Stories > Rooted in Culture

2020 • Issue 1

Rooted in Culture

Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Bank, discusses why an innate understanding of cultural nuances and purpose filled entrepreneurial drive helps to deepen Singapore’s connection with global communities.



iyush Gupta is the CEO of DBS Bank, one of Singapore’s leading home-grown financial institutions that has earned global recognition for the use of innovative digital technology. Having worked extensively in Asia, he is inspired by the purposedriven role businesses can play in modern society. As an influential figure in the global financial sector, he believes Singaporeans have the capacity to help shape tomorrow’s world for future generations. As a champion of corporate philanthropy, climate change and digital innovation, the Singaporean has earned numerous accolades, including being one of the world’s 100 best-performing chief executives in the 2019 edition of The CEO 100 of the Harvard Business Review. He is the vice-chairman of the Institute of International Finance, Washington; and chairman of the Sim Kee Boon Institute for Financial Economics Advisory Board. He is a member of the United Nations Secretary- General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); Singapore’s Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data; the McKinsey Advisory Council; Enterprise Singapore; the National Research Foundation; and the Council for Board Diversity. He was instrumental in launching the DBS Foundation, which is among the first of such initiatives here that support social entrepreneurship in the region.

1. Singapore is widely regarded as one of the world’s top financial hubs. How has this led us to forge closer ties with the international community at large?

Right after Singapore’s independence, Dutch economist Albert Winsemius advised the administration of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that due to the time zone difference between Tokyo and Zurich, there is an opportunity for someone to intermediate that gap. That created a huge dollar market and fund management centre worth $3.5 trillion, where money flows in from around the world.

The infrastructure we have created for education, healthcare, transportation and a world-class transit hub – to make Singapore a compelling place to live and work in for people from around the world – played a big role in creating a financial centre here. We have established a vibrant fintech hub that attracts venture capitalists who want to invest money or create a start-up. We are also the world’s third largest foreign exchange market and one of the largest global trading hubs, in addition to being a big source of capital raising in the world. All of this helps cement Singapore’s role in the global arena.

2. What are some of the cultural lessons that you have gleaned from working with people in various countries?

I find that people have the same aspirations everywhere. One of our first takeaways, as we went from country to country, was that the customer value proposition was not that dissimilar in terms of what people really need – humans universally are more similar than they are different.

However, three things make a difference: cultural nuances, the stage of economic development, and the different set of rules and regulations in countries. You have to be able to customise and create a local variant in every market. When we launched mobile-only digital bank in other countries, it revealed useful insights. For example, in India, the convenience factor was number one, as was the high interest offering, as its people are very attuned to getting high fixed deposit rates. In Indonesia, the convenience proposition was the same as India’s but the high interest rate offering was not that compelling. We found that Indonesian customers were far more willing to open an account with us if there was a gift involved.

It is to learn such insights that more Singaporeans are now venturing overseas to gain better socio-cultural knowledge as we increasingly find ourselves engaged in a global discourse.

At the helm of DBS Bank since 2009, CEO Piyush Gupta has transformed the financial institution into one of the most technologically advanced banks, and established the DBS Foundation to encourage social entrepreneurship in the region to positively impact communities.

“I'm A Big Believer In Getting People Together For Meetings And The Exchange Of Ideas, Whether Physically Or Through Technology. All Of Our Frameworks Can Only Come Alive When People In Different Countries Work Towards A Common Goal.”

3. DBS embodies Singapore’s outward approach and innovative streak, yet it remains deeply rooted in the country. How do you achieve such a balance, and how are these same values applied in your global offices?

There is no trade-off between Singapore’s identity and modern transformation. In fact, I’d argue that being technologically sophisticated and having a bias for execution is what Singapore is known for. In many countries, we start by marketing ourselves as the bank from Singapore, because Singapore plays to what we stand for.

We have tried to imbibe a set of values that are important to us, and what helps differentiate us from other global players who may also be technologically savvy but don’t necessarily embrace the same value system like we do. We emphasise five areas of competitive advantage in our approach: We believe in forging long-term relationships, through good times and bad; and we imbue the culture of good service. We focus on innovation, which is different from the Western context because the scale is different and riddled with small problems such as varied cultural sensibilities, and scale of development throughout the region. Insights and connectivity are also important for us.

I’m a big believer in getting people together for meetings and the exchange of ideas, whether physically or through technology. All of our frameworks can only come alive when people in different countries work towards a common goal. This also links back to the very basis of the Singapore International Foundation – the concept of people and idea exchange, and the mobility of the populace.

