leekuanyew

Banker remembers 'helpful, open-minded' man

In the early 2000s, a push by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew to consolidate Singapore's banking sector put the former Overseas Union Bank (OUB) in a tough position, said Mr Peter Seah, who was the bank's president at the time.

Mr Lee had wanted the banks to merge and grow larger so they could compete better globally.

Although it had been the fastest-growing local bank in the 1990s, OUB was still the smallest and thus a "potential victim" to be acquired by its larger competitors, recalled Mr Seah yesterday.

"I had my own views then: OUB was a bank worth preserving, so I actually reached out to (Mr Lee)," said Mr Seah. "I wrote him a letter, never expecting any response. But he called me up, and grilled me over my thoughts, over my arguments."

Mr Lee also gave him some advice - do something or the bank would be taken over - said Mr Seah, speaking to reporters at Parliament House yesterday after paying his last respects to Mr Lee.

"I always remembered him as somebody who I least expected (to do so) but who reached out, was helpful, was understanding, was open-minded and was warm," said Mr Seah.

While OUB was eventually acquired by UOB, Mr Lee's prediction proved prescient: The consolidation of the banking scene left those standing in better shape to compete with their foreign peers.

"Today we have three of the world's strongest and safest banks, (which are among) the largest banks in Asia, able to withstand - no, compete - with all the global banks," said Mr Seah, who is now chairman of DBS Bank.

"DBS, for example, is in the top 50 banks in the world in terms of market capitalisation. Coming from a small island, I think that's a great achievement." 

Besides Mr Seah, other visitors who paid their respects to Mr Lee yesterday included Nepal's Honorary Deputy Prime Minister Prakash Man Singh, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

yanliang@sph.com.sg