless and until the company addresses anti-money laundering (“AML”) and know-your-customer (“KYC”) concerns, among other issues”,[16] and Chair of the House Committee on Financial Services Maxine Waters’ demands that Libra be stopped until Congress could enact an “appropriate legal framework”[17] were the overarching theme over the course of the Oct 23 Zuckerberg hearings. The key problems that regulators mention can be summarised under three key categories: (1) consumer protection; (2) risk of money laundering and financial crime; and (3) proper uniform regulatory framework that aligns with monetary policy.

A. Consumer Protection

In 2014, Mt. Gox in Japan, the largest cryptocurrency exchange at the time, collapsed. It resulted in losses of around US$450 million for users of the exchange.[18] In August 2019, hackers reportedly stole around $40 million worth of cryptocurrencies from Taiwan-based Binance.[19]According to CipherTrace, a cryptocurrency intelligence firm, in their Q2 2019 Cryptocurrency AML report, scams, and fraud worldwide, criminals and fraudsters netted approximately $4.26 billion for the first six months of 2019.[20] This means that cryptocurrency thefts reached $1.2 billion in the first three months of 2019 and $1.7 billion for the entire 2018.[21] In addition, with the lack of regulation over ICOs and security tokens, companies such as Bitcoin investment lending platform Bitconnect released an ICO in December 2016 and had had a market capitalisation of over US$2.6 billion in 2017.[22] By January 2018, Bitconnect closed its services and confirmed what was highly suspected – it was a Ponzi scheme. Investors lost US$2.5 billion dollars and Bitconnect is still under investigation by the FBI.[23]

In addition, many ICO projects failed to deliver, and what people were investing in was not the project, but the ‘promise’ of a return either via the project or their self-perception that the price would rise. Only a small minority were actually buying the token for its utility. Given lack of clarity on whether the token is a security or not, given that the token was sold as an investment even though it was not designed to be one, there is often little legal recourse for such buyers.

With such risks involved, regulation is required to ensure that cryptocurrency service providers such as exchanges and ICOs are regulated, well-run and financially solid, so as to ensure consumers are protected from frauds, scams and cyber hacking. 

B. Risk of money laundering and financial crime

The security and anonymity behind the blockchain has its advantages. However, critics have accused cryptocurrencies as an easy tool for illegal activities. In a recent article in the New York Times,  Nathaniel Popper noted that the amount of cryptocurrency spent on Dark Net markets rose 60 percent to reach a new high of $601 million in the last three months of 2019.[24] However, this is arguably a one sided point of view, as the blockchain also provides increased tracking capabilities over cash. Given that cryptocurrencies have yet to see mass adoption, enforcing anti money-laundering laws remains clearly a key priority for lawmakers.

IV. Responses in Foreign Jurisdictions

In foreign jurisdictions, there have been a wide spectrum of reactions and regulatory measures regarding cryptocurrencies. Many countries have maintained a cryptocurrency-friendly stance, such as Australia, while imposing certain regulatory measures to prevent money laundering and financial crimes. Canada regards cryptocurrency exchanges as money service businesses and thus requires such exchanges to register with Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada.[25] Japan introduced tax friendly regulations for cryptocurrencies, essentially eliminating consumption tax on Bitcoin trading in 2017. [26] On the other hand, countries like Bolivia and China have banned cryptocurrencies trading and exchanges. European authorities in the EU have not issued any official regulatory measures. 

Should Libra be successfully launched, one can expect even greater regulatory scrutiny. For instance, Japan has already moved towards regulating cryptocurrency trading and ensuring proper taxation for traders.[27]

The United States, however, provides perhaps the most fascinating example of all. Here, the biggest hurdle between the US and a proper regulatory framework is the fragmentation of state-level regulations. Different states hold contradicting regulations and laws regarding cryptocurrencies, which is ultimately detrimental to the growth of the technology and industry. Given the attention Libra has received from the US government, it will be curious to see how Congress moves to enforce a regulatory framework on cryptocurrencies.

V. Legal Regulation in Singapore

Unlike many other countries, Singapore has moved swiftly to ensure safe growth and usage by reviewing their regulatory framework towards cryptocurrencies. With the enactment of the Payments Services Act (“PSA“),[28]  the Monetary Authority of Singapore (“MAS“) – Singapore’s central bank and financial regulator – has set out to resolve the three main concerns of consumer protection, financial crime, and compliance.

A. Consumer Protection and Uniform regulatory framework

Singapore has established a uniform regulatory framework for cryptocurrencies and its associated providers and exchanges. On 14 January 2019, Singapore’s Parliament passed the PSA, bringing cryptocurrency exchange and payment services under the supervision of MAS, thus streamlining regulation under a single legislation.

