By P. Keerthana and Bryan Lim (ECONews reporters)
Mr Wong Nang Jang is a prominent veteran in Singapore’s finance industry, having served multiple pioneering roles such as the Regional Vice President at Citibank – the first ever local head of Citibank Singapore; Deputy President and Executive Director of OCBC, and was the director of several publicly listed companies in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He graduated from the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with honours in Economics in 1962.
When we first contacted him, Mr Wong replied that he “may not fill the bill” to be deemed as a notable alumnus. On the day of the interview, we were ushered into the lobby of the Executive Suite in OCBC by an amicable receptionist. While we were in the waiting area, there was the sound of hearty laughter from the inner chambers. “Mr Wong is the one with the loudest voice”, the receptionist laughed. When we entered the cozy meeting room, Mr Wong’s larger-than-life personality placed us at ease immediately. He then greeted us warmly.
You started your career with Citibank. Why did you choose the banking sector upon graduation? Was it always your calling to work in a bank, or perhaps, even the result of a moment of impulse?
None of the above. In fact, it was a miracle how I was even qualified for an honours degree. I was often on the Dean’s Notice board for wrong reasons. People get on the Dean’s List because they wrote a good essay or had an outstanding performance. For me, the reason was that I did not pass up my essay, thereby catching the attention of the Dean who was also the Professor of Economics (and my teacher).
One day, my roommate told me “Hey, your name is on the Dean’s notice board”, and I replied “What happened?” “It says, ‘Will Mr Wong Nang Jang, please make an appointment to see the Dean?’”. It happened again another day. I got the same message a second time. “What did I do this time,” I asked myself. After the first session, I thought I did everything right!
To my great surprise, this time it was for a different reason. The Dean told me that this Bank, the first National City Bank (now Citibank), was looking for university graduates to join them as an executive trainee. Why me? I did not do well in class, I was far from being a top student, and I did not pass up my essay on time. The Dean explained that they gave him some specifications about what kind of a person they were looking for, and it appeared that I had those qualities they wanted.
So I went along for a job interview. The interviewer was a senior manager in the Bank. He was very polite and interesting, and as it turned out, he became my immediate boss. Several weeks later, he sent me a letter offering me a job “provided you graduate with an honour’s degree”. I was elated but was also horrified to discover that the salary they offered was almost half of what my brighter class mates were expecting in jobs at other multi-national corporations. The reality was that I did not expect to get exceptional marks so I would not be qualified anyway. Most importantly, my parents told me that it would be good to work in a bank as bankers are known to be respectable people. As a 21-year-old and knowing little of the commercial world, I acquiesced.
There was no “calling”, no great ambition, nothing. I just stumbled into the job offer with a lot of luck and goodwill. Nearer to my graduation, I started to have other jobs being offered. I was fond of marketing and there was a job offer of marketing powdered milk for infants and babies with a salary tag of more than 1.5 times of what I was offered! As fate would have it, I took up the Citibank offer.
If you look at the banking sector today, we hear of graduates complaining that is very competitive. How do you think the banking sector is like today as compared to the past?
In my day, the banking sector was not at all prestigious. There was no rush. First, you do not get paid well. Graduates in other banks were not getting much more than what I got. But, as you well know, the banking and financial sector had phenomenal growth with the advent of Singapore’s development as a financial center for Asia. This growth led to greater demand of bright and eager candidates. In tandem, supply of candidates also increased. Sadly, it also attracted smart people who do not subscribe to integrity. This is why we witness so many cases of wrongdoing, even in Singapore.
If you were paid so poorly in the past, what really drove you to maintain this hunger to succeed and persevere throughout?
I think it was drive rather than hunger. It is nice and dramatic to use the word “hunger”, but it was the drive that was there, deep down inside me. It was not a question of “hunger”, but the need to do the job well. I could not leave a job unfinished, so I did not quit until its completion.
Banking is very demanding and unforgiving. If you cannot balance the book at the end of the day, you have to stay back until it does. Similarly, if you get a lot of cheques on any particular day, you have to read and scrutinize every detail, the signature, that the words and figures match, and the date is current. That’s painstaking.
On the day that I was to be engaged to be married, it coincided with a seasonal rush with more than the usual volume of cheques. People were writing more cheques because it was the end of the year and it was time to settle payments and debts. Clearly I was going to be very late and, by almost at 11 pm, my colleagues packed me home. Fortunately, she was patiently waiting for me, and eventually married me! Thankfully, digitization has done away with all these tedious manual processes.
Of course, I did not get any extra pay or promotion, and my salary certainly did not double itself until much later. It was only till 7 years later after I was appointed as the General Manager of the Singapore branch, then did I catch up with my brighter and more intelligent peers.
