DBS played a crucial role in Singapore's early industrialisation, taking risks and absorbing downsides to benefit the country but not necessarily the bank itself, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night.
In a speech at a gala event to celebrate the bank's 50th anniversary at Capitol Theatre, Mr Lee noted that the year the bank was formed - 1968 - was a period of great uncertainty and anxiety for Singapore.
It had separated from Malaysia three years earlier and had lost its Common Market and hinterland.
DBS provided companies with financing on attractive terms and convinced multinational corporations to set up manufacturing facilities here.
One of its earliest projects was persuading Rollei, a German camera company, to move its production facilities to Singapore in 1971.
Rollei was well-known for making the best cameras in the world. But it was facing steep competition from Japanese camera manufacturers and was looking to move its factories out of Britain.
DBS took a risk on Rollei, offering attractive financing and investment terms to get Rollei to set up operations in Singapore. Rollei eventually folded 10 years later and DBS took losses on the deal.
"But Rollei created much-needed skilled jobs for Singaporeans, and... helped us build up a cadre of highly skilled workers in precision machining and manufacturing," said Mr Lee.
"Years later they would become invaluable when we got into hard-disk manufacturing and wafer fabrication."
When Singapore was striving to become an international financial centre, DBS was one of its anchors. It was the first local bank in 1971 to seek long-term financing through an Asian Dollar Bond Issue of US$10 million.
"As your former chairman, Mr Howe Yoon Chong, said, 'even though it is not the cheapest source of funds, DBS' move is motivated by its intention to take the lead to further the establishment of Singapore as an international financial centre'," said Mr Lee.
The bank faced another major period of transformation in 1998, during the Asian Financial Crisis, when the banking industry was progressively opened up to more international competition. Soon after, DBS merged with POSB and had to take on a full spectrum of customers with differing needs.
"It was a very challenging period for DBS, which plunged resolutely into its own transformation," he said.
There were missteps and setbacks along the way but DBS learnt from these and emerged smarter and tougher.
He noted that the bank today is more than holding its own in a much more bracing environment, operating and competing at a totally different level and giving both customers and shareholders reason to be pleased.
DBS is now one of the top 40 banks in the world by market capitalisation. It has also built on its technological capabilities to be recognised as the "world's best digital bank", among other accolades. It has an extensive network of operations in Asia with a presence in 18 markets.
In Singapore, Mr Lee said, it has always focused on bringing greater value to customers and supporting the nation's development agenda, including its POSB initiatives and moves to make the bank more inclusive and serving children, the elderly, full-time national servicemen and people on public assistance.
He said he was glad that DBS continues to innovate and transform itself to prepare for the future as the banking sector faces disruption, especially with fintech.
"I hope that by your centenary year, we will not just be celebrating the centenaries of long-established companies in Singapore. We should also be celebrating companies who are today still small and unnoticed, or perhaps not even born yet, who over the next half-century will become great companies too and even unicorns, helped by DBS along the way," he said.
In his speech, DBS chairman Peter Seah spoke of some of the uncharted paths the bank has had to take in the past.
For instance, there was the time DBS bankers wanted to pay interest on the current account in 1980. The move, called DBS Autosave, riled other banks who opposed the idea, even though the innovation was beneficial to customers.
Mr Seah said: "While we live in a fast-changing world, and continue to reimagine banking, one thing that we remain true to is our sense of purpose - that what we do impacts lives and livelihoods."
The gala event featured a musical on the bank's history, and was attended by around 800 guests, including the bank's pioneers, employees and clients.