In this interview, Wee Ee Cheong, deputy chairman and CEO of United Overseas Bank, a leading Singapore bank with a major presence in ASEAN, shares insights into the bank’s vision for advancing financial services in the region
United Overseas Bank (UOB), a prominent Asian financial institution, continues to expand on its nearly nine-decade history. Operating from Singapore with subsidiaries in key Asian markets like China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, UOB maintains a global presence with approximately 500 offices in 19 countries and territories.
In 2022, the bank embarked on a journey of strategic acquisitions, including Citigroup’s consumer banking businesses in four ASEAN nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is a transformational deal that the bank says will scale its ASEAN franchise by doubling its ASEAN-4 retail customer base and accelerate growth targets by five years. UOB believes it is on track to achieve an annualised revenue uplift of around SGD 1 billion ($733 million) from the four ASEAN markets. UOB Group reported a core net profit of SGD 3.1 billion ($2.27 billion) for the first half of 2023, a robust 53% year-on-year increase from its diversified business franchise. After, one-off Citigroup integration expenses, net profit was SGD 2.9 billion ($2.12 billion).
This interview with Wee Ee Cheong, deputy chairman and CEO of UOB, delves into the bank’s overarching vision, strategies, and commitment to shaping ASEAN’s financial landscape. It explores various aspects of UOB’s operations, including its objectives for the region, how it operates in diverse markets, its cohesive regional blueprint, and balancing growth with responsibility and sustainability.
Wee envisions UOB as the “bank of choice” for aspiring individuals in ASEAN, leveraging its regional connectivity and extensive footprint. He emphasises: “We believe this is one region that we can compete in and do well. We are well-connected within Southeast Asia and between Southeast Asia and Greater China. UOB aims to be the bridge for companies reshoring and onshoring their businesses in Southeast Asia.
Digital adaptability is key for operating in diverse ASEAN markets
Wee underscores the importance of tailoring UOB’s strategies to cater to the distinct needs and dynamics of each country in the region. He says: “We are here for the long-term, and we want to grow together with the people, businesses, and community here.” This adaptability ensures that UOB can effectively serve a diverse ASEAN, recognising the different economic and social needs across borders.
Maintaining a cohesive regional strategy while maximising the strengths of individual ASEAN markets is a delicate balancing act. Wee highlights UOB’s integrated regional platform, stating: “Our standardised system features an integration layer that enables the bank to plug in new technologies and to scale up quickly across the franchise.” This platform ensures a seamless experience for customers while allowing the bank to swiftly incorporate new technologies and scale up across the entire franchise.
Balancing business expansion, mergers, and acquisitions with social and environmental responsibilities is a challenge. Wee emphasises UOB’s commitment to sustainable growth within ASEAN, saying: “Our sustainability strategy is underpinned by our corporate purpose and mirrors our business approach of balancing growth with responsibility.”
The bank seeks to create tangible impact by supporting its customers in sustainable development, with Wee observing: “In our pursuit of decarbonisation, we are also mindful that Southeast Asian economies are diverse, each with their different economic and social needs.”
UOB’s initiatives extend beyond banking to contribute to the broader societal and environmental well-being of ASEAN. The bank focuses on art, children, and education, recognising these as essential elements for societal progress, and collaborating with local communities and organisations. Its corporate social responsibility efforts bring together colleagues, customers, and partners to bolster communities and foster the growth of the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs within ASEAN.
Innovating for next-gen solutions
The bank has been building centres of excellence across its markets, including Singapore. In April 2023, it announced an investment of SGD 500 ($366 million) to build its latest innovation hub in the Punggol Digital District, in the northeast of the country.
Wee highlights UOB’s drive in innovation and digital transformation, explaining: “Our new facility will be our nerve centre to ideate, develop, and pilot the next generation of digital service, including fintech and sustainable solutions.”
The bank’s omni-channel strategy ensures customers can access banking services through both physical branches and digital platforms. UOB’s platforms, such as TMRW and Infinity, use advanced technologies like generative artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain to offer personalised and customer-centric banking experiences. Wee adds: “UOB TMRW is now in four markets—Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. We continue to enhance TMRW with digital offerings to uplift customer experience across the region.”
The bank’s strategy combines modernisation and integration with the stability and scalability of its core systems, and Wee states: “Our investments have delivered positive outcomes for UOB as a regional franchise, delivering value to our customers.”
In the face of changing competitive dynamics in the region, Wee says UOB stands firm in its regional focus, strategically acquiring and investing to enhance its presence.
Focus on responsible banking
The bank maintains its grounding in responsible banking despite global issues and changing geopolitical dynamics, aligning its practices with core values and principles while actively supporting ASEAN’s growth and development. Fundamentally, it prioritises ethical banking through compliance with relevant laws and sanctions, even in challenging markets like Myanmar. On 9 August 2023, it made a noteworthy announcement of its decision to cut ties with Myanmar banks due to ethical concerns. Commenting on its decision, Wee says, “UOB complies with all relevant laws and sanctions, and we apply the necessary due diligence on transactions across all markets we operate in, including Myanmar.”
In September of 2022, a securities subsidiary of UOB, UOB Kay Hian was fined SGD375,000 ($275,000) by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) for business conduct and anti-money laundering/know your customer (AML/KYC) related compliance violations, after the bank was fined SGD 900,000 ($659,000) for similar failures over 1MDB related transactions in May 2017.
Asked about the regulatory actions and steps to mitigate and prevent similar lapses, he explains, “The ultimate aim of banking is to finance sustainable growth in the real economy. We want to be a responsible financial steward to help build the future of our customers, colleagues and community stakeholders across the region. The external environment can be fast-changing, but we are always committed to doing right by our customers.”
Wee’s leadership philosophy focuses on balancing growth with stability, innovation with risk management, and preserving heritage while embracing transformation. UOB’s corporate culture is rooted in its four key values of honour, enterprise, unity, and commitment towards a shared vision.
Growing its own timber since 1924
UOB was founded by Wee Kheng Chiang and six other partners on 6 August 1935. It was the second bank the senior Wee founded after Ban Chiang Bank, now CIMB Group, in 1924 in his hometown in Kuching of the then Malayan state of Sarawak.
UOB was originally incorporated as the United Chinese Bank and served the mainly Chinese Hokkien community. The rebranding to the current United Overseas Bank occurred 30 years later in 1965, after Wee Cho Yaw, father of Wee Ee Cheong, took over the reins in 1960.
UOB grew mainly through mergers and acquisitions during the tenure of Wee Cho Yaw. It was listed on the stock exchanges of Singapore and Malaysia in 1970. A year later, UOB acquired Chung Khiaw Bank, which not only increased its local operations but also expanded its presence in Malaysia and Hong Kong. This was followed by Lee Wah Bank in 1973 and Far Eastern Bank in 1984. UOB also expanded regionally by acquiring Westmont Bank in the Philippines and Radanasin Bank in Thailand in 1999 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis.
The bank famously outmanoeuvred government-owned DBS in the acquisition of Overseas United Bank in 2001 to become the largest bank in Singapore and Southeast Asia at the time. The Singapore government had earlier, in 1999, merged POSB, the state-owned savings bank with the largest retail deposits and mortgage base in the country, into DBS, making it the then largest bank in Singapore.
Under Wee Cho Yaw’s leadership, UOB became one of the top banks in Asia and expanded its global presence. During his almost half-century tenure, the bank’s assets grew from $2.8. billion to $253 billion, putting the bank on a cautious and sustainable path. UOB’s total assets stood at SGD 506 billion ($370 billion) at the end of 2022. Wee Cho Yaw relinquished the CEO position to his eldest son Wee Ee Cheong in 2007, stepping down as chairman in 2013, and retiring from the board of the bank group five years later, after having served six decades as director. He is now chairman emeritus and honorary adviser of UOB.
While the bank has since been chaired by Wong Kan Seng, a former deputy prime minister of Singapore, the Wee family continues to have a controlling stake in the UOB Bank Group. Wee Ee Cheong is the third-generation leader of what he described as “a professionally-run, listed company”, and acknowledged the Wee family character remains in the bank, remarking: “The founding family’s involvement adds to the long-term focus and enterprising steer to continually innovate for growth.”
Recognising Wee Ee Cheong’s leadership
Wee Ee Cheong was recognised by The Asian Banker as the Best Bank CEO in Singapore in 2022 for fortifying the bank’s position as the leading consumer and SME bank in Southeast Asia. He led the $3.6 billion merger and acquisition of Citigroup’s retail businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam in 2022, its largest in a decade.
The following is the transcript of the full interview with Wee Ee Cheong, deputy chairman and CEO of UOB:
Foo Boon Ping (FBP): What is your overarching vision for UOB’s role in shaping the financial landscape of ASEAN and contributing to the region’s growth?
Wee Ee Cheong (WEC): The ASEAN region is growing and holds great promise. We believe this is one region that we can compete in and do well. We are well-connected within Southeast Asia and between Southeast Asia and Greater China.
UOB’s ambition is to be the bank of choice for aspiring individuals in ASEAN. We see immense opportunities for UOB to expand our market share in a region with growing affluence. We also aim to be the number one cross-border trade bank in ASEAN. With our connectivity, we can seamlessly support businesses in facilitating intra- and inter-regional trade, payment and foreign exchange flows as well as cross-border investments.
