Singapore may be a global financial centre, but bankers who want to thrive there should also clock up experience in other Asian countries, says Boey Yin Chong, managing director of syndicated finance at DBS.
In 1994, at the age of 28, Boey did just that when DBS sent him to set up and lead a new rep office in Mumbai. This first foreign assignment landed him his next role as general manager of the firm’s Seoul, South Korea branch. And he’s been with DBS – Singapore’s biggest bank, which boasts a market capitalisation of US$29.5bn and total assets of US$292bn – ever since.
Returning to his native Singapore in 2001, Boey joined the syndicated finance team which he now heads. The 48-year-old credits his success to his overseas experience and he thinks young bankers should follow his international example.
Early on in my career, I always wanted to travel regionally and eventually got myself into DBS headquarters in Singapore in what was called the International Department, which then oversaw all international operations and businesses of the bank. Everyone there was required at some stage to work overseas. This gave me an international grounding – the rest was up to me and the opportunities that came along.
At 29, I was tasked to set up a rep office in Mumbai – the first one ever for a Singapore bank in India. It was an exciting, pioneering time and there was pressure, too, as we saw ourselves as representing not just DBS, but Singapore as a country. The then Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, who was the guest of honour for India’s Republic Day in 1994, graced our rep office opening in January of the year.
Back then, there were more practical challenges working in India. I remember once I had to get an amendment to a mortgage document done by a lawyer. At his office I saw a big typing pool with about 30 people in it, and I was told it would take three whole days for them to make a simple change to the mortgage documents!
But I enjoyed the experience. How many people in their late 20s are given the chance to establish a new office in a new country? DBS wasn’t afraid to send young people overseas and put them in responsible positions.
The biggest change to banking careers in Singapore over the years has been the growing importance of regional markets, in particular China, India and Indonesia. In corporate and investment banking in Singapore, it’s almost inevitable that you will benefit from working elsewhere in Asia. If you’re based in Singapore, you will have clients from the region, so having prior regional experience will help you service them better. Besides local companies and projects, many foreign companies do syndicated loans in Singapore, for example global commodities companies raised close to US$12bn out of Singapore in 2012.
Young bankers should build up a certain amount of experience at home and then work regionally – but don’t leave it too late. After two years in banking, many still do not have a proper idea of what they plan to do. If you want to work overseas, be certain of the section of banking you are keen on, let your managers know early about your desire to work overseas, and demonstrate that through your ability to work independently. A personality that displays your openness to work with people from different countries and backgrounds is also crucial.
While it's good to tell management about your desire to relocate, be realistic. I have people telling me they want to work in North Asia, but some of them don’t speak Mandarin. At this stage, we would usually choose someone who knows the language because management see such moves as an investment in the staff as well as in cross-cultural learning on both sides.
I graduated with an engineering degree at the end of the 80s. Back then, banking was seen as a stable career compared with other sectors. But it was an exciting one, too, especially in Singapore because the local banks, traditionally conservative in nature, were now beginning to be active in expanding regionally.
When I was interviewed by DBS as a graduate, I said, “I can give you two years". I would see what DBS could do for me, and then evaluate my next move. The interviewers were a bit shocked – who was I to tell them that! But I got my start and since then the evaluation has ended but has been in DBS’ favour.
The demand from young bankers to work in syndicated finance is high. Graduates get an exciting start to their careers because the deals you work on give you greater exposure than in general corporate banking, and you work with a wider variety of parties, and across the region. For example, my team in Singapore covers deal flows from the Philippines to Indonesia to India, while my Hong Kong team covers mainly North Asia. But as a young loan syndicator, you have to demonstrate that willingness and high ability to learn and interact with people.
Personally, I get satisfaction from the tangible nature of the deals. Often you can look at the Singapore skyline and see a deal you’ve done, like Marina Bay Sands [a landmark casino, hotel and shopping complex owned by Las Vegas Sands], which we led from the start – a financing of more than S$5b in 2007. You can make a positive contribution to the development of the sector and country. Likewise, in 2003/04, we were the first ones since the Asia Crisis to bring a major Indonesian corporate deal, MGTI, to the regional market.
As well as having good credit and technical skills, you need to be street smart; your EQ level has to be very high as we intermediate the financing needs of the borrowers and balance that with our banks' or arrangers’ requirements, finally ensuring that we can sell down to the general market later. Unlike the bond market, loan syndicators typically hard underwrite the deal over a period of three months and hence demand higher analysis of credit, structure and market risks. Additionally, the underlying credit or facility agreement has to be negotiated, with the lawyers' help, between the parties. Again, typically, such agreements differ from deal to deal, which makes life pretty interesting especially when you have a cross border deal!
I lead a young fairly young team of nine to 10 people in both Singapore and Hong Kong. The average age is around early 30s and a good seven or eight of them are under 30, with a few under our management-associate programme. I enjoy developing these young people – seeing if they can make it big time later on!