FINANCIAL SERVICES | Contributed Content, Singapore
Chris Reed

When will Singaporean banks help entrepreneurs?


Six years as a businessman in Singapore and I'm loving it. But if there is one thing I can change, this is it: Corporate Banking.

We all know that keeping up with the times have never quite been a bank's forte. While your everyday Japanese restaurants have begun to install sushi carousels and implement iPad ordering a couple of years ago, banks continue to hand pens and papers to customers and then have data entry interns sit in its back office sweatshops.

Without mentioning names, following a few incidences I've had to deal with my corporate bank in the last couple of months which makes it harder, not easier, to do business in Singapore: I was unable to download my own statements beyond the last three months. But why?

It was the year end for company filing; hence I was going to retrieve my statements for the last year. After fiddling around with the platform, I learnt I could only download my statements for the latest three months. Such a provision didn't made sense to me – my bank statements are mine and for what reason should I be denied access?

Stumped, I rang the bank up. I was asked to send in a letter – yes, post a letter – to request for my own dated statements, to which they will charge S$10 for each month. To charge for something that belongs to me is one thing but really a letter?!

Paper?! The last time I checked it was 2015!

If you have been to my office, you'll see that I never use any papers and much less files. I don't own a filing cabinet and certainly don't see the need to have one. I love it – everything is digital and stored in cloud; freeing up physical space, enabling sharing between our team and saving trees.

But why must banks still insist to have forms filled in in paper form? So their data entry intern in the back office can type it in a system? Even my insurance agent meets me with an iPad nowadays! I protested so much that my bank eventually allowed me to email the letter rather than post it. So if they can do that, why did they insist on paper to start with?

Case in point: If digital submission was possible, why haven't banks completely emitted the traditional paper way – what for have both the bank and the customer to do double work? Following my request and payment, they were finally willing to release my bank statements and… yes, you guessed it right – they wanted to send them to me via post.

Clearly, bank statements are generated digitally; hence why do banks take the extra effort to print off and then get it into an envelope for posting? It is a waste of time and resources that can be better used elsewhere. I receive e-statements from my other bank, mobile, power, etc., as a personal customer – why can't the same be done for corporate banking?

We must go to the branch… really?!

What was the name of your first childhood pet and what was the favourite nickname your friends gave you as a child? You know, those answers that you are bound to remember?

When asked to verify my identity I got one in three of such security questions wrong and my bank then insisted I had to visit a branch in-person for my application. When will banks realise that their average customer is busy and their time is probably better spent anywhere else than waiting in line to retrieve some bank statements that should only take seconds to send via email?

Online banking exists, but they don't really know what they're doing

You think an organisation as large as a bank would be better equipped and resourceful enough to build an online banking system of supremacy. I tried to pay a bill in the UK where the online system had recognised the IBAN bank number (in other words, verified the bank account).

A day later I received an email (phew, not a letter!) saying that the payment had been refused because the bank account number had not been authenticated… even though their own system verified it! They very kindly said it would also cost me S$60 to do this. Charging a customer for their own system's failure? I was up in arms!

Fax?! Who still uses FAX?

Here comes the best part… I was asked to resubmit this payment using a form which I had to, no, guess, post? Take into a branch? No, better than that – FAX! I had to fax this form in?! Who has a fax machine these days? Clearly the bank does but not me. That went out with the ark.

What does this look like to an entrepreneur like me? It is a pity that the pro-business hub that Singapore is, where government support is excellent and systems are usually efficient, is inevitably blemished by backward systems and mindsets of privately-run banks.

Who else can resonate with the above accounts or does anyone know an innovative corporate bank they can recommend? The banking landscape has taken a turn these days with agile fintech startups arising to play the field. If banks are not going to evolve with the times, I will not hesitate to jump ship should a game-changer emerge along the way!

$50k deposit for an SME?

The final straw for one bank was being asked for a $50k deposit! Which SME has $50k just lying around not working for it that it wants to give to a bank to just sit in the account? Apparently I can just take it out after I deposit, so why do they need it in the first place?

If I fall below $30k, they charge me $50 per month. Why? Why do they need $30k in the account? Again, as an SME isn't it better to get this money working for you rather than leaving it in an account doing nothing?

No loans if you're growing…

As a fast-growing company I tried to get financial assistance to grow faster. I wish to employ more Singaporeans who pay more CPF and more taxes and build my business so that I pay more corporation tax to Singapore. The banks clearly do not wish Singapore businesses – well, SMEs, 90% of the workforce – to grow.

I asked for a short-term loan to help with cash flow. We have grown from 1 person in 1 country to 35 in 9 globally and 17 people full-time in Singapore with another 10 freelancers.

So I asked for a short-term business loan. They came back and said no on the basis that I did not have three years worth of accounts. I'm a fast growing SME, I founded the company 18 months ago. We are already a multi-million dollar company, why do I need three years of accounts?

Do you want to support Singaporean SMEs and help them grow and therefore help the Singaporean economy grow or not? Apparently it's a not. They will lose my account.

I asked two of their rivals. One was also not at all interested but does have time to spend millions of dollars sponsorsing sports venues for no benefit to any SME whatsover.

So I am left with the third. They too usually have a two-year accounting period necessity but they are making an exception for me as I came through a personal contact. Great. Not what you know but who you know. Just like the UK. They haven't said yes yet, but unlike the other two leading Singaporean banks at least they haven't said no.

If they say yes, I will move my entire business to them. My existing business will lose all my current and future business. They are also the bank that is currently slashing jobs, just replaced their CEO, and are in dire financial straits. Are these two things connected? You decide.

When will banks in Singapore support the vibrant and growing entrepreneurial SME scene? Why should I go to a VC who will ask for shares which I am reluctant to give? How else am I supposed to get funding to grow beyond my own savings and organic sales?

More to the point if this is happening to me, how many other SMEs in Singapore is this also happening to? Is this in any way linked to the Singapore economy suffering either no growth or minimal growth? Forget the talent squeeze; if banks don't even fund growth, you don't even get the chance to employ people… funding is where it all starts. Time for the Singaporean banks to support entrepreneurs and SMEs like me.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed has 25 years of senior marketing experience on both the client and agency side in the UK and now in Asia Pacific. He is the CEO and founder of Black Marketing.

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