Between 2020 and mid-2022, cryptocurrency fever gripped millions of people all over the world. From the icy wastes of Kazakhstan to underground bars in Jakarta — including places where many people don’t have, nor want, a bank account — converts to blockchain and Web3 entered all corners of the crypto ecosystem. People mined in Lebanon, traded in Indonesia, developed infrastructure in Singapore, and played games for cash in the Philippines, in numbers that swelled by the week.
But in the year since bitcoin’s price touched an all-time high of $68,789, the global obsession with crypto has soured. In May, the Luna coin unraveled, setting off a chain reaction that destabilized exchanges and collapsed memecoins; from there, regulations began to tighten, and the year culminated with the implosion of once-trusted exchange FTX.
Rest of World interviewed tens of traders, miners, and investors in Asia, from Almaty to Singapore, who, a year ago, had been elated to be part of the crypto prosperity boom. Speaking to Rest of World again in December, they now express regret and confusion — though there are glimmers of optimism from those who still have a dream to trade.
In late 2021, crypto miners ruled Kazakhstan’s outer regions. “Little hamsters,” as smallholders are called in the country, tethered up to power supply in their backyards. Big players, whose factories were lined with cryptocurrency-generating CPUs, pumped smoke across uninterrupted, icy horizons.
These days, miners have been hit by the twin blows of a dysfunctional power grid and plunging crypto prices. In January, the Kazakhstan government cut miners from local power because of widespread shortages, later rationing them on expensive, imported power from Russia.
“Almost every legal miner has curtailed their operations,” Din-mukhammed Matkenov, the founder of large-scale miner BTC KZ, told Rest of World. “Russia doesn’t provide stable supplies of power all the time.”
In February, BTC KZ had been eyeing a move into Russia or Latin America. It never happened. Instead, sections of the huge operation are now being disassembled by workers to be relocated or sold off for parts. BTC KZ is not alone; local newspapers have reported stories of other miners doing the same.
The miners who continue to operate are doing so at a loss, hoping to hold on until crypto values rebound. Mining farms are now only permitted to operate at off-peak hours on weekdays, between midnight and 9 a.m., Matkenov said, and around-the-clock only on weekends. The price they pay for Russian electricity is much higher than for locally generated power.
Marat, a backyard miner, recently switched his mining rigs off to focus on real estate speculation. He told Rest of World he’s waiting for Ethereum prices to hit $1,900 if he’s ever to resume mining. “If not, we will sell our graphics-processing units to gamers,” said Marat, who requested anonymity as he was illegally tapping into a power source. “It’s not worth it at current prices.” (Marat wasn’t aware that Ethereum has been unmineable since September, he later told Rest of World.)
Kazakhstan’s miners feel, uneasily, that the government is squeezing them for revenue. There’s now a tax on electricity consumed, expected to increase tenfold in January 2023; an extra value-added tax on imported mining equipment, and corporate income taxes on the value of crypto mined. Brand-new legislation, passed by the parliament’s lower house this month, would include requirements that companies pay for a license and buy electricity at centralized auctions.
“The Kazakh president encouraged investors to come to Kazakhstan,” said Matkenov, regretfully, “and it has all turned out to be good on paper. But the reality is different.”
In Indonesia, reality has hit, too. A year ago, it had never been easier for Indonesians to join the crypto wave: With as little as 75 cents and a smartphone, anyone could jump on a trading app. Between 2020 and 2021, the value of crypto changing hands in Indonesia shot up more than 10 times to around $50 billion.
In November 2021, Rest of World spoke with Jakarta-based indie musician Ananda Badudu, who was, at the time, a full-fledged, NFT-minting enthusiast on crypto-Twitter. Though he’d already lost money, he told Rest of World he was certain the banking system revolution was just beginning.
But by December 2022, Badudu’s idealism had crashed to earth. His investments vaporized after the collapse of the exchange Celsius, itself undercut by the stunning failure of Do Kwon’s Luna coin.
“At this point, I don’t know if it was all just a scam or a legit investment,” Badudu told Rest of World, confused. He still has money in the Binance exchange, but doesn’t monitor it at all out of disillusionment. He declined to reveal how much he had lost.
“So many questionable crypto companies popped up, but there’s no laws or regulations to control this,” he said. “I’m not saying that investing in [mainstream] coins like Ethereum or Bitcoin is bad … We know the risks. But looking at how more and more crypto were wiped out of existence, this whole investment is really full of predators.”
Once-active cryptocurrency channels on Telegram, used by traders in Indonesia, are now choked with spam. Antonny Teo, founder of the Kriptonesian channel — among Indonesia’s largest such communities — told Rest of World he’s lost some 50% of his followers since peak membership, which now hovers around 7,000.
Agus Artemiss, founder of the Cryptoiz community, whose largest Telegram channel holds a following of over 13,500, told Rest of World that the “crypto winter” has morphed into a survival-of-the-fittest game. Reliable coins are likely to survive, while so-called shitcoins will disappear from existence. (Artemiss is still a believer; now is the time to invest since prices are undervalued, he said.)
In local media, Cenmi Mulyanto, vice president of growth at Tokocrypto — Indonesia’s most popular exchange, recently acquired by industry giant Binance — pointed out a heavy drop in daily trading transaction volumes. Mulyanto said that transaction volumes used to “normally” hit between $50 million and $70 million per day. By July this year, that range had plummeted about two-thirds, to between $15 million and $20 million.
Official data is spotty, but it tracks Mulyanto’s statements. Bappebti, Indonesia’s investment regulator, counted about 16 million crypto investors in the country in August. The Ministry of Trade said that number has continued to increase, while accompanied by a drop of more than 50% in value traded.
Last year, fueled by the crypto buzz, the Indonesian government had planned to launch a cryptocurrency-exclusive bourse. It’s now delayed that timeline, and, as in Kazakhstan, is adding taxes and regulations onto the industry.
In May this year, the government imposed a 0.1% value added tax (VAT) on crypto transactions on platforms registered with the Bappebti, and 0.2% on unregistered platforms. In September, the government announced plans to require two-thirds of crypto exchanges’ board members and commissioners to be Indonesian citizens and live in the country.
0.1% A recent value-added tax on crypto transactions on platforms registered with Bappebti, Indonesia’s investment regulator.
Over in Singapore, the atmosphere is jittery. In 2021, when China banned all cryptocurrency activity, many wondered if Singapore would become a new haven for traders and exchanges. Public statements were unusually open to the unmoored crypto crowd.
There were mixed signals, though. Exchanges complained of the regulator, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), dragging its feet to grant licenses. Of the hundreds of applications submitted by exchanges since the licensing act came into force in January 2020, only 10 have been fully awarded one.
Many have drifted to Dubai, following the promise of crypto-friendly policies. Those left in Singapore remain skittish, cautious about the enforcement of existing regulations, and wary of the introduction of new ones, commercial lawyer Hari Veluri told Rest of World.
For ordinary Singaporeans, the collapse of FTX has been particularly crushing. In the fall of 2021 and the winter of 2022, the Singaporean government invested a hefty $275 million in the exchange through state investment fund Temasek.
Four investors who spoke with Rest of World said they’d used FTX because of its slick interface and wide offering of cryptocurrencies. Above all, though, they’d used it because it was the only mainstream exchange actually available to them. (Competitor Binance had been shut down by MAS in late 2021. Binance withdrew its license bid after reportedly failing to meet the regulator’s standards for protection against money laundering and terrorism financing.)
“[The government] kind of forced us to use FTX if we wanted to use a big-boy exchange,” 24-year-old Ferris Frederick Francis, co-founder of Singaporean NFT project Cryptobengz, told Rest of World. He said his trust had been amplified by Temasek’s confidence. “If you see your government investing so much money into a business, [you believe] it must be ok.”
Sean, a limited partner investor who requested a pseudonym due to ties with Temasek, told Rest of World he used his FTX account as his “piggy bank,” piling in investments and cashing out as needed. When FTX crashed in early November, he lost over 50% of his net worth. He found out, unceremoniously, while on holiday with his family.
“I lost the most out of all my friends,” he said. “I was very disappointed. It made me question my own judgment of character.”
Singaporean Web3 consultant Kenneth Bok believes that the FTX collapse will prompt an even stricter turn by the MAS. “[Exchanges] will need to comply with rules, risk, custody, disclosures — things that had already been a hard bar to pass [from the start],” he told Rest of World.
There’s one section of the crypto caravan that continues to move, though. In late November, The Straits Times reported some Singaporeans regaining access to trading on the Binance app, despite the authorities’ previous restrictions. Earlier that month, Binance announced the purchase of the Sakura exchange, setting the stage to become one of Japan’s major crypto trading platforms. On December 19, CoinDesk Indonesia reported that Binance had kicked into motion the full acquisition of Tokocrypto, Indonesia’s largest exchange.
David Lee, a professor at the Node for Inclusive Fintech (NiFT) at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, believes crypto can fulfill its original promise as an equalizing force. He told Rest of World there are two different sets of players: true Web3, and Web2 projects pretending to be something more advanced.
“The Web3 space continues to move forward to even the [economic] playing field,” he said, “and the retail [players] continue to be conned by the fake Web2.”
Adi Renaldi reported from Jakarta and Nicole Lim reported from Singapore for this story.