A Journey Through the Banking History of Singapore

Step into the world of Singapore’s bustling financial hub, where banks thrive and opportunities abound. As Singaporeans, we’re no strangers to the multitude of banks gracing our city-state. But have you ever paused to ponder the captivating history that underlies these institutions? Prepare to embark on a remarkable journey as we delve into the riveting tale of Singapore’s banking heritage. 

From the early days of foreign bank arrivals to the birth of local establishments, and the rise of the legendary “Big Three” banks, each chapter in this chronicle has played a pivotal role in shaping Singapore’s formidable financial prowess.

The Early Arrival of Foreign Banks in Singapore

In the 19th century, when Singapore was still under British control, foreign banks began their entry onto the island. These pioneering financial institutions played a crucial role in shaping Singapore’s future as a prominent financial center.

In 1840, the Union Bank of Calcutta, now known as the State Bank of India, proudly became the first bank to establish its presence in Singapore. This significant event paved the way for others to follow suit.

Shortly after, the Chartered Bank (currently recognized as Standard Chartered Bank), Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (now ABN Amro Bank), Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (popularly known as HSBC), First National City Bank of New York (better identified as Citibank), Mercantile Bank, and the Banque de L’Indochine also decided to set up their branches on the island.

The choice of making Singapore their home had a profound impact on its financial landscape, setting the stage for remarkable growth and development in the years that followed.

Rise of Homegrown Banks in Singapore

Back in the day, it was the foreign banks that held all the power. But gradually, our own local banks started to make their mark, perfectly attuned to the needs of Singapore’s growing population. One of the early pioneers was Kwong Yik Bank, which came into existence in 1903. Unfortunately, it faced financial difficulties and eventually faded away.

However, other homegrown banks took a different path altogether. Let’s dive into the story of Sze Hai Tong Banking & Insurance Company Limited, which sprang up in 1907, thanks to the Teochew community. Not only did they expand beyond our borders, but they also successfully merged with OCBC.

Another great example is Lee Wah Bank, brought to life by the visionary Mr. Eu Tong Sen in 1920. It thrived on its own until UOB came knocking in 1994, acquiring it to strengthen its position. And let’s not forget the amalgamation of Chinese Commercial Bank, Ho Hong Bank, and Oversea-Chinese Bank in 1932, paving the way for the bank we now know as OCBC.

Our very own local banks have come a long way since their inception, showing remarkable growth and adaptability. They have firmly established themselves in Singapore’s financial landscape, serving the people with unwavering dedication.

The Big Three Banks

When it comes to the banking scene in Singapore, there are three heavyweights that have been calling the shots for quite some time now. These three financial powerhouses are none other than United Overseas Bank Limited (UOB), Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), and Oversea-Chinese Bank Corporation Limited (OCBC). 

United Oversea Bank Limited (UOB)

Back in 1935, a guy named Datuk Wee Kheng Chiang had a brilliant idea and started a bank called United Chinese Bank (UCB). Fast forward to 1965, they decided to spice things up and changed their name to United Oversea Bank (UOB). That’s when they set their sights on Hong Kong and started making waves there too. 

To complete their transformation, they introduced a brand-new logo in 1971. This logo was all about security and unity, something they really valued. UOB didn’t stop there, though. They had big dreams and made some smart moves by acquiring other companies. This helped them become a big shot in the banking world, earning themselves a prime spot in the industry.

Development Bank of Singapore (DBS)

Picture this: Singapore, 1968. Suddenly, a dynamic force bursts onto the financial scene, shaking things up. Enter the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS). Their mission? To ignite Singapore’s economic growth and spur industrialization. And let me tell you, they absolutely nailed it!

Fast forward to 1998, when DBS joined forces with the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). This strategic move created a financial powerhouse like no other, with a reach and accessibility that were second to none. The impact was undeniable, setting the stage for a new era in Singapore’s financial landscape.

But DBS didn’t stop there. They had an unwavering commitment to innovation, always seeking new ways to serve their customers. In 2007, they introduced a game-changer: The Islamic Bank of Asia (IB Asia). This groundbreaking initiative was specifically designed to meet the unique needs of the Muslim community, opening up new doors and opportunities for all.

Oversea-Chinese Bank Corporation Limited (OCBC)

OCBC has an interesting background that goes back to 1932 when three Hokkien banks decided to team up. They were pretty smart to do so because, under the brilliant guidance of Dato Lee Kong Chian and Tan Sri Tan Chin Tuan, OCBC grew to become a big shot in the banking world, not just in Singapore but also in Malaysia. 

What really set OCBC apart was its knack for thinking outside the box. They were the first ones to open branches in China, which was a pretty bold move at the time. And they didn’t stop there – OCBC played a major role in the Asian dollar market, making waves in the financial scene. But it wasn’t just about making bold moves. 

OCBC knew how to make banking more convenient for the people. They introduced cool services like a night-safe system, where you could deposit your money even after the banks closed for the day. And they even had mobile bank units, bringing banking services right to your doorstep.

The Transformation of Singapore’s Banking Landscape

Singapore has carved out a formidable position in the world of finance, earning recognition as a major player in the global market. With a plethora of banks operating within its boundaries, including the formidable trio of DBS, UOB, and OCBC, Singapore’s banking landscape has experienced a remarkable transformation.

The secret to this remarkable achievement lies in a series of calculated maneuvers. Firstly, the banking sector underwent a process of liberalization, ushering in new avenues for growth and ingenuity. This strategic move paved the way for the industry to tap into the expanding pool of affluent individuals across Asia and other parts of the world, ultimately leading to the expansion of our private banking services.

Singapore’s banks astutely recognized the growing demand for sophisticated financial solutions among the wealthy elite. By tailoring its offerings to cater to the discerning needs of this affluent clientele, the banking sector has flourished, solidifying its reputation as a global frontrunner.

The Bottom Line

Singaporeans have every reason to be proud of the impressive evolution of our banking industry. Starting with the arrival of foreign banks in colonial times, followed by the growth of local institutions, and culminating in the dominance of the “Big Three” banks, each phase in Singapore’s banking history has contributed to our nation’s financial prowess. 

The present-day banks carry the torch of tradition, serving as a testament to our past, while their global reputation showcases the resilience and strength of our banking sector. As we forge ahead, let us not forget the rich tapestry of history that continues to shape the future of banking in Singapore.

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