Growing Potential: Q&A With UOB’s Wee Ee Cheong

Wee Ee Cheong, deputy chairman and CEO of UOB, shares his view regarding ASEAN’s financial future.

Global Finance: What drove UOB’s performance in 2023?

Wee Ee Cheong: The ASEAN region is growing and has great potential. We believe this is a region where we can compete and do very well.

Our ambition is to be the bank of choice for aspiring individuals in ASEAN. The region’s growing affluence provides an immense opportunity for UOB to expand. Through the acquisition of Citigroup’s consumer banking businesses in four ASEAN markets—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam—we are now delivering at scale and enhancing returns across these markets.

We also aim to be the top cross-border trade bank in ASEAN. We have one of the most extensive footprints among leading regional banks. Our combination of strong sector expertise and local market knowledge enables us to help businesses navigate market complexities and to seize growth opportunities. With our connectivity, we seamlessly support businesses to facilitate intra- and inter-regional trade, payments and foreign exchange flows and cross-border investments.

For the past eight years, we have invested $800 million to build our regional cash, trade and payments platforms and results have started to kick in. We will see fuller impact in coming years. As a long-term player, we continue to invest in our regional franchise for sustainable growth.

GF: How has the integration of Citi assets progressed? Is it complete?

Wee: In 2023, we grew our retail customer base to eight million across the region as we completed the acquisition of the four ASEAN consumer banking units from Citi. We have successfully integrated the new businesses in Malaysia and Indonesia with the UOB platforms, while integration in Thailand is slated for the first half of 2024, with Vietnam to follow suit in 2025.

This transformational deal has doubled our retail franchise in those four countries and accelerated UOB’s growth in the region by five years. Our focus now is on tapping synergies to cross-sell to our expanded customer base.

Supported by stronger capabilities and an enlarged scale, we are also in a sweet spot to foster strategic partnerships across multiple markets. Last year, we announced mega lifestyle offerings as the presenting sponsors for Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” in Singapore and Ed Sheeran’s “+–=÷x Tour” in four of our key markets. We will do more to extend lifestyle offerings that meet the needs and aspirations of our customers.

GF: Which sustainability milestones did the bank hit in 2023?

Wee: Sustainability is a strategic area where we are focusing our efforts to have an impact, as part of our promise to do right by our stakeholders. It is fundamental to UOB’s corporate purpose, and we want to be a responsible financial steward to help individuals, companies and communities build the future of ASEAN.

In 2023, UOB released its first-year net zero progress report on its commitment to reaching net zero by 2050. We made positive headway in meeting the targets set for our five focus sectors: power, automotive, real estate, construction and steel. We achieved reductions in emissions intensities across all five sectors in 2022. Our commitment also includes no new financing for upstream oil and gas projects approved for development after 2022. Together, the six sectors make up about 60% of our corporate lending portfolio.

GF: Are there any new challenges that UOB or the entire banking sector face in 2024 that they didn’t in 2023?

Wee: The same macroeconomic uncertainty will persist this year, with higher-for-longer interest rates, geopolitical instability and softening global demand causing a drag on credit growth.

Looking beyond the near term, we think the banking industry is likely to see regionalization of economic flows, new industries emerging due to the sustainability push, artificial intelligence taking service and productivity to a new level, and the rise of regulated digital currencies and tokens.

UOB is transforming to manage the challenges brought about by these trends. We are reshaping our business to drive ASEAN connectivity and cross-border trade. We are also leveraging our enhanced capabilities, enlarged customer base and synergies from the Citi acquisition to fulfill customer needs and lifestyle aspirations.

In addition, we are developing new initiatives to target emerging areas such as sustainability and innovation. We are also doubling down on productivity efforts by digitalizing our processes, enhancing customer experience, deepening employee engagement and streamlining costs. Collectively, these initiatives will help ensure that UOB grows sustainably, staying true to our commitment to balance growth with stability. The external environment can be fast-changing, but we are here for the long term and remain steadfast in our promise to do right by our customers. This has always been our North Star.