Meet Sier Han Ng of DBS Taiwan

With more than two decades of financial services experience, Sier Han Ng has a proven track record of acquiring and utilizing resources to achieve major accomplishments. As the General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of DBS Bank Taiwan, he recently oversaw the successful integration of Citi’s consumer banking business in Taiwan. Ng is a Singaporean national who graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in financial engineering from Columbia University. 

TOPICS Associate Editor Alex Myslinski met with Ng at the Ghost Island Media recording studio in January to discuss building meaningful connections in banking, having a well-rounded education, and responding to AI and climate change in the financial sector. An abridged version of their conversation follows. Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

For your undergraduate studies, you studied computer science at Cornell. Has that educational background helped you in the financial services industry? 

I went to school around the time when the tech bubble burst. I always knew I would come back to banking, but I wanted to do a computer science degree because I felt that everything would be about computers in the future.  

Other systems of education can be prescriptive and limiting, but with the U.S. system I could go really broad while building an underlying base education in computer science. I also took accounting, economics, philosophy, and psychology classes. Interestingly, I took snowboarding classes for my PE credit and completed a course on wine tasting. These are all things that influenced me in my later years. 

Databases, scalability, and offering software services hit banking soon after I graduated. I started my career in a more specialized role, using engineering math to calculate prices and probability of events and running simulations – I knew that was the entry into the trading floor. 

How does DBS work to innovate and streamline processes?  

Early on, the inspiration for our vision came from big Chinese tech platforms like Alibaba and WeChat. As they entered the banking and financial services space, we suddenly felt a threat that was almost existential, and realized we needed to innovate to stay relevant. From that point, we began changing how we think about banking to the backdrop of an evolving digital landscape. 

We ran our integration of Citigroup’s consumer banking business in Taiwan without any external consultants. We formed a small project team of about five people and engaged all internal resources. From there, we started building more teams. At the end of it, there were 1,000 people across three countries involved in the project.  

How would you describe your management style? Is there a particular philosophy that you follow? 

I’m all about transparency and being honest about what I’m trying to achieve. Not letting ego get in the way of things is paramount to this. In any large organizational structure, my guiding principle is always about creating long-term shareholder value by getting the facts correct and making the most informed decision. If a mistake is made, I meet with everyone, admit I made a wrong decision, and then collectively strategize to move in a different direction.  

If you let ego join the fray, it affects shareholder value in the long run. Inviting feedback and implementing ideas from those around you can feel like the hardest thing at times, but it’s the most useful. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to work in the financial industry? What skills or attributes are beneficial in your industry? 

You don’t have to study banking and finance to work in finance. Banking has a vast base, and we have many more engineers than you realize. Today, more than half of the employees in DBS are engineers by training. Some of the best bankers I’ve worked with were philosophy majors. 

Imagine that you’re looking back on your career, then ask yourself what stories you want to tell and the impact you want to have made. You’ll find there’s a different path for everybody. I have found that as I stay longer in the organization, I continue to build what I call “relationship equity.” 

The more you engage in various projects run by other units and build relationships across the bank, the more people trust you. If you have trust, more people will be willing to join you when a new idea comes along. Accumulating these experiences and synthesizing them in various projects has been very important for me. 

Did you have any mentors that helped you with your career? What did they teach you that you still use today? 

I’ve had different mentors along the way, from being a specialist to working in general management. I came to understand that it is about effectively broadcasting a message to bring a large group together as much as it is about learning how to deal with people. Knowing how to exist while not losing your job has also been a meaningful lesson I’ve picked up. 

I’m inspired by the head of our global markets business and my chairman, who thinks carefully about risk and how to manage it. Another of my colleagues is Latin American, and their flair and ability to engage with everyone is invaluable. Our head of institutional banking is a strong female leader who beautifully demonstrates how to put others at ease and engage people even at the most senior levels. There are so many dimensions to my work, and I’m fortunate to have shining examples around me for each one. 

Following your acquisition of Citi’s consumer banking business in Taiwan, DBS is now Taiwan’s largest foreign bank. What plans do you have for the market and your customers here? 

We want to continue to build on wealth management. Taiwan, like a lot of Asia, is a savings-oriented society. Wealth management is not just about buying local stocks or assets – when you go overseas, you also buy offshore products. We can help connect you with almost any investable asset you’d like right from your phone. 

We have the DBS Foundation that gives grants to social enterprises, and we will extend that to include corporates too. The foundation takes away that commercial lens and gives the grant purely as a gift. It’s an excellent way for us to get involved and take care of the community we operate in while doing long-term good for the shareholders. 

We also have a massive volunteer program that goes into helping some social enterprises if they need more hands on deck. At our most recent gala dinner in December, we gathered supplies from several organizations to supplement the event – we have a more meaningful organization when we stitch everything together. 

With so many options available, Taiwan’s banking market is quite saturated. How does DBS work to stay competitive? 

Though local, commercial, and foreign banks have distinct functions, you must still find your niche in Taiwan. For us, it goes back to our brand motto – “live more, bank less.” We aim to use the least amount of time to get your banking needs done. 

Nobody wakes up and wants to go get a mortgage. It’s usually a taxing and time-consuming process. We try to simplify that bit, transforming half an hour lining up at a branch into two minutes on your phone, or just having the payment automatically deducted from your bank account. There’s still a lot of room for us to build on this experience in Taiwan. 

We are also highly committed to the region and continue to invest across all Asian markets. Throughout the pandemic, we bought up different assets in the region, which is increasingly important as supply chains dovetail into the ASEAN region and India.  

What challenges do banks work to overcome that are unique to Taiwan? 

To its benefit, Taiwan was an early adopter. Everything is done with a barcode at convenience stores here, which host access to nearly every daily life necessity. Barcodes are useful, but this trend also slows down the transformation into using QR codes, which provide more versatility. 

That’s another thing I noticed about Taiwan – change is hard. Human bias is strong, and people tend to adopt the same ideas quickly. Learning how to mold this reality into a tool for success is crucial.  

What trends and innovations can we expect from the financial sector? 

The AI evolution has been going on for a while. Some enterprises use Generative AI to sharpen up their marketing, but for us it’s a copilot that helps us see productivity gains. When the communications team has to write an article, this copilot speeds up their production from four hours to 30 minutes. It will also increase the convenience and quality of service for our customers.  

The other big one is climate change. It will create a massive effect on the energy mix, moving from fossil fuels to renewables as the single-biggest impact on the world. Embedded in that is infrastructure spending and a significant role for banks in shifting capital. There won’t be enough public capital to get this done – private capital needs to get involved. As banks, we need to help bring the right capital for the right projects. 

You recently rode 75km around Taipei on a YouBike. What else do you like to do in your free time? 

Despite being something that you might initially consider as a sport or exercise, I love cycling as a way to see the city. When you take the MRT or a car, the city zooms by and you miss a lot. When you cycle, you see changes in the land and the differences between neighborhoods. 

I’m an outdoor person, and Taipei is great for that. Cycling paths around the city stretch hundreds of kilometers in every direction, with just as many hiking trails. Taiwan’s views of the ocean are especially beautiful. My relaxation time evolved from these aspects – from watersports to hiking and cycling around town.