At any point of time, have you ever asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
I really didn’t because after several years in the Bank, I was already a father, a married man with 2 kids. The job was secure and with heavy responsibilities. I did not have the luxury of going to a headhunter to seek another job. The banking community then was so small that the information on an enquiry of another job would easily passed to my boss and it would anger him enough to give a black mark on my career. Then, as now, loyalty is an attribute every banker should have. Loyalty to yourself, to your Bank, and to your customer – they are the 3 most important stakeholders in any banker’s list of priorities.
What are some other qualities you think a successful banker should have?
I offer you three: Integrity, Integrity, and Integrity. If you don’t believe in integrity and don’t practice it, you should not work in a bank. Historically, if you look at the problems of big banks overseas and in western countries, they invariably stem from the hunger of greedy people who are in a hurry. We can read many stories involving rogue foreign exchange traders, shady investment bankers who sell papers and certificates that have no intrinsic value. Even worse, these same people have sweet mouths and oily tongues and can even sell snow to an Eskimo.
The fallout of all this is best exemplified by the financial meltdown of New York and London in 2008/2009, not so long ago. Movies, videos, and countless books have become best sellers recounting the massive fortunes made and lost. I urge you to read some of them.
Closer to home, I believe the Singapore-incorporated banks possess the best examples of integrity and stability. Because of them, like-minded people will still beat a path to their doors for employment. Of course, the economic development of Singapore has also spawned a plethora of specialist jobs related to the banking and finance industry.
Success in a banking career does not equate to driving flashy cars and living in posh bungalows or condos. Fact is, not all of us have flashy cars and posh homes. Statistically, around 15% (or more) of the working population here are engaged in the banking and finance industry. They are well off and comfortable, but they are not filthy rich. Success in climbing the corporate ladder is a long hard ride and there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! This is sobering but real.
You later became the first Singaporean to head the Citibank Singapore Operations. Was there any special reason as to why you were chosen to lead the Operations?
Luck. Pure luck. If you are looking for motivational reasons, there are none. I was 29 years old in the right place at the right time when I was appointed as the General Manager of the Singapore Branch. I believe that somebody in the Bank was trying to make the point that local staff is just as able as expatriate Americans. Besides, we cost much less. That policy determined in New York trickled down to lucky me. I had good colleagues within Asia like in Japan and the Philippines. My counterparts there were also promoted to jobs that replaced American expatriates. Some attribute this to my part in the development of the Asian Dollar market. Till this day, I really do not know.
Let me tell you a little about the Asian Dollar Market. It was a clone of the Euro Dollar Market in London. This started when Russian banks were subject to “sanctions” by the US, whereby they could not transact payments and receipts in US dollars. So they turned to British banks in London to make payments on their behalf. As these British banks had good relations with clearing banks in New York, they welcomed the offer as it became an additional source of income. Soon other banks started to trade in London in US dollars as there was the additional advantage as they need not worry about the time difference and could finalise rates etc., at the time of transaction.
In Singapore, the then Minister for Finance, Mr Hon Sui Sen, was wise enough and visionary in seeing the advantage to allowing this business to spawn. The only snag was that he had to remove some regulatory obstacles such as Foreign Exchange Control; waiving withholding tax; and freeing up reserve requirements for deposits. He did. That was the beginning of Singapore’s Financial Center.
It was in this regime that gave me the opportunity to travel around Asia. Firstly, to convince all Citibank branches that they can as easily borrow from the Singapore branch as it was from the London branch. Soon enough, the market blossomed. I then went visiting the central banks in the region for their business, principally deposits which were not core to their reserve holdings.
Citibank was the most advanced bank at that time, for instance, being among the first to introduce IT systems. Did you have any challenges introducing all these innovations?
In Citibank, and then latterly in OCBC Bank, I was put in charge of IT but I knew nothing about computer applications or how they work. Fortunately, I had very good people working with me, so I learned very quickly. The advent of ATMs may have changed the habits of bank customers, but even more so, improvements in the backroom operations via digitization turned the banks upside down. The ATM system was supplemented by the eGiro system. Today, you receive and pay by Giro. More changes will come.
You mentioned that when you were put in leading positions in the bank’s IT development, you were inexperienced. How did you overcome it?
In OCBC, I had very good people advising me and telling me very politely how ignorant I was. So I had to learn quickly or sink into oblivion. At one point, I was the Executive Vice President in charge of operations, the entire backroom. I realized very early that we had IT people with no knowledge of banking, and banking people who were totally ignorant about IT. The challenge was how to meld the two skills together. I was lucky in that both sides started to learn together, so there were no major mistakes made.
