DBS took risks and absorbed downsides for the country in its early years: PM Lee

DBS Chairman Peter Seah (left) and DBS CEO Piyush Gupta (right) show PM Lee Hsien Loong key milestones from the bank's 50-year history.
DBS Chairman Peter Seah (left) and DBS CEO Piyush Gupta (right) show PM Lee Hsien Loong key milestones from the bank's 50-year history.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA
PM Lee Hsien Loong looks at key milestones from DBS' 50-year history. With him is DBS CEO Piyush Gupta.
PM Lee Hsien Loong looks at key milestones from DBS' 50-year history. With him is DBS CEO Piyush Gupta.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA
PM Lee signs on the frame of the commemorative gift of a $50 note that was in circulation in 1968, the year DBS was established. With him is Karen Ngui, Head of Group Strategic Marketing and Communications.
PM Lee signs on the frame of the commemorative gift of a $50 note that was in circulation in 1968, the year DBS was established. With him is Karen Ngui, Head of Group Strategic Marketing and Communications.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - 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 on Saturday night (Aug 4).

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 shift 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 shift 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 learned 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 also featured a specially commissioned musical called Sparks based on stories from people who worked in the bank over the years, and was attended by around 800 guests, including many of the bank's leaders and employees from its early years.

In the musical, actor Adrian Pang plays a bank veteran who reminisces about his experiences, taking the audience back to his rookie days in 1988 and introducing them to a team who become steadfast allies through challenging times like the global financial crisis and Sars epidemic. 

The invitation-only musical ends its run on Sunday (Aug 5).

The story of DBS was also captured in a 50th anniversary book that was presented to Mr Lee at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday.

Called The 50 Years, the book chronicles the former Development Bank of Singapore’s heritage through reflections written by pioneers and other s from the bank. 

The book includes the story of how a small counter staffed by two cashiers at the entrance of its rented premises in Shenton Way marked the start of commercial banking at DBS. 

When the bank set up its first branch in Jurong in 1972, fishmongers and stallholders would arrive wearing clogs and carrying paper bags of cash to bank in the morning.

Two staff set up a desk at shipyards and factories to open personal accounts for factory workers and enable direct salary crediting.

In the book, Mr S Dhanabalan, part of the original team that left the Economic Development Board to set up DBS, wrote about the entrepreneurial spirit that in 1975 drove the bank to build the tallest building in Singapore at Shenton Way – the 50-storey DBS building.

Fellow pioneer Mr Ang Kong Hua, shared his memories of bringing German camera maker Rollei to Singapore through financing, creating thousands of jobs and training local workers.

The book will be available for download from Aug 15 at: go.dbs.com/ourjourney