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Navigating the digital landscape

Five leading financial institutions in Singapore share their plans to leverage fintech to better serve their customers

"For consumers, having smartphones that are more powerful than yesterday's super computers will empower them to carry out their banking transactions on-the-go." - Han Kwee Juan

"Our future success depends on our ability to innovate, harness the digital revolution and completely re-imagine the role of banks and the customer's experience." - Dave Gledhill

"We can expect insurance products to be more straightforward and customised as customers demand offerings that are delivered on mobile and underwritten in seconds." - Ken Ng

"I would argue that the most significant trend is not about technology at all, it is about how technology supports our customers' behaviour." - Susan Hwee

"Artificial intelligence is also an area that we are exploring with some of the startup fintech companies we selected for our accelerator programme." - Pranav Seth


  • Han Kwee Juan, Chief Executive Officer, Citibank Singapore
  • Dave Gledhill, Group Chief Information Officer, DBS Bank
  • Ken Ng, Chief Executive, NTUC Income
  • Pranav Seth, Head of E-Business and Business Transformation, OCBC Bank
  • Susan Hwee, Managing Director and Head of Group Technology and Operations, United Overseas Bank
  • Moderator: Francis Kan

The Business Times: How has the emergence of fintech in recent years affected the way financial institutions operate?

Han Kwee Juan: The evolution of technology has no doubt changed the way financial institutions operate. In fact, it has completely revolutionised the value chain of financial institutions; from their internal processes to the way they service customers. This, however, is the direct result of the way consumers have embraced technology, which has changed the way they communicate, access information and services, and the way they bank. Consumers now expect to bank on their own time, wherever they are and through whatever channel they choose.

For consumers, having smartphones that are more powerful than yesterday's super computers will empower them to carry out their banking transactions on-the-go. We will see smartphones and networks getting smarter and faster, enabling the entire banking experience to be redefined. For Citi, our job is simply to make sure that we meet these new expectations from our customers.

Dave Gledhill: The banking industry is being profoundly impacted by new technologies and changing customer expectations. Fintechs and non-traditional banking players like Alibaba are attacking the financial services value chain. In such an environment, our future success depends on our ability to innovate, harness the digital revolution and completely re-imagine the role of banks and the customer's experience. By harnessing the digital opportunity, we are thinking deeply about customers' true needs and their real-jobs-to-be-done, and how we can extend our reach into larger geographies without the need for an extensive physical branch network.

Over the past few years, DBS has been embracing various forms of digital technology to help simplify and improve the customer experience. Some examples of these technologies include cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics.

Ken Ng: The wave of fintech in recent years has brought about the emergence of insurtech. It is an opportune time for financial institutions, particularly insurers like us, to inspire, cultivate and accelerate new ideas that allow for greater accessibility to and better experience with insurance. We can also expect insurance products to be more straightforward and customised as customers demand offerings that are delivered on mobile and underwritten in seconds.

We believe telematics technology offers vast potential for insurtech in this regard. We also see robo advisory gaining momentum globally within the fintech space. As these technologies mature and their offerings diversify and become more prevalent, we are likely to see more meaningful leverage and disruptions by such technologies in the financial industry.

Pranav Seth: The impact of fintech is wide ranging - from the way we facilitate payments to how we can do better loan underwriting. Some innovations in fintech that we see emerging include blockchain technology that will certainly impact the way banks operate.

Trade finance is one of the most promising use cases for blockchain technology, but in order for it to be truly game changing depends on how quickly all stakeholders in the trade finance value chain including financial institutions, customs, logistic providers and others get on board the platform.

Artificial intelligence is also an area that we are exploring with some of the startup fintech companies we selected for our inaugural accelerator programme. These are solutions that can enhance knowledge of customers through data analysis and back-end banking services to provide superior robo-advisory to customers.

Susan Hwee: Technology should enable banks to continue offering solutions and services that meet their customers' lifestyle needs and demands. Fintechs are popular because they fill a gap and appear to read consumers' behavioural patterns better. This means that banks are now looking at rich data from customers to add context to how customers are engaging with them, and also using that data to tighten banking relationships.

For example, when it comes to frequency of use, the mobile phone has become an indispensable part of daily life. As a result, customers expect more mobile-linked services - from payments, to loan applications to cash withdrawals. At UOB, we expect that one in five UOB card payments will be through contactless mobile by 2020.

More than 50 to 60 per cent of our investments in strategic projects are focused mainly on mobile, payments, data and product-related technologies. I would argue that the most significant trend is not about technology at all, it is about how technology supports our customers' behaviour.

BT: How are you incorporating these technologies at your organisation, and what have been the benefits to your operations and the customer?

Han Kwee Juan: At Citi, we design our digital interactions around our customers. We radically simplify our processes, reevaluating everything we do with the goals of speed and simplicity to make the banking experience easier and more delightful for our customers.

We have been accelerating our efforts to transform our business model to become simpler, dramatically faster, more scalable and far more digital. We have made substantial progress to-date since we embarked on this journey a few years ago to drive to common processes, products, policies and platforms. As a result, we are seeing both great cost savings and efficiency gains. Ultimately, these improvements are experienced by our customers when they use our services.

Dave Gledhill: We have leveraged these technologies in many ways across the bank. Earlier this year, DBS adopted cloud-based productivity technology, Office 365, in the workplace. This is the first for a Singapore bank and has improved the way our employees work, offering them greater mobility, efficiency and productivity.

Another example would be data analytics, which is used in both the consumer and corporate transaction banking space. Our ATM network is one of the most heavily utilised in the world. We leveraged data analytics to understand the patterns of our ATM's cash flow and predict when they would run out of cash. Today, our ATM cash outs are almost zero.

In the transaction banking space, we collaborated with A*Star and fintech company, Cloudera, to create a groundbreaking programme that detects abnormal transaction activities. This has helped DBS enhance its current risk management processes and create a more robust platform to detect trade anomalies.

Ken Ng: Millennials are used to getting access to a range of services and products with the click of a button on their mobile devices. As such, it is natural that more customers will expect insurance products to also be available via mobile - underwritten and customised to their needs in a very short span of time. To date, Income has 16 products available online, including the recently launched Personal Mobility Guard, which addresses the gap for personal protection at a time when more customers are turning to alternative transport modes such as bicycles and other personal mobility devices. The Personal Mobility Guard is our first product that is only available for purchase online.

Last month, we launched two new motor insurance schemes - Drive Master and FlexiMileage - that leverage telematics technology to allow private car owners to influence what they would pay for motor insurance premiums based on their driving behaviours and distance travelled, respectively. We believe that as the use of such technology becomes more widespread, it will impact the design and pricing of insurance, allowing offerings to become more customised to the needs of the individual customer.

Pranav Seth: We are continuously looking at ways that we can help customers and the communities we serve to achieve their life and business goals. Our approach is to actively see how these technologies will be adopted by customers, and how they will impact their lives or make our services more beneficial to them.

We have been at the forefront of customer and technology innovations, with many first-to-market products including biometrics based authentication - such as OCBC OneTouch on mobile devices - where customers can use their fingerprint to check their bank balances, and voice biometrics at the Contact Centre, where customers can authenticate their identities with their voiceprints.

We were also the first bank in South-east Asia to launch an open Application Programming Interface (API) platform with the rollout of our own developer portal, Connect2OCBC, in May 2016. This allows any software developer to easily integrate our products and services into their applications to benefit their end-users.

Since launching our fintech and innovation unit, The Open Vault at OCBC, earlier this year, we have partnered with three fintech start-ups from our inaugural accelerator programme to pilot new solutions in wealth management and virtual customer assistance. We plan to adopt these solutions if the pilot tests are successful.

Susan Hwee: When UOB explores new trends like big data analytics or new fintech innovations, the first question we ask ourselves is how we can use these to serve our customers better.

To anticipate our retail customers' needs, we are harnessing predictive data analysis to understand them better. For instance, we know that Singaporeans eat out a lot because the bank processes an average of more than 900,000 dining transactions on UOB cards annually.

Therefore, we introduced a dining feature within UOB Mighty so that we can stay relevant to them when it comes to lifestyle services. For corporates, we are tapping technology to introduce time-saving solutions to make payment reconciliation faster through BizSmart, Singapore's first cloud-based integrated business solution to help small businesses enhance productivity. Some of our small business customers are already seeing more than 30 per cent increase in productivity as they spend less time on administrative tasks. We are also partnering fintech firms to offer mobile payment capabilities.

BT: How are you dealing with the emergence of FinTech start-ups and their potential to disrupt the industry?

Han Kwee Juan: Fintech, while disruptive, offers a huge opportunity for us to partner with innovators. This is what we call, our 'outside-in' approach to innovation, where we collaborate with innovative companies across industries to seek new perspectives and develop solutions that address our clients' most pressing banking needs. We call this 'fintegration'.

Through fintegration, we continue to accelerate our partnerships with innovators and start-ups. Just recently, Citi was the first bank globally to have developed and launched a highly intuitive and self-service API (Application Programming Interface) developer portal, which allows other companies to gain access to Citi's APIs to build new experiences for our customers. For example, a Citi credit card customer can now pay for her ride with Grab using her reward points whilst a non-Citi customer can also apply for a Citi credit card on Grab. It is only through such partnerships that will enable us to introduce the next generation of ground-breaking digital solutions that further enrich our customers' digital experience.

Dave Gledhill: You can either view fintechs as a threat, or you can collaborate with them. We reach out and engage with fintechs to cross-learn and identify potential opportunities.

DBS committed S$10 million to help develop Singapore's startup ecosystem over the next five years, mainly for partnerships with accelerators and incubators, to drive a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in line with aspirations to become a smart nation.

Part of this investment is for the DBS HotSpot Pre-Accelerator, a three-month programme to mentor and support digital startups and social entrepreneurs. We were the first bank in the region to wholly own a pre-accelerator programme that also allows its employees to participate. Startup participants do not need to give up equity.

Ken Ng: Income is keen to co-innovate with start-ups and to have them bring new solutions that value-add to customers and help us to access new market segments. Given that insurtech is at its infancy in Singapore, we understand that start-ups that are stepping into this new frontier are unfamiliar with the insurance business. Hence, it is important that we match industry and domain knowledge to start-ups' creativity and entrepreneurship to co-develop practical and marketable solutions for real business and consumer needs.

In this regard, we are the first insurer in Singapore to collaborate with IIPL's TAG.PASS programme to launch an insurtech accelerator known as Future Starter. We believe that accelerators serve as an effective platform to bring about co-creation in fintech as it attracts people with relevant ideas, domain knowledge and technical skills to bring smart consumer-centric solutions to the fore.

Susan Hwee: We are doing all we can to help accelerate the growth of fintech startups and innovators in the region. Through our innovation lab, The FinLab, we are bringing together UOB employees and Asia's brightest startups to create solutions in areas such as payments, wealth management, mobile banking and small- and medium-sized enterprise banking.

That's not enough because these start-ups often also lack the financial expertise to finance their growth. Cognisant that it can be challenging for small businesses to obtain financing in the early stages of growth, UOB has formed partnerships to offer financing options such as equity crowdfunding and venture debt.

Through OurCrowd's equity crowdfunding platform, innovative Asian companies can seek relatively small investments from a large number of accredited investors in return for equity or shares in their company. Our joint venture with Temasek Holdings, InnoVen Capital, provides venture-debt loans to high-growth startups in the technology, consumer, healthcare and clean technology sectors.

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