Singapore Life is breaking boundaries and stepping on new grounds in an attempt to breathe new life in Singapore’s evolving insurance industry.
When Singapore Life officially started its digital operations in October 2017, there was both a sense of relief—and an enduring excitement and belief—permeating from the company’s chief executive officer Walter de Oude. His company’s origins story may sound like any other startup story— a narrative full of hardship, almost-failures, and determination. But according to the man who inspired the company’s rise from the ground up in about three years, it all started with a belief.
“The dream was to change the life insurance industry,” de Oude said in an exclusive interview with Insurance Asia. “For us, we absolutely believe that what we are building is good. We believe that what we are building is better than what customers currently have.”
Digital transformation strategies and adaptation of insurance companies in Singapore have been gradual. There have been initiatives to use artificial technology and facial recognition in insurance transactions, yet the industry still heavily relies on agents and advisors to process these insurance products. This is where Singapore Life enters as an “insurtech.”
Singapore Life, being the newest kid on the block in Singapore’s fast-paced and competitive insurance industry, is trying to break that mold by offering technology-focused and modern offerings of insurance products to millions of Singaporeans. The company is currently the first one to offer a complete end-to-end life insurance digital process, “from the time you’re getting a quote to actually buying a life insurance can all be done digitally with no human intervention at all.”
de Oude is consistent in emphasising about the need to change and modernise the city-state’s insurance industry, so customers can receive better services and experiences. He noted that, “Singapore Life simplifies both the product and life insurance process to remove any deterrent for people to get the protection they need. We take the efficiencies from technology to offer better value to the insurance journey—making it more efficient, transparent and flexible to their needs.”
But Singapore Life’s milestones didn’t start when the company’s doors opened for its first customers around two months ago. But over the three years of the group’s evolution as a reliable and trusted life insurance company. In April 2017, Singapore Life announced that it has raised a sizeable funding of around US$50m for its series A round—considered the largest ever by a Singapore-based insurtech company. This is a highly significant development for a company who was struggling to meet eye to eye with prospective investors in the early days of its existence.
In June 2017, Singapore Life had also become the first fully licenced direct life insurer to be approved by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) over the last 47 years. During the interview, de Oude wittingly didn’t deny that pursuing the establishment of Singapore Life has, in one way or another, had other industry veterans describe him as a “certain kind of crazy.”
“Building a life insurance business is not an easy thing. It’s complicated. If it was easy, lots of people would do it and the fact that Singapore Life is the first life insurance company to be given a licence in 47 years is a testament to the fact that it is not easy,” he said adding that dealing with the regulator—in this case, MAS—sort of keeps a company on its toes as the regulator wants to know that the company has the ability to execute the business operations in a meaningful and dependable way.
Banking on technology
Whilst the company has been partially operating in a direct manner since June for its high net worth customer segment and private banks, Singapore Life’s crown jewel is its reliance and championing of the use of technology to provide better products, services, and experience to customers. “Technology is move so fast that you have to be incredibly nimble in order to do that. Within our own architecture, we take the best technologies that are available in the market and put them together,” he said.
Singapore Life’s number one selling point is the convenience it provides to its customers through its online platform and the utilisation of other cutting-edge technologies to ease the insurance process for customers. Starting with its products and services for the high net worth and private banks segments, Singapore Life now offer life insurance plans including term insurance and critical insurance available for application and sale online. This is on top of products that consist of universal life policies and variable universal life for the HNW sector. “The change in customer behaviour towards digital execution, the digital life, the digital way of doing things. Life insurance is no different. The whole industry will move in a digital direction and what we’ve done is to empower that change,” he said.
de Oude noted that Singapore life don’t do agency work where an agent represents one company to sell one product although they do work with a lot of independent financial advisers, and they are helping them execute those sales or to manage the advisers’ clients’ insurance needs completely digitally and efficiently. “Whether you want to go to an independent financial adviser or by online, it should be completely your choice as a customer,” he said. Currently, Singapore Life’s products and business consist of 80% direct and 20% still coming through advise, although given the company’s early operations, the numbers are still bound to change.
This insistence to push the boundaries of the city-state’s insurance industry status quo was not a walk in the park. But this difficulty has made Singapore Life an increasingly respected player in the industry—all within the span of a few months. This belief goes through all the levels of the company’s operations. de Oude said that this determination is rooted on the belief that they can build a much better life insurance company than what is currently existing in the market; to be able to build a good platform to deliver good insurance products and services to millions of Singaporeans.
Making a difference
de Oude’s persistence to establish Singapore Life came with a question that lingered in his mind: how can I make a real difference? “As the previous chief executive officer of HSBC Singapore’s insurance business, I was faced with a choice in my career whether I’m going to be the CEO of big companies like HSBC—and in fact, I had a very strong career ahead of me. I had a fantastic job with HSBC and highly regarded,” he said.
“But you get to a point in your life where you think to yourself, it must be more than just this. Surely the world needs something better. When I’m old and looking back at my life, and looking at what I’ve been able to achieve, am I happy to say I ran the world’s biggest life insurance company as CEO or did I really make a difference by creating something new, something aspirational, something that I can be proud of, something that will last longer than me,” de Oude explained.
It also helps that the whole management team, not just de Oude, has been embracing technology and forward-thinking innovations with open arms. The thought processes in the firm, according to Singapore Life’s CEO is not how easy it is to implement technology. The view, instead, is the other way around, or how easy it is to rip out technology because of how fast and easy current technologies become obsolete and get replaced by newer, fancier, and more powerful ones in a matter of months.
