Singapore’s DBS Bank, hailed as the poster boy of digital banking, is facing regulatory scrutiny and reputational risk after a series of glitches in its online services. The bank’s CEO Piyush Gupta has admitted the need to improve its technology resilience and governance, while the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has imposed a six-month freeze on its new business ventures and increased its capital requirements. What went wrong for the bank that claims to be a technology company that holds a banking licence? And what can other banks learn from its experience?
The rise and fall of DBS’s digital prowess
DBS Bank has been at the forefront of digital innovation in the banking industry, investing around SGD 1 billion ($730 million) every year in technology since 2014. The bank has developed over 600 artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) models and 300 use cases, which gave it a competitive edge over traditional banking competitors and fintech rivals. In 2022 alone, the bank claims its AI/ML use cases delivered an economic value of SGD 180 million, comprising a revenue gain of SGD 150 million and SGD 30 million from cost savings and productivity gains.
The bank’s digital transformation also boosted its financial performance, widening its return on equity from 11.7% vs peer average of 11.2% in 2015 to the current highest at 15% vs 11.5% peer average. The bank has been recognised as one of the world’s best digital banks and the safest bank in Asia by various global publications and awards.
However, the bank’s digital blitzkrieg also exposed its vulnerability to operational disruptions and cyber risks. The bank faced five major glitches in less than a year, affecting its customers’ access to their accounts, payments, and other online services. The bank attributed most of these incidents to software bugs and integration issues, as it relies on a complex micro-services architecture that involves integrating its self-developed services with those from third parties.
The MAS, the financial regulator of Singapore, has taken a serious view of these lapses and ordered the bank to take corrective measures to enhance its technology risk governance and oversight, incident management, system resilience, and change management. The regulator also barred the bank from acquiring new business ventures or reducing branches and ATM networks in Singapore for six months, and increased its capital multiplier for operational risk from 1.5 times to 1.8 times, translating into nearly $1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) in additional regulatory capital.
The need to balance digital innovation and operational resilience
DBS Bank’s saga is a wake-up call for the banking sector, which is undergoing a rapid digital transformation amid the pandemic and the rise of fintech challengers. While digital innovation offers benefits such as efficiency, customer experience, and new revenue streams, it also poses challenges such as cyber threats, system failures, and regulatory compliance.
The bank’s CEO Piyush Gupta has acknowledged the need to improve the depth of its engineering talent, the rigour of its change management, and the speed of its system recovery. The bank is also setting new targets for service availability and recovery, focusing on creating robust recovery pathways and improving passive recovery processes. The bank is also splitting its technology and operations function into two separate units to allow for dedicated management oversight of each, due to the function’s increased complexity and scale.
The bank’s strategic shift is indicative of a broader realisation that while digital innovation propels growth, it also demands a fortified and resilient infrastructure capable of withstanding the pressures of rapid technological evolution. The bank is not alone in facing this dilemma, as other banks around the world are also grappling with the trade-offs between digital agility and operational stability.
The banking sector needs to balance between digital evangelism and operational resilience, and ensure that its digital transformation is aligned with its core purpose of managing financial risks and fostering economic growth. As DBS Bank endeavours to recalibrate its strategy, it remains to be seen how it will navigate this complex terrain and whether it can emerge stronger, having addressed its digital Achilles’ heel.