In Citibank, it was different. Some folks from New York came to assist in implementation. (One of them actually would not drink anything except Coke and eat nothing but hamburgers while in Singapore for fear of ingesting unhygienic food!) However, in OCBC the bucks ended with me so it was vital that I knew – and I learned!
How did you become involved with OCBC?
There were many businesses that OCBC was comfortable with in the 1970s, but they had little experience with industrial financing, and Citibank could help. So a joint venture was formed by way of a finance company with OCBC group as the majority owners. I represented the foreign partner and a successful partnership was launched.
What do you think was the highlight of your OCBC career?
Working for an organization with a soul is vital. When I reached the point of retirement as an executive, the Bank kept me on in various capacities. I was sent to subsidiaries and other banks as either a Board member or as an advisor. The most memorable assignment was as the Chairman of Banking Computer Services Pte Ltd. (In February 2016, it celebrated its 40th anniversary.) What do they do? In Singapore, every cheque written and deposited, every Giro payment made, are all serviced and handled by them. Although it is 100% owned by OCBC, it serves all major banks in Singapore. I was dispatched there as the Chairman. At the ripe age of 60, and in a full time job, I was tasked with changing the company’s service to keep up with changing IT advances. The biggest challenge was to enjoy the confidence of the regulator (MAS) and all participating banks that private information will be respected. Not one iota of information could be leaked to outsiders, not even to our single shareholder!
My baptism of fire was my first day on the job, 31 December 1999. It was the fear of the Y2K problem which, if it happened, could wipe out most of the computers of the world the next day, 1 Jan 2000. As it turned out, it was a non-event.
The Bank also sent me to Malaysia to serve as a Board member of Pacific Bank Bhd, a subsidiary bank in addition to OCBC Bank Malaysia Bhd. Similarly, I also served in the Indonesian subsidiary bank, PT Bank OCBCNISP Tbk.
You were in a leading position in OCBC during the Asian Financial Crisis. Was there any particular challenge you faced during the Crisis?
Thanks to a strong and formidable balance sheet, OCBC was not directly affected. There were some initial jitters as we had banking relationships with banks in Thailand and Philippines, but in the end everybody paid up and we suffered no loss.
What is your take on the 2008 Financial Crisis?
I had earlier made reference to the 2008 Financial Crisis. In the final analysis, banks and customers should always know what they are selling or buying. Bankers with integrity can sell and customers will buy. But if both are blur about what it is, and are driven only by how much they can earn for themselves, then you can have a repetition of the events of 2007 and 2008.
Financial regulators in Europe and the US have been busy introducing regulations and laws to prevent this from happening. Sadly, human aspirations (some call it greed) to make more money can find ways of circumventing them. The only way to minimize this, is to ensure that bankers have the integrity in restraining themselves from malpractice.
What are some of the challenges Singapore banking industry face currently?
First: Stability and steadfastness. If Singapore banks and our regulators remain as a stable force unbuffered by hurricanes, earthquakes and remain steadfast in maintaining faith, we will be an example to warn all others who may see our unwillingness to wheel and deal as a weakness, and may capitalize on it. Examples of money laundering are now beginning to emerge and they have to be dealt with forcefully and with no fear or favour. The three Singapore banks are very solid and their strength and quality of management are important. Not only will the local customers remain faithful, but people overseas will flock here to protect their hard-earned money.
Second: Keeping up with advances in technology. Digitization can and will change the way we live, let alone how we manage our money. Third: Sound and prudent management. As long as others leave their wealth with banks to manage, there should be an unsigned pact to protect it as best as they can.
Reminiscing about your times as a student in NUS, what were some of the important lessons you learnt back then?
I had very good teachers and I enjoyed my lessons (notwithstanding the fact that I was tardy in passing up essays). Some books inspired me to think. For example, Schumpeter’s book on entrepreneurship. Another was an old book whose lessons are still valid till this day: How to Lie with Statistics (by Darrell Huff in 1954). Read and learn from it!
When you were receiving education, you mentioned that it was not at all smooth sailing, but, rather, a series of miracles that allowed you to graduate with an honours degree.
I was not poor and my father could afford to pay my fees, so there is no dramatic story. It was more about the distractions. I was the Financial Secretary of the Student’s Union, probably the worst possible job. You had to manage the funds given by the University and be accountable to a very hands-on Bursar. As an elected official, you had to listen to them and learn how much to dole out. In addition, I was courting a girl who eventually became my wife.
What advice would you give to Economics students from NUS?
I don’t know. Today’s students have a different set of aspiration and patience. In my day, I had a great job but the worst pay.
Perhaps all of them should take a course in ethics and logic before joining any financial institution. Learn to decide what is right and what is wrong, what are lies and what is the truth? You should not believe in everything you hear. See the big picture and hear everyone before you decide.
This article was first published in ECONews in August 2016