“Now I want to be in a position where we’re staying at the cutting edge of technological advancement,” he said. “When something better comes along, I can just replace it as we go and be able to add new things.”
de Oude’s commitment to making a difference is also deeply rooted on his commitment and passion to Asia as a region—where he moved to at the turn of the millennium—and particularly to Singapore, the place he currently calls home. He explained that the existence of Singapore Life is mutual—Singapore as a brand has helped his company gain trust and credibility points, and in turn, his firm aims to provide Singaporeans a life insurance alternative that is more convenient and provides a better service and experience.
“Everyone believes in the Singapore brand and in the regulatory framework of Singapore,” he said. “Therefore, the existence of a company like Singapore Life within the broad framework of Singapore’s regulatory environment and MAS, people get comfortable with the brand immediately,” de Oude said.
Singapore Life currently offers a much more convenient life insurance alternative for Singaporeans, with products generally cheaper at the moment than most other industry competitors. This is possible, according to the Singapore Life CEO, because of the implementation of technological efficiency which turns a better value for customers. “We can run a life insurance company with a fraction of a number of people,” he noted.
A story of marriage
Singapore Life’s US$50 million initial fundraising was a record breaker for the insurtech company in the city-state, but getting investors at first was no easy task. “Starting a new life insurance company is a difficult thing to do, and to find investors that back you in a way that you want to run the business is difficult,” de Oude said.
He said the company, particularly the management team, approached about 200 different investors over two to three years, with various degrees of successes and failures. De Oude said that the initial thinking and strategy was to get a big, established life insurance company that wants to do digital operations in their portfolio, and actually got good initial feedback and discussions with a number of these sizeable firms. However, things didn’t end smoothly.
“What happened was, by the time we got to the end of the road, it’s deal-making time. The decision makers in these big insurance companies all said that they can do it themselves and that they don’t need to invest in a new business to do it,” he said, adding that the deals often fell apart for that reason. Some other investors promised the world but couldn’t deliver, but most felt that early stage investment was a challenge.
Throughout Singapore Life’s early days, there were also some instances when after six months of negotiating and coming into terms, the investors suddenly wanted to insert certain clauses that weren’t discussed before or is not exactly aligned with the vision of the management and the whole business. From Singapore Life’s experiences, de Oude shared two valuable insights on finding investors and the relationship that will come out of that transaction: treat the relationship as marriage and don’t compromise your original plans with the investors, especially if you don’t think it’s for the best of the company.
“Have absolute alignment with the interest of the founders and the interest of the investors. You’re not just accepting money from an investor, you’re actually getting married. And that marriage has to be long-term, and there can’t be avenues for either one party to take advantage of the other,” he noted.
This principle, according to de Oude, has led him and some of the original brains behind Singapore Life to walk away from investors who, after 6 months of efforts, don’t have the same goals and aspirations as the business itself.
Singapore Life’s current shareholders include Chong Sing Fintech Group Ltd—a Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed integrated fintech group with a focus on 24/7 online financial services to small and medium-sized enterprises, merchants, and individuals in China and Asia through internet and mobile solutions—and IPGL Limited, a private holding company which focuses on partnering with experienced management teams in the financial services sector.
“We have investors who are absolutely committed to the growth of this business … and who support the direction of the management,” he said. “If you don’t have that kind of investor in the business, things don’t go smoothly. Singapore Life has that.”
Whilst the road just virtually started for Singapore Life, having been in full operations only a couple of months, de Oude have set goals and targets for the road ahead. First, is the $100 million life coverage in the first 100 days of operations or about 1,000 policies, particularly on its early product offerings on high net worth clients and private banks as well as life insurance policies.
The company is also looking to be a 5% share player in the market in the next 5 years. Singapore’s total market size is about $2.8 to $3 billion premium. “In the Singaporean context, 5% of that would be $150 million in annual premium so that’s the target,” he said.
Singapore Life will also stick to the retail protection business, which can be executed digitally, and the high net worth market which focuses on Singapore as a hub for financial services, which gives an attractive proposition not only to Singaporeans but Indonesians, Chinese, and Asian customers.
“They value Singapore as the destination for their wealth and that’s proving to be a very strong position,” he said, while adding that there is also a possibility of expanding the company’s operations to other countries in the Southeast Asian region like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines because of the replicability of Singapore Life’s business structure.
For de Oude, “Singapore Life is evidence that the life insurance industry is undergoing change.”
Reinforcing new life
Apart from making a name for itself as the insurtech in Singapore with the largest fundraising to date, the first life insurance company to be licenced by MAS in 47 years, and the first life insurance firm to offer end-to-end life insurance digital products and services, Singapore Life has also captured the emotions of people in its first ever brand awareness campaign in the city-state.
In October 2017, Singapore Life released a new advertising campaign featuring six women—four Chinese, one Indian, and one Malay, showing Singapore’s ethnic diversity—giving live birth on camera to highlight the “rawness and reality” of childbirth and the importance of protecting life. The monochromatic short film shows the struggles of mothers in rearing and delivering a child to this world, highlighting the importance of protecting them by protecting yourself. The video is 2 minutes 45 seconds long and ends with the line that goes, “The moment in life when you realise you need Life,” and then pans to Singapore Life as the brand.
“We believe that life is worth celebrating and life is worth protecting and that miracle of birth and all the emotions that are so familiar to us, parents, and all the love and dedication and joy that we get from that family we create is a momentous, important occasion, and it reminds us of how priceless life is,” de Oude said. “Singapore Life wants to be associated with the good part of celebrating life, of celebrating birth, being part of people’s lives,” the Singapore Life CEO said. “We don’t buy life insurance for ourselves, we buy it for others, for those that would struggle if we were no longer there.”
A successful campaign
de Oude said that the brand and marketing campaign has been a roaring success for the company in terms of letting people know who they are as a company and what they’re offering, as well as what they value most as their core principle in serving the people. “That is translating into activity and sales, which we’re thