A first against all odds

16 July 2018

On 30 July 1976, shortly after DBS’ eighth birthday, the bank made its first international foray by setting up an overseas representative office in Tokyo.

A year later, a team of Singaporeans were flown to Japan to help convert the office into a full-fledged branch. Overcoming language difficulties and unexpected challenges, the pioneering staff officially opened DBS Tokyo Branch on 21 April 1977. The branch eventually grew to become the largest Singaporean bank in Japan in 1980. Today, DBS has over 280 branches in 18 markets worldwide.

The following is a memoir penned in 1988 by former Tokyo Branch General Manager N Ganesan, speaking about the challenges and excitement of taking a bold new step for the bank. His account was first published in DBS’ 20th Anniversary BankNotes.

On Fresh Ground

By N Ganesan

It was the winter of 1976 when I arrived in Japan as a representative of the bank to make preparations for the setting up of our first overseas branch in Tokyo.

For a couple of months, Lim Sean Teck, Yeoh Oon Chye and I operated from a small room hired from the Singapore Embassy where we had the company of our first Japanese employee, Mr Y Kusano who also acted as our interpreter for our negotiations with the Japanese authorities.

Not knowing a single word of Japanese initially posed a major discomfort. The other inconvenience perhaps was that I spent my first month in Tokyo moving from one hotel to another. There weren’t any rooms for long-term stay. One can imagine that I quickly got tired of eating hotel food and getting up-rooted just as I was settled in one place.

But we managed well enough and on 21 April 1977, Tokyo Branch was officially opened by Chairman & President Howe Yoon Chong.

Indeed it was a very auspicious occasion, being DBS Bank’s first step in establishing an international presence. Aside from the normal proprieties benefitting such an event, we had made arrangements for some SIA stewardesses and two satay-men to fly over to give some Singapore flavour to the celebration.

Much to our dismay, our fellow countrymen did not make their scheduled date of arrival due to a plane crash at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport thus halting all flights in and out of Tokyo.

On top of this, we were also then in the middle of the Japanese ‘spring offensive’ strike. Most transportation lines were shut down and many companies had block-booked the hotels for their staff.

When the satay-men finally arrived, shortly before the opening, we could only accommodate them in a distant hotel.

With little time left due to the delays, the satay-men worked day and night skewering 5,000 sticks of satay to be in time for the opening cocktail reception.

Why was Tokyo the bank’s choice for its first overseas branch? When most banks would start in London first, then New York, followed by Tokyo?

At that time, the bank had more connections with Japanese clients than with any other foreign investors in Singapore. But once there, success was a matter of staying competitive and learning the ways of doing business in Japan (which included learning to speak Japanese, so we had a tutor come in twice weekly after work to teach us the language).

For a short while, we had the small distinction of having with us the first full-fledged female dealer in Tokyo.

She was a settlements clerk who showed an interest in dealing and we gave her the necessary training to deal in the Tokyo market.

Tokyo branch today is eleven years old and our venture into this foreign land is now on a steady footing, except of course, when the earthquakes shake us out of our skins. However, a lot of changes have taken place in the market and although this is my third assignment in Japan, I feel that I am treading on fresh ground again.

Mr N Ganesan worked in DBS from 1969 to 2000, where he was an Executive Vice President.