To ensure consumer protection, Singapore has moved to ensure any exchange or platform that involves cryptocurrencies must have a regulated license from MAS. This can be seen from section 5(1) PSA, which provides that “any entity that provides any type of payment service needs a license entitling the entity to carry on a business providing that type of payment service, unless otherwise exempted.”[29]

B. Clear definitions

Singapore has also moved to properly define and bring cryptocurrencies under legislation.

1. Virtual currency

Under section 2 PSA, a “digital payment token” means any digital representation of value (other than an excluded digital representation of value) that:

  1. is expressed as a unit;
  2. is not denominated in any currency, and is not pegged by its issuer to any currency;
  3. is, or is intended to be, a medium of exchange accepted by the public, or a section of the public, as payment for goods or services or for the discharge of a debt;
  4. can be transferred, stored or traded electronically; and
  5. satisfies such other characteristics as the Authority may prescribe.[30]

2. Security tokens

As discussed above, security tokens resemble securities. As such, identifying such tokens is essential for regulation. There are extensive laws and regulations governing the issuing of securities to the public to ensure consumers are protected from bad players. With the immense amount of money involved in ICOs, it is important that security tokens be clearly distinguished and subject to the same comprehensive regulations securities are subject to.

On 1 August 2017, MAS announced that the offer of digital tokens in Singapore would be regulated by MAS if the digital tokens fell within the definition of a security in the Securities and Futures Act (“SFA“).[31] Beyond regulation of security tokens on exchanges, with the PSA, any virtual currency exchange would also be regulated by MAS.

C. Financial Crime and Money Laundering

According to the MAS, the appropriate requirements for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism are found in the KYC and AML requirements released by MAS[32] and are to be imposed on relevant licensees through notices issued under the Monetary Authority of Singapore Act.[33] With the FSA, all digital tokens services and providers in Singapore must meet the AML and Combating of Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) requirements.[34] In addition, should the token be defined as a security in the SFA, the MAS guidelines on KYC, AML and CFT will apply.[35]

VIII. Concluding Remarks

Ultimately, the area of cryptocurrency has far expanded beyond the speculation and buzz of 2017. Regardless of whether one believes that cryptocurrencies could supplant the current financial system, massive adoption by leading institutions such as banks, state governments and tech giants has shown that cryptocurrencies are here to stay. While the reception of Libra has not been entirely positive,[36] its release has been followed by JP Morgan’s release of its own stablecoin JPM Coin,[37] while Beijing has announced plans to release its own cryptocurrency.[38] Japan’s Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc. also announced plans to launch a cryptocurrency exchange pegged to the Japanese yen.[39]

As such, setting clear, transparent and uniform regulation over cryptocurrency use will be essential to ensure innovation and investment in the space. Singapore’s regulation framework provides a positive example that can be studied and followed by other countries in the future, facilitating efforts to implement an international regulatory framework. In fact, MAS has been working on their own stablecoin under Project Ubin for many years.[40] Further, as of 17 May 2020, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings also joined the Libra project as a member of the Libra Association.[41] The recently released Libra White Paper Version Two has also begun to address the existence of many of the concerns addressed in this paper. In the years to come, the use of Singapore’s regulatory framework as a regulatory model for countries to look towards and adopt will be a welcome development.

[1] Stan Higgins, “From $900 to $20,000: Bitcoin’s Historic 2017 Price Run Revisited” (29 Dec 2017), online: <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Robin Wigglesworth, “IMF and World Bank explore crypto merits with blockchain project” Financial Times, online: <>.

[4] Xie Yu, “China to stamp out cryptocurrency trading completely with ban on foreign platforms” South China Morning Post (5 February 2018), online: <>.

[5] Jay Clayton, “Statement on Cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin Offerings” US Securities and Exchange Commission (Dec 11 2017), online: SEC <>.

[6] Financial Times, “Cryptocurrency Wild West is crying out for a principled sheriff” Financial Times (25 September 2018), online: <>.

[7] Julia Boorstin, “Facebook launches a new cryptocurrency called Libra” (18 June 2019) CNBC, online: <>.

[8] Kurt Wagner & Sarah Frier, “Zuckerberg Gets Thrown a Long List of Grievances by Congress” Bloomberg News (23 October 2019), online: <>.

[9] See Marco Iansiti & Karim R Lakhani “The Truth About Blockchain” [2017] Harvard Business Rev 118, Dirk A Zetzsche, Ross P Buckley & Douglas W Arner, “The Distributed Liability of Distributed Ledgers: Legal Risks of Blockchain” (2018) U Ill L Rev 1361, Jean Bacon, Johan David Michels, Christopher Millard & Jatinder Singh, “Blockchain Demystified: A Technical and Legal Introduction to Distributed and Centralised Ledgers” [2018] 25 Rich J L & Tech 1.

[10] ICO Data, “Funds raised in 2019”, online: <>.

[11] See Shaanan Cohney et al, “Coin-operated Capitalism”, 119 Colum L Rev. 591; Philipp Hacker & Chris Thomale, “Crypto-Securities Regulation: ICOs, Token Sales and Cryptocurrencies under EU Financial Law” (2018) ECFR 645.

[12] See Dirk Bullman, Jonas Klemm & Andrea Pinna, “In search for stability in crypto-assets: are stablecoins the solution” (August 2019) European Central Bank Occasional Paper No 230, online: <>, Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, G7 Working Group on Stablecoins: Investigating the impact of global stablecoins (October 2019), online:  Bank for International Settlements <>.

[13] Libra Association, “An Introduction to Libra: White Paper” (18 June 2019), online: Libra <> at s 2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] [15] Libra Association, “Libra White Paper: Version 2” (April 2020), online: Libra <> at p 5.

[16] Pete Schroeder & Trevor Hunnicut, “Fed chief calls for Facebook to halt Libra project until concerns addressed” Reuters (10 July 2019), online: <>.

[17] Pete Schroeder & Eric Beech, “U.S. House panel wants Facebook’s Zuckerberg to testify on Libra by January”, online: <>.

[18] Yoshifumi Takemoto & Sophie Knight, “Mt. Gox files for bankruptcy, hit with lawsuit” Reuters (28 February 2014), online: <>.

[19] Eric Lam, “Hackers Steal $40 Million Worth of Bitcoin From Binance Exchange”, Bloomberg News (8 May 2019), online: <>.

[20] CipherTrace Cryptocurrency Intelligence, “Cryptocurrency Anti-Money Laundering Report, 2019 Q2” (July 2019), online (pdf): CipherTrace<>.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Tom Alford, “Bitconnect Scam: The $2.6 BN Ponzi Scheme [2020 Update]” (5 March 2020), online: <>.

[23] Yogita Khatri, “FBI Seeking Potential Victims of BitConnect to Assist Investigation” (22 February 2019), online: <>.

[24] Nathanael Popper, “Bitcoin Has Lost Steam. But Criminals Still Love It.” The New York Times (28 January 2020), online: <>.

[25] Tariq Ahmad, “Canada: Canada Passes Law Regulating Virtual Currencies as ‘Money Service Businesses’” Global Legal Monitor (July 9, 2014), online: <>.

[26] Joseph Young, “It’s Official: Japan Has Eliminated Tax on Bitcoin, Rise in Trading Expected” CoinTelegraph, online: <>.

[27] Yuta Hanano, “Making mad gains on crypto? Tax agents say you owe them” The Asahi Shimbun (5 June 2019), online: <>.

[28] Payment Services Act 2019 (No 2 of 2019) [PSA].

[29] Ibid, s 5(1).

[30] Ibid, s 2.

[31] Securities and Futures Act (Cap 289, 2006 Rev Ed Sing) [SFA].

[32] MAS, Guide to Digital Token Offerings (Singapore: MAS, November 2018), online: MAS <>.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Nikhilesh De, “Vodafone Is the Latest Big Company to Quit Facebook-Founded Libra Association”,, online: <>.

[37] Hugh Son, “JP Morgan is rolling out the first US bank-backed cryptocurrency to transform payments business” CNBC (14 Feb 2019), online: CNBC  <–.html>.

[38] Bloomberg News, “China’s PBOC Says Its Own Cryptocurrency Is ‘Close’ to Release” (12 August 2019) Bloomberg News, online: Bloomberg News <>.

[39] Yohei Hirose, “Mizuho’s digital currency to take on payment rivals next month” Nikkei Asian Review (12 February 2019), online: Nikki Asian Review <>.

[40] MAS, “Project Ubin: SGD on Distributed Ledger” (Singapore: MAS, 2017), online: MAS <–SGD-on-Distributed-Ledger.pdf>.

[41] John Geddie & Anshuman Daga, “Singapore’s Temasek joins Facebook-backed Libra project”, Reuters (15 May 2020), online: Reuters <>.

This piece was written as part of LawTech.Asia’s Associate Authorship Programme.

Featured Image Credit: Serie Architects