FBP: How is UOB’s growth strategy intertwined with the economic progress and development of ASEAN countries?
WEC: As companies reconfigure their supply chains to reshore and onshore their businesses, UOB, with our extensive regional footprint, is well-placed to help link them to opportunities in Southeast Asia. We have enhanced product capabilities in transaction banking, digital solution and sector specialisation, all of which help to deepen our presence. Over the years, we have also diversified our customer base to build stronger resiliency.
FBP: How does UOB adapt its strategies to cater to the distinct needs, dynamics and unique challenges of different countries within ASEAN?
WEC: With the acquisition of Citigroup’s consumer banking business in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, we have strengthened our market position and customer base. This is a transformational deal that will scale up our ASEAN franchise by doubling our ASEAN-4 retail customer base and accelerating our growth targets by five years. We are on track to achieve our annualised revenue uplift of around SGD 1 billion ($733 million) from the four ASEAN markets.
As a homegrown bank rooted in Southeast Asia, our key markets are here in this region. We are here for the long-term and we want to grow together with the people, businesses and community here.
FBP: Could you share specific examples of how UOB integrates sustainability and responsible banking practices into its core business operations?
WEC: Sustainability is a strategic area on which we are focusing our efforts to create real impact, as part of our promise to do right by our stakeholders. It is fundamental to UOB’s corporate purpose and we want to be a responsible financial steward to help individuals, companies and communities build the future of ASEAN. Our sustainability strategy is underpinned by our corporate purpose and mirrors our business approach of balancing growth with responsibility.
It is critical that we support our customers in sustainable development and we continue to roll out easy-to-understand solutions for our customers.
In October 2022, we laid out a comprehensive roadmap for the bank to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In our pursuit of decarbonisation, we are also mindful that Southeast Asian economies are diverse, each with their different economic and social needs. Our approach is to support our customers and communities to transition in a just and orderly manner so that lives and livelihoods can continue to improve.
FBP: How does the Punggol Digital District initiative reflect UOB’s broader digital transformation strategy and innovation efforts?
WEC: We believe that technology and innovation are vital to banking. Through the years, we have built centres of excellence across our markets, including Singapore. In April 2023, we announced that we are investing SGD 500 million ($366 million) to build our latest innovation hub in the Punggol Digital District.
Our new facility will be our nerve centre to ideate, develop, and pilot the next generation of digital service, including fintech and sustainable solutions. It will be a hub for innovation and delivery of solutions. Our investment will allow us to pilot digital solutions before they are rolled out to our markets across 19 countries. It will also house our innovation accelerator, The Finlab, to foster closer collaboration with tech players, start-ups and SME.
UOB’s extensive regional footprint has provided our 30,000 employees with opportunities for mobility and growth across ASEAN. This new centre will be yet another platform for our talents to learn and grow, where they can develop and test ideas that will be applied to real-life cases relevant for the local and regional markets.
FBP: How does UOB scale technology to deliver more customer-centric banking?
WEC: Embracing technology is important for us, as UOB focuses on growing and scaling in the region. Our approach to digitalisation has always been anchored by our omni-channel strategy. Customers can access banking anytime, anywhere and through any channel—be it via our physical branches, digital platforms or a combination of both. We already have a strong physical presence in ASEAN and now we will augment this with digital channels.
To achieve this, since more than a decade ago, we invested to build an integrated regional platform. The objective is to bring our systems onto a single platform to give customers a seamless experience and to access the market more speedily. Our standardised system features an integration layer that enables the bank to plug in new technologies and to scale up quickly across the franchise.
An example is UOB TMRW. UOB TMRW is now in four markets—Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. We continue to enhance TMRW with digital offerings to uplift customer experience across the region. Of the eight million retail customers in the region, about three-quarters access our services digitally.
Our multi-year investments in technology have boosted our capacity to grow in the years to come. For instance, in wholesale banking, we have spent SGD 800 million ($585 million) over the past eight years to build capabilities in regional payments, trade and cash platforms. Our investments have delivered positive outcomes for UOB as a regional franchise, delivering value to our customers.
FBP: What are the strategies that have enabled UOB’s resilience in a rapidly evolving landscape?
WEC: Our resilient financial performance is underpinned by our diversified growth drivers across our retail and wholesale business. UOB is one of the few banks globally with strong AA ratings. As a prudent, long-term player, we have a strong balance sheet backed by healthy capital and liquidity positions. A key priority for us is to continue investing across our franchise for the long term so that we deliver stable and balanced growth through market cycles.
FBP: How does UOB stay tuned to emerging trends in the financial sector and proactively adapt to changing customer preferences within ASEAN?
