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Bank of Singapore’s private banking assets rise despite political turmoil, Hong Kong CEO says

Chad Bray

A former Singapore police officer, Derrick Tan readily admits he is not a tech-savvy guy.

The Bank of Singapore’s Hong Kong chief executive previously relied on a gaggle of information technology staff to arrange conference calls and set up video conferences.

But, the coronavirus pandemic has forced Tan – and his staff of private bankers – to radically adjust how they go about their business and interact with their clients, who already expect a high level of service. That has included becoming his own IT guy.

“In the past, banks always pivoted in terms of adapting to markets, strategies,” Tan said. “Today, you can’t pivot any more. You have to leap. It’s totally different.”

The change in approach seems to be working at the private banking arm of Singapore’s Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). The Bank of Singapore’s greater China operations, which includes clients from Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan, saw a 10 per cent increase in assets under management year over year in the first quarter and is expected to post double digit gains in the second quarter, Tan said.

The increase in assets under management from its China and Hong Kong business came even as the Hang Seng Index finished May with its fourth monthly loss of the year, dropping 6.8 per cent for the month. The benchmark of Hong Kong stocks has fallen 19 per cent this year.

Assets under management for Bank of Singapore’s overall business, which includes hubs in Luxembourg, Dubai and Singapore, declined 4 per cent to US$104 billion at the end of March. OCBC said the unit had positive net new money in the quarter, but that was offset by negative market actions.

Bank of Singapore's Tan sees Hong Kong retaining its status as a wealth management hub. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The growth in the Hong Kong and China business has not come without some personal sacrifice.

Tan, who has been staying in a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, said he has not seen his wife or two sons for four months as he has not travelled home to Singapore, which remains under lockdown.

The growth also has come against the backdrop of rising tensions between the United States and China over the adoption of a controversial national security law for Hong Kong. Last week, the US declared Hong Kong no longer maintains a “high degree of autonomy” from China, threatening its special trading status.

Tan, who declined to discuss the political situation, said he believes the city will continue to serve as a portal to China, particularly for wealth management.

“We will continue as a bank, as a group to invest in this region through Hong Kong unless we can’t,” Tan said. “As far as what we can see now, we are not stopping our investment in Hong Kong.”

Despite volatile markets in recent months as the pandemic has weighed on the global economy, clients have been “seeing a lot of opportunities” in today’s environment, Tan said.

The coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19, has infected millions of people worldwide and spurred lockdowns of major cities around the globe, including Bank of Singapore’s home base. It has also forced businesses to rethink how they organise offices, deploy staff and engage with clients.

Bank of Singapore’s old model of interacting with clients every few weeks have evolved into daily phone calls with key clients and a series of educational videos to teach clients about wealth planning and family offices, Tan said.

“In the past, the client would say come by when you have time. We have lunch or we have dinner, and we talk about this,” Tan said. “Today, they want to know how can they learn more.”

Clients have doubled their use of the bank’s digital products since the pandemic began, he said.

The recent changes followed a push under Tan to make the workplace more mobile and encourage more remote working – which turned out to be prescient ahead of the pandemic. As many as 60 per cent of the bank’s staff in Hong Kong have worked from home since the pandemic began, he said.

“In the past people wanted their own space, their desk. People are very adaptive. As long as I have my laptop, I can work from anywhere. I can even work from home,” Tan said.

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