9 August 2021

Reflecting on four transitions for a globally sustainable Singapore

Is there any other country whose national character so closely identifies with the notion that “no man is an island”?

From a quiet fishing village with few resources, Singapore - out of a “backs-to-the-wall” necessity - has gone through immense change, adaption and re-invention.

Today, it’s a commercial force on a global scale. We’re the fifth largest financial centre in the world and the second most competitive in terms of global wealth management, behind Switzerland.

And we’ve accomplished this in just over 50 years.

Personally, my family and I have lived this journey of immense change, and I am very proud to have been entrusted to lead HSBC in the next phase of its growth in Singapore.

But as I return to Singapore to lead HSBC after 22 years abroad it’s clear that the pandemic and several structural changes are placing South-east Asia - and Singapore within that - at an inflection point.

Four transitions
There are four major transitions that come to mind.

  1. The pivot of global trade and supply chains to South-east Asia to leverage its lower cost manufacturing and rising consumer base has been underway for two decades. But Covid-19 and the need for “just-in-case” versus “just-in-time” supply chains, constant lockdowns and the need for improved productivity across the region risk global firms having a re-think of the region.
  2. The transition to a digital economy. Asean’s digital economy is experiencing the fastest growth in the world, with 400 million internet users, including 40 million that came online in 2020 alone. But the region’s rapid explosion of a digital way of life is leaving many people and businesses behind.
  3. The rapid growth of personal wealth in the region – the number of middle-income households is expected to double to 120 million by 2025. However, the rise has been uneven and a lot of wealth has been eroded over the past year.
  4. Climate change – South-east Asia is among the most vulnerable regions in the world to natural disasters brought on by climate change. Yet a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that only 37 per cent of chief executives in Asia-Pacific have considered climate change within their strategic risk management activities, below the 40 per cent global average.

In times of economic, social and global uncertainty - the likes that we’re facing now - the risk of social and economic threads being unpicked are immense.

Singapore’s National Day is a time for celebration and reflection, but also about thinking ahead.
So how can Singapore respond to the challenges it faces?

For me, it’s going back to first principles.

Singapore’s foundation was built on the premise that despite being a small island we could not have a “small island” mentality, but instead work hard to face our realities and overcome our natural shortcomings by being smart, by having honest conversations and by meeting problems head on.

For example: How does society preserve the generational stitching of families – helping them to pass on their wealth and legacy?

How does Singapore ensure its businesses and its people (including ours) adapt and thrive amongst changing technological advancement or global economic headwinds? How do we support and nurture our entrepreneurs in these time of stress and finally, how does Singapore take on the challenges from shifting natural environment in areas like pollution, depletion of natural resources, changing weather patterns and overcrowding from urbanisation.

One of Singapore’s levers to address these – where government, society and business intersect – is its banking sector.

So when I am asked my ambition for HSBC Singapore, it’s simply that we follow the life-cycles of our customers, communities and employees to help them sustainably face the changes that are going on around them and turn them into opportunities.

We can do this across all sections of society.

We can help customers rebuild their personal and business finances, we can help them and our own people re-imagine their lives, careers and business models including moving to digital and transitioning to lower carbon way of working, and we can continue to give back to the community.

Doing all of the above benefits Singapore as well as our customers, people and society.

Singapore has gone through immense change. Now, as we celebrate our National Day, the future is waiting in moments of transition: across its trade and supply chains, its digital economies, adaption of sustainable practices, and rising wealth.

HSBC has been a part of this change over the past 145 years: from the 1880s when we supported Singapore’s rubber exports, to its post-war re-build, through to supporting the Republic’s 1970s foray into technological development.

Our purpose has always been to connect our customers, our people and our communities to changes and turn them into opportunities - and it will be the same again.

Happy National Day, Singapore.

A contribution piece by Kee Joo Wong, HSBC Singapore CEO. A version of this piece was first published in The Straits Times on 9th August 2021.