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An international bank finds a home in Singapore

Interview - November 12, 2018

American banking giant Citi has been present in Singapore since 1902 and is represented in nearly every asset class. As one of the country’s largest banking employer, it is playing a key role in the development of its financial services sector. In this interview, Amol Gupte outlines Singapore’s geographical, political and regulatory benefits.



ASEAN is the fastest growing economic bloc even though there are still a lot of challenges in developing the area. Singapore is putting a lot of efforts towards soft infrastructure with digitalization. How important is technology in the development of ASEAN in the financial sector?

Technology is the heartbeat of the new economy. While it is no panacea for solving all the world’s economic challenges, it has the potential to help countries make the leap to a better future.

When we look at ASEAN, more than half of its adult population does not have a bank account, roughly two thirds of adults do not have debit cards and over 90% do not have credit cards, but more than 70% holds a smartphone[1].

The possibilities of millions of people connected by a computer in the hand are huge. A case in point is the widespread adoption of mobile money, which is the technology that allows people to receive, store and spend money using a mobile phone device. While mobile money was started to cater for migrant remittances from cities to villages, the sector has grown to play a much wider role in the economy today[2], impacting the global financial sector and opening up new business opportunities and redefining others. 

The coming of age of e-commerce is a good example. E-commerce has existed since 1970s but the advent of smartphones has enabled the sector to find new ways into markets.

By virtue of their size, India and China are major markets for e-commerce. I see ASEAN as the next frontier. As a region, ASEAN is the third most populous market globally with over 640 million people and it has consistently outperformed global growth with its stable track record of above-average GDP growth of 5.2% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the last decade[3]. With a growing middle class that is expected to grow from 190 million in 2012 to 400 million in 2020[4], young population and rising internet population, it has become a gold rush for e-commerce giants looking to expand beyond their home ground. 


One of the criticisms ASEAN has been receiving is the lack of integration which is where the AEC 2025 Blueprint comes in. How important is it that ASEAN accelerates the pace of integration?

Integration is absolutely necessary. When it comes to pace, I am of the view that going slow is better than going too fast.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that ASEAN has made great strides in cooperation in all areas -- economically, politically and socially -- considering that geopolitical tensions between member states occurred just a few decades ago after British forces withdrew from Southeast Asia.

To further underpin economic growth, ASEAN needs to have greater integration among member states and one way is through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves not just the ASEAN ten member states but six Asia Pacific countries with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements. When completed, the agreement between the 16 countries will make up over 30 per cent of global trade and 45% of the world population, and I am cautiously optimistic that RCEP has the potential to deliver significant opportunities for businesses in this region.


The other initiative that has impacted the development of ASEAN has been The Belt and Road Initiative. Singapore throughout the southern transport corridor has been developing the infrastructure. What impact do you foresee from The Belt and Road Initiative on Singapore and on ASEAN as a whole?

We see first-hand the opportunities that BRI brings to Citi’s clients across our network. BRI comprises over 65 markets which contribute around 30% of GDP and make up 40% of global trade.

Our clients doing business in ASEAN are optimistic about BRI and the opportunities it presents.  Today, ASEAN is already China's third-largest trading partner while China is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner. From being primarily a trading partner, China has increasingly emerged as a direct investor and builder in ASEAN since the launch of the BRI in September 2013. Compared to the immediate pre-BRI period (2010 – 2013), China’s committed investments into ASEAN per annum surged 77% post BRI launch (2014-1H17). ASEAN now accounts for one-third of China’s investment commitments and construction contracts in BRI regions, with China more willing to acquire equity stakes in ASEAN versus other BRI regions. China currently represents the third largest source of realized FDI in ASEAN, surpassing Japan and the US[5]. Considering ASEAN’s annual infrastructure is estimated to exceed US$100bn in the next 10-15 years[6], the region stands to significantly benefit from BRI.

The positive domino effect on the economy, although not immediate, cannot be underestimated. With improvements in the physical, digital and financial infrastructures and connectivity in ASEAN, the bloc will be one step closer in maximizing the growth potential of a digital economy.

Singapore, an important cog in the wheel along the Belt and Road corridor, is also well-placed to benefit from BRI due to a number of factors. The city-state’s strategic location enables it to be the gateway for BRI investments from Chinese firms into ASEAN for infrastructure projects in the short term. As trade becomes more seamless due to better connectivity, the initiative would allow Singapore to capture trade flows in the long term. Underpinning Singapore’s unique geographical location is its strong ecosystem of financial institutions and professional services providers, an established capital market, its status as one of the largest offshore renminbi centres and the important role that it plays managing FX risks for companies.