4. As a globally recognised banker, how do you envisage playing a crucial role in the world economy?

People see Singapore as a living lab – it’s a small enough size to get things done but still big and credible enough for this to be replicated elsewhere. Being the vice-chairman at the Washington-based Institute of International Finance, a leading industry advocacy body, gives me a platform to engage with global regulators and counterparts. I’m on the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s task force for digital financing of the SDGs, because these organisations believe that Singapore can help to shape the global discourse on how digital technology can boost the SDGs.

Through the Association of Banks in Singapore, we work a lot on the Asean level. We have conducted workshops for countries such as Cambodia and Laos to help them come up the curve in the digital sector, compliance and sustainability.

Alongside the Monetary Authority of Singapore, we are creating a portal where SMEs from across the region can share their innovations. This helps us build closer ties with our neighbours but also make a real impact upon more communities.

5. What would you say to young Singaporeans who want to create a better world by design as global citizens?

The first thing I’d say to them is that you must have a sense of purpose. Many of the solutions to complex problems will need to be transnational, and they will have to come from the private and people sectors. Second, you have to venture out of Singapore because our problems are relatively small. By engaging with developing countries on pertinent issues such as climate change, our youth can not only make a difference, but also help us strengthen our ties with the global community.

6. While Singapore has built its reputation on being a financial epicentre, what are some of the areas in which we can learn from the other nations?

Some countries have done a good job of redefining their financial industry. For example, in China, financial services firms also operate shopping malls and healthcare business. Africa and Bangladesh have created mobile-based money transfer systems for their unbanked population. The State Bank of India started an initiative with the Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan programme, which enrolled over 300 million people in the banking system in two years. In the past four years, Indonesia’s Bank Rakyat has financed over 16 million SMEs to the tune of $25 billion. We can tweak some of these to our requirements.

“By Engaging With Developing Countries, Our Youth Can Not Only Make A Difference, But Also Help Us Strengthen Our Ties With The Global Community. This Also Links Back To The Very Basis Of The Singapore International Foundation – The Concept Of People And Idea Exchange, And The Mobility Of The Populace.”

7. The DBS Foundation has been at the forefront of positive community impact and social entrepreneurship. How has this led to increased outreach and collaborations with other countries?

The DBS Foundation is anchored to making an impact through social entrepreneurship.

We figured 10 years ago that while we can impact communities, to create an exponential impact, we should enable other companies to do likewise. For example, this year, we are partnering with the Singapore Management University to give out the Social Impact Prize at the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition, which has attracted more than 2,500 applicants from over 60 countries. This, in turn, has created a global social enterprise ecosystem which enables collaboration and idea exchange not only between Singapore and other countries but also among themselves. To a large extent, we, in Singapore, have been able to facilitate conversations that have benefitted communities even in Africa and Papua New Guinea.

8. How has the social entrepreneurial landscape evolved in Singapore, and what can we learn from other countries that place a similar emphasis on innovation-driven community growth?

When surveys were run among participants about 10 years ago asking what their understanding of social entrepreneurship was, only 10 to 15 per cent knew what it meant. In 2016, it jumped to 65 per cent. That said, we can learn a lot from social enterprises in other countries. For example, the regional social enterprises tend to focus on high-impact activities linked to the SDGs.

While some of the SDGs such as clean drinking water, agriculture – although urban farming is gaining ground – and poverty might not be as relevant to us, one thing we can learn from them is how to align our development to a broader set of SDGs than are apparent to us. Some of these countries also have really good social enterprise accelerator agencies which we could learn a lot from.

9. As a young nation, what are some of the challenges that we need to overcome in an evolving world that is also bridled with uncertainties – both natural and man-made – to stay relevant in the global community?

Our positioning as a living lab is great. But as the world is changing, one thing that we need to double down on is the idea of a smart nation. If we can really create the world’s first 2D smart nation and not just the hardware - such as the sensors and AI – but also the rules of society that would create a human-centred approach, it will define topics such as what is ethical to do, the relevancy of data privacy, and which AI model should we use. If we can continue to be a role model for what the future will look like and how to evolve as a civilised society, that will keep us relevant in the global context.

10. How has corporate philanthropy evolved in Singapore, and how does it manifest itself in a globalised world?

In many companies, it didn’t exist at all. Then it came on board as a distinct activity – corporate social responsibility on the side. But now, it’s being integrated with the companies’ objectives as they are increasingly sharpening their purpose, and then trying to weave philanthropy and social impact into the nature of the business. Singapore is ranked seventh on the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index. It was in response to the investors’ growing interest in the subject that the top 100 CEOs issued a statement a few months ago at the Business Roundtable – a gathering of the most influential executives of top global companies – that shareholder value is no longer the most important aspect of running a business, but purpose is. In Singapore, Temasek is a big driver of this belief that companies make an impact.

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