This is Your Digital Banking License: Singapore Edition

Financial services were the growth story Southeast Asia’s biggest startups pitched to investors in 2019, and that would seem to align with MAS’ vision. But there are fundamental concerns around the viability of these new licences and the groups that have bid for them.

How, for example, will multi-member consortia work in unison while there is uncertainty over the immediate five-year future of many startup applicants. Then, at a fundamental level, it is unclear if digital banks can even appeal to consumers and SMEs in Singapore. “How easy is it to get a 10X improvement in customer experience? People are kidding themselves that an improved version of what exists is enough to get new customers,” a financial markets analyst told us under the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the licence bidders.

The impact of digital banks on the three traditional local banks—Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), and the United Overseas Bank (UOB)—is expected to be limited. A forecast by brokerage firm Maybank Kim Eng sees digital banks accounting for just 1.2% of the Singapore dollar-denominated loan market share over the next three years.

Making money as a bank

Banks rely on loans as their main source of income. Customers deposit their money in banks, which provides cheap capital for them to disburse loans. For example, loans made up 64% of the total income for DBS—Southeast Asia’s largest bank—in the third quarter of 2019
A report by Blackbox Research found that 62% of respondents in Singapore were “quite interested” in moving some or all of their banking services to a digital bank. Still, the same survey concluded that 86% of respondents were satisfied with their current bank. Digital banks clearly need a workaround to navigate Singapore’s many paradoxes. And not everyone’s equipped.

Small market, odd bedfellows

Speculation on the licence bids has been rampant, and it isn’t restricted to who is in the running. Some high-profile pullouts hinted at uncertainty from bidders and the behind-the-scenes politics of consortia.

The OCBC was left at the altar when an alliance with SME-focused lending platform Validus Capital and Singaporean conglomerate Keppel Corporation collapsed. The official word? Keppel’s board is undergoing a strategic review of its operations. OCBC did not respond to our question regarding why its partners pulled out of the bid.

Things were murkier still at insurance provider Great Eastern—an OCBC subsidiary, no less—which failed to join a promising-looking consortium with Grab and telecom company Singtel, a financial industry executive tells us. A source revealed that Great Eastern had pulled out on its own, while the company and Singtel declined to comment.

Another Chinese entity, OneConnect—a tech-focused offshoot of conglomerate Ping An Insurance—also ditched its plans to bid. This was because of fears that the process may distract it from its initial public offering in the United States in December, the executive says. The listing saw it raise nearly half of its $504 million target at a slashed valuation of $3.6 billion, down from $7.5 billion in 2018. OneConnect claimed that it did not plan to apply for a Singapore digital bank licence and declined to comment on whether it opted against making an application.