Why It Matters

Finance sector at a crossroads

DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta speaking at the opening of Sibos 2015.
DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta speaking at the opening of Sibos 2015.PHOTO: SIBOS

A global banking industry conference may sound like a rather dull affair unlikely to set the pulse racing. But last week's gathering of more than 8,000 industry types at Marina Bay Sands for Sibos 2015, a premier finance industry event, was far from tedious.

The digital revolution is now well under way and the industry both in Singapore - a leading financial centre - and around the world is at a significant crossroads. Established banks are anxiously hoping for Asia's growth to drive their corporate and consumer franchises forward, at a time when the global outlook remains stagnant.

But a new threat is emerging from shiny new outfits deploying new financial technology - known in industry speak as fintech - to challenge banking's status quo.

DBS Group Holdings chief executive Piyush Gupta opened the conference with a rousing speech stressing that big banks remain in the industry's driver seat. And of course traditional players are using the new technology in a big way too - as online and mobile banking become ubiquitous.

But fintech start-ups at the conference spoke confidently of their creative market offerings, such as the lending of crowd-sourced funds that are taking small and medium-sized enterprise customers away from banks.

So Sibos was a timely reminder for both banks and regulators here to tally how well they have responded to external changes.

On the macro-level, the regulators are taking a long-term, proactive approach.

At Sibos' closing, Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon reiterated Singapore's determination to build a Smart Financial Centre, focusing on creating common payment and data structures aimed at raising productivity in the industry.

How well these projects are executed will have a profound impact on Singapore's long-term prospects, as the country continues its own transformation into a service and innovation-driven economy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Finance sector at a crossroads'. Print Edition | Subscribe