WEC: We believe in the immense potential of the ASEAN region—with its young population, growing affluence and dynamic workforce. And since more than 20 years ago, UOB has decided to focus our expansion efforts in the region. As a Singapore homegrown bank, we are committed to be in the region for the long term. The nature of competition has indeed changed with the withdrawal or semi-withdrawal of global and regional banks from the region.
FBP: As Citigroup dismantles large parts of its retail franchise in Asia, how has the nature of competition evolved over time?
WEC: We have always been steadfast in our regional focus, starting from the string of acquisitions in the region for 20 years to our most recent acquisition of Citigroup’s consumer business in four ASEAN markets.
More than a decade ago, long before the emergence of the China +1 strategy, we set up our Foreign Direct Investment [FDI] advisory unit to tap the trade and investment flows between ASEAN and Greater China, and vice versa. Today, we have 10 dedicated FDI advisory centres across Asia, helping businesses penetrate new markets by linking them with government agencies, trade associations and professional services providers, as well as providing them with local market insights and access to networks.
The integrated regional platform mentioned earlier is another example of our commitment to the region and our competitive advantage. This platform transformed UOB from a collection of banks in the region to a more holistic and integrated regional entity. This has set a strong foundation for sustainable growth as we have a scalable platform to serve the entire region.
FBP: What core principles define your leadership philosophy and guide UOB’s trajectory?
WEC: At UOB, we are guided by a long-term mindset. A hallmark of our long-term mindset is about striking the right balance—between growth and stability, innovation and risk, preserving our heritage and transforming for the future. And we believe firmly in growing our own timber, augmented by talents from outside the bank. Above all, our corporate culture is anchored on four key values—honour, enterprise, unity and commitment.
The focus on these four values ensures that we have the right culture to bind our talents together as one team for our shared vision.
FBP: How would you describe UOB’s corporate governance structure, and how much of the family character of the bank remains today?
WEC: Being honourable and building trust among our people is critical. This ensures that we are constantly doing right by our customers, stakeholders and colleagues, not just for today but also for the future. The well-being of our people is important, and we also want to empower them to make a difference. Above all, we want our people to be able to realise their full potential in whatever they do.
UOB is a professionally-run, listed company. The founding family’s involvement adds to the long-term focus and enterprising steer to continually innovate for growth.
Our corporate governance is anchored on UOB’s four key values and the strong leadership of the board and management. The board and management work well together, with board members contributing to robust discussions from their diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
FBP: UOB’s initiatives extend beyond banking. Could you elaborate on how these initiatives contribute to the broader societal and environmental well-being of ASEAN?
WEC: UOB believes in doing our part in strengthening social bonds and enriching lives as a catalyst for change. We are committed to supporting the social development of the communities through the core areas of art, children and education. We believe these to be essential for the quality and progress of society.
Our corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts bring together our colleagues, customers and partners to make a positive difference to our communities. We do this through a variety of ways, including fundraising, volunteering and supporting various social causes related to our focus areas.
UOB has supported the development of art in Asia through various programmes, partnerships and outreach initiatives across the region. Inaugurated in 1982, the UOB Painting of the Year annual art competition is the longest-running art competition in Singapore and one of the most recognised in Southeast Asia. Held in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the competition aims to uncover and to nurture the region’s next generation of great artists.
The UOB Global Heartbeat Run/Walk is our annual flagship volunteering and fundraising programme that brings employees, customers and business partners together to raise funds and to volunteer their time for the community. In 2023, we raised more than SGD 2.5 million [$1.8 million] under the UOB Heartbeat Fund to improve the lives of disadvantaged children and families from 26 charities globally.
Over the decades, our efforts across the region have supported the young, especially the underprivileged, as well as those with special needs and with untapped talent. Through our efforts in various corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, we aim to keep the good going and to do right for our communities.
FBP: What was the thought process behind the decision to cut ties with Myanmar banks due to ethical concern, and how does it align with UOB’s core values?
b. In September 2022, a securities subsidiary of UOB, UOB Kay Hian was fined SGD 375,000 ($274,000) by the Monetary Authority of Singapore for business conduct and anti-money laundering/know-your-customer (AML/KYC) related compliance violations, after the bank was fined SGD 900,000 ($659,000) for similar failures over 1MDB related transactions in May 2017, how do you feel about such violations and what steps have been taken to mitigate and prevent them?
c. How does UOB approach responsible banking in light of global issues and changing geopolitical dynamics, while maintaining its commitment to ASEAN’s growth?
WEC: UOB complies with all relevant laws and sanctions, and we apply the necessary due diligence on transactions across all markets we operate in, including Myanmar.
The ultimate aim of banking is to finance sustainable growth in the real economy. We want to be a responsible financial steward to help build the future of our customers, colleagues and community stakeholders across the region. The external environment can be fast-changing, but we are always committed to doing right for our customers.
This has always been our north star.