As Singapore marks the 50th birthday of its independence this year we thought we’d take a look at some of the industry leaders – both historical and current – who’ve helped turn the small island state into a global financial powerhouse since 1965.
If you’re a finance professional in Singapore, here are four titanic figures who’ve shaped the city you’re working in.
Nicknamed “Mr OCBC” this colossus of Singapore’s financial (and political) scene was the bank’s managing director from 1942 to 1972 and its chairman from 1966 to 1983. He was also its honorary president until his death in 2005. As a teenager Tan wanted to study law in England but his family couldn’t afford it, so instead, aged 17, he joined the Chinese Commercial Bank (which merged with Ho Hong Bank that same year to form OCBC) as a junior clerk.
Tan is widely credited as the man who helped OCBC survive World War II. His political nous, gained when serving as Municipal Commissioner of Singapore from 1939, and conservative management style led him to build up OCBC’s reserves and protect its assets by shifting its headquarters to Bombay before the Japanese occupation. Tan rebuilt OCBC’s profitability after the war and also rose up the political ranks, becoming the deputy president of the colonial Legislative Council from 1951 until 1955, when he stepped down to focus purely on running “his” bank. Tan was also a great philanthropist and his charitable legacy lives on in the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, which is now run by his daughter from the house where he lived for almost half a century.
Wee Cho Yaw was CEO of UOB from 1974 to 2007 and is currently “chairman emeritus” of the firm, which is now run by his son, Wee Ee Cheong. Wee himself is the son of Wee Kheng Chiang – who founded United Chinese Bank (UCB), UOB’s predecessor, in 1935 – and he spent his early career learning the ropes from his millionaire father before becoming a UCB board member in 1958 and managing director two years later. During the 1960s Wee expanded OUB’s branch network in Singapore and internationally, and diversified into sectors such as foreign exchange, international trade financing and merchant banking.
In 1971, a year after UOB went public, Wee oversaw a deal to buy 49.8% of the Chung Khiaw Bank, beating off six rivals, doubling UOB’s size and triggering its regional expansion. Wee drove UOB’s growth throughout the 1980s, acquiring Far Eastern Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank, and entering the stockbroking, fund-management and futures-trading markets. In the 1990s he was a critic of the liberalisation of Singapore’s finance sector which gave foreign banks more market access.
Piyush Gupta, the current CEO of DBS, is the best-known face in Singaporean banking today and is widely credited with making his firm a more important player across Asia since he took the reins in 2009. As we reported in April, more than the half the bank’s staff are now based outside of Singapore as Gupta pivots DBS' business towards markets like China, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Gupta, who was born in India and started his career at Citibank there in 1982, is himself an excellent example of Singapore’s ability to attract international talent. Moving to Singapore with Citi in 1991 as chief of staff to the Asia head, he rose up the ranks with the bank, eventually becoming CEO for South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
While Gupta has drawn plaudits for DBS’ financial results – the bank’s Q1 profit this year rose 3% to reach a record $1.27bn – he has also established a reputation as a finance-sector thought leader in Asia and internationally. He is a particularly strong proponent of digital banking and the need for banks to behave like technology companies and think beyond merely developing mobile apps. Gupta has also promoted the blending of Asian and Western management styles at DBS and has spoken about why banks must grow their own talent pools and improve gender diversity.
Ho Ching became the CEO of Temasek Holdings, an investment company owned by the Singapore Government, in 2004 after joining in 2002 as executive director. She is now rated the 43th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. Under her leadership Temasek has blossomed from a domestic-focused firm to a major international investor, with a portfolio that stood at S$223bn in March 2014. That year she also oversaw Temasek’s most active 12 months for new investments since 2007.
Ho achieved her leadership success without a traditional financial services background – she has an MSc in electrical engineering from Stanford University and started her career as an engineer with the Ministry of Defence of Singapore in 1976, becoming director of the ministry’s procurement agency seven years later. She then joined Singapore Technologies Engineering, becoming its president and CEO in 1997 and overseeing its listing. Ho is the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and also has a track record in public service, having served as chair of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research along with various other governmental bodies.