Against this backdrop, without a doubt, BRI is opening up significant opportunities for companies operating in this part of the world.


Singapore is very proactive in adapting to the current trends. What is your analysis of the CFE report and the ITMs’ implementation in Singapore?

The efficiency and farsightedness of the Singapore government is second to none. Take the Industry Transformation Map for example. The Government rolled out the S$4.5b Industry Transformation Program at Budget 2016 and by March this year, the final Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for all 6 clusters and 23 industries was unveiled.

A key priority of ITMs is to ensure that Singaporeans have the right skills to thrive in the future. In the financial services sector where Citi is in, one could argue that automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are replacing human minds and taking away banking jobs. But here in Singapore, the Institute of Banking and Finance Singapore (IBF), with MAS’ support, has been steadfastly developing the professional skills and competencies of financial sector professionals in partnership with the financial industry, government agencies, training providers and the trade unions.

There is no doubt that Singapore is ahead of the curve when it comes to investing in the skillsets of its people to ensure that they are future-ready, and I am confident that its efforts today will pay dividends in years to come.


In three years, there has been a lot of advancement. One of the big ones has been the cloud computing but also the open architecture with API to boost innovation. When it comes to innovation and creation, what does the Singapore and ASEAN operation play within the global operation of Citibank?

If you look at Singapore, innovation has also been a cornerstone of the city-state’s growth since independence over 50 years ago. Despite its small size and limited natural resources, the country has moved from third world to first in less than half a century, its GDP per capita today is one of the highest in the world and it is one of the top destinations in the world for foreign direct investments (FDI).

Singapore's success didn’t happen by chance and the way I see it, it is certainly not resting on its laurels. The city-state is well-aware that in order for a knowledge-based market to break new ground on the innovation front, it cannot compete with other economies on the basis of cost but instead a value-creating economy underpinned by innovation is key to sustain growth.

In the financial services industry, FinTech is one of the key drivers of innovation. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) was farsighted in the potential that they see in FinTech. Recognizing the game-changing potential of FinTech early, they acted swiftly to build up a vibrant FinTech ecosystem in the span of about three years. Today, we see the coming together of diverse players including technology providers and new technologies, banks and FIs, infrastructure providers, investors and incubators, start-ups, and learning institutions. Importantly, this robust ecosystem is backed by a supportive regulatory regime and progressive policy initiatives. By the end of 2017, Singapore had more than 400 FinTech ventures based in the city-state and over 30 FinTech innovation labs or research centers set up by multinational corporations. 

Similar to Singapore, success didn’t happen by chance for us at Citi. Innovation is the hallmark of who we and for centuries, we’ve been innovating to enable progress for the communities and clients that we serve.

When it comes to digital innovations, Singapore is an important test-bed for many of Citi Global digital initiatives such as Citi Bot on Facebook Messenger, Voice Biometrics and Citi’s Pay with Points capability on Samsung Pay. We were also the first to introduce the Innovation Lab concept to the banking industry in Singapore back in 2011 and rolled out not just one lab but two Innovation Labs in Singapore -- one for our consumer business and one for our Treasury and Trade Solutions (TTS) business. Today, just about every bank has a similar lab to incubate and accelerate ideas from concept to execution.

Singapore is also where we rolled out Citi Mobile Challenge, a global initiative where we invited developers to build solutions that are capable of running on Citi's digital platforms globally, and the location where we collaborated with public and private sector allies to launch the Citi Tech for Integrity Challenge (T4I) in an effort to encourage technology innovators from around the world to create solutions to promote integrity, accountability and transparency in the public sector space.

For successful digital transformation to take place in any organization, it requires not just the adoption of new technologies but a change in mindset. We are building an environment where our people are encouraged to be open and curious, and where they are given the opportunity to experiment, fail, and restart. We do that not just in one or two markets but globally across almost 100 markets where we are present.


One of the big differences that we saw when we interviewed the MAS is that they are both, a regulator and promoter of the ecosystem. How would you compare the mentality here? How conducive is it for innovation in Singapore compared to other hubs?

