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Legend of United Overseas Bank (UOB)

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2017 had seen local banks like OCBC and DBS making strategic acquisitions to grow their wealth management portfolios. Yet UOB is surprisingly quiet on the merger and acquisition front. What is the venerable bank up to? Is merger king, Wee Cho Yaw, plotting something special in 2018?

Once upon a time in Singapore’s banking fraternity, there were four local “Heavenly Kings” – Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), United Overseas Bank (UOB), Overseas Union Bank (OUB) and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation. They are all household names and I believe most Singaporeans have experiences with their bank products or services.

On looking back, the devastating effect of the Asian Financial Crisis in the nineties and the industry liberalization brought forth by the new Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) regulations changed the banking landscape forever. Through the years, UOB has staved off these challenges and emerged as one of the most powerful forces among its peers.

Among the four “Heavenly Kings”, OUB was the smallest player and was founded by the late Lien Ying Chow. In the early 2000s, the local banks were under pressure by the government to consolidate. This was because Singapore government wanted to reduce the number of local banks to pave the way for bringing in more foreign banks.

The vision was to shape Singapore into a global financial centre with strong presence of international banks that can bring in investments and thus create high value banking jobs for Singaporeans.


Being the smallest bank, it was no surprise that OUB was the target of a bidding war between DBS and UOB. In June 2001, DBS launched a hostile takeover for OUB by tabling a bid of $9.4 billion. It should be noted at that point of time, DBS had acquired POSB in 1998, another government-linked bank. So, the move by DBS was viewed as being aggressive among the smaller players.

DBS’ move led to a bid of $10 billion from UOB, which ultimately won the race after gaining more than 90% in shareholder acceptance in September 2001. The victory was widely regarded as one of the most epic corporate battles in Singapore stock market and propelled UOB to the largest local bank in Singapore, with total assets worth about an eye-popping $115 billion.

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Updated: February 10, 2018 — 3:33 pm

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