Ride-hailing firm Grab is said to be exploring a move into banking, as Singapore regulators consider allowing online-only banks.

Grab is said to be close to hiring a consultancy to advise it on its banking potential, and is gearing up to apply for a digital-only bank licence if the regulator opens up the sector. The reports came from four sources who declined to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Grab's interest underscores how non-banking firms are keen to leverage technology and databases to offer financial services to customers and businesses Grab, South East Asia's most valuable start-up, declined comment. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) pointed to comments made last month when it said it was studying the potential for allowing "digital-only banks with non-bank parentage" into its market.

A potential entry by Grab - backed by Japan's SoftBank Group - and others would mark the biggest shake-up in years for a market dominated by DBS Bank, OCBC Bank and United Overseas Bank. The MAS could make a decision in the next couple of months, the sources said.

The interest from Grab underscores how Asia's non-banking firms are keen to challenge traditional banks by leveraging their technology and user databases to offer financial services to retail customers and small businesses.

Securing a digital banking licence could help Grab benefit from its data on transport movements, payment transactions and consumer behaviour, the sources said. Last year, Grab teamed up with Japan's Credit Saison to provide loans in South East Asia.

A potential entry by Grab and others would mark the biggest shake-up in years for a market dominated by DBS, OCBC and UOB Global fintech players are among other groups expected to seek licences in Singapore, with some looking to form joint ventures, said two of the sources. Consultants said a digital banking licence may also appeal to telco Singtel, which is expanding beyond its traditional services into areas such as mobile payments and cyber security.

"It is too premature to comment, but having ventured into mobile financial services, we are open to exploring the feasibility of such an opportunity should it arise," a Singtel spokesman said.

In Hong Kong, affiliates of Alibaba and Xiaomi, and consortiums led by Standard Chartered and BOC Hong Kong Holdings were among those that won digital-only banking licences earlier this year. "In Hong Kong, the guidelines were quite precise in terms of what applicants had to prove in order to get a licence, more so than in Europe," said Mr. Dan Jones, Asia Pacific partner at consultancy Capco Digital.

"It will be interesting to see whether MAS goes down a similar route to Hong Kong... so that the only people who can apply are established companies, rather than literal start-ups." As in Hong Kong, online-only banks in Singapore are expected to launch by offering services such as savings accounts, personal loans and travel insurance.