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is amongst one of the most progressive regulators that we have interacted with. On the one hand, they set the bar high when it comes to financial supervision and have in place strong governance, controls and standards. On the other hand, they are visionary and pragmatic at the same, and have delivered transformative projects such as automating what happens around trade using Blockchain.

MAS has a dedicated Financial Centre Development Department just looking at identifying new ways of nurturing the sector in Singapore among other responsibilities, and we feel very comfortable going to them to explore new ways of doing things even if it is very bold.


In ASEAN, some countries are more developed than others especially when it comes to financial inclusion.  To what extent is that a competitive advantage for Singapore and or the region to be able to share ideas from developed to underdeveloped economies?

The states in ASEAN have a complimentary relationship and they all form part of a large ecosystem.  For example, countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar are major manufacturing hubs.  Singapore, a world renowned financial hub, is often seen as a gateway to ASEAN. Malaysia and Thailand have thriving startup scenes while The Philippines is often seen as a Business Process Outsourcing hub. There is a wide spectrum of countries in this region and each of them play to their strengths while competing at the same time. The way I see it, the diversity in their economies is one of the bloc’s greatest strengths.


Citibank have been experiencing growth across different segments from deposit to wealth management. Asia is Citi’s biggest market outside of the US. How do you see the evolution of Citibank Singapore/ASEAN in the future?

Our biggest competitive advantage at Citi is our global network and this is also our key differentiator. Our clients, whether they are our wholesale or our retail, value our network. For wholesale clients conducting their businesses in multiple markets, our network gives them operational efficiency. For retail clients who want to grow their wealth, they have access to international asset classes through Citi.

ASEAN is an important region for Citi in our global network given the size and the profitability of the business that we have here. It is amongst a few regions where we offer a full spectrum of our business which is everything from consumer wealth management services to investment banking. When you look at ASEAN, there isn’t a country which is more important than another. Ultimately, a network works only when they are all together. Looking ahead, the stars are aligned for ASEAN the way we see it thanks to a demographic boom, rapidly digitalizing economy, infrastructure growth and a growing middle class. Looking ahead, we continue to be deeply committed to the region.


When it comes to labor market disruption, how are you working with your employees through initiatives to upskill their talents?

The banking industry is at a major digital crossroads. It faces disruption by FinTech players, telco operators and even technology vendors as well as a changing consumer who is increasingly demanding that our products match the state-of-the-art digital services they are receiving from other industries. Our continued existence will only be possible if we as an organization and our entire workforce reinvent ourselves to exist within the changing ecosystem.

As the largest foreign banking employer in Singapore with deep roots in this country that has stretched more than a century, Citi is deeply committed to preparing today’s workforce for tomorrow’s economy.

Recently, we rolled out the Professional Conversion Program (PCP) for about 400 Citi staff from the Consumer Banking and Operations & Technology divisions. Over the next few months, they will undergo training to develop skills in customer journey mapping, design thinking, automation and cyber security, which are increasingly important in the digital economy. Upon obtaining the necessary knowledge and competency, staff will be ready to take on new or enhanced roles within Citi.  For instance, a Universal Service Banker, who currently carries out banking transactions for customers, will be able to answer customers’ queries through virtual channels. An Operations Specialist will take on additional responsibilities such as digital transformation and process automation.  

With digital transformation reshaping every aspect of the banking sector, it is imperative that we take steps to prepare our staff to face changes with confidence. We see the rollout of PCP as a timely step in the right direction as it can spark our employees’ interest in new job areas which could potentially lead them to embark on new, rewarding career pathway

Since July this year, Citi staff also has access to the Learn@IBF app, which features content on topics and new developments in the financial world. This will enable them to complement their training by learning on the go through content curated by industry specialists.



[1] World Bank, IMF (World Economic Outlook Database, April 2018), US Census Bureau, We are Social, Citi Research Estimates (Extracted from the report “Asean Banks & Telecom: Digital Payments and Mobile Money — Defenders & Disruptors”, 28 August 2018)

[2] Citi Research, The Future of Money is Mobile: Growing Fast and Doing Good in Emerging & Frontier Markets, 17 September 2018

[3] EY, Rediscover ASEAN: A growth story of 10 countries, 2017

[4] Nielson, ASEAN 2015: Seeing Around The Corner, 2014

[5] Citi Research, Belt and Road, 15 January 2018

[6] Citi Research, Asia Economics View Surveying ASEAN’s Infrastructure Gap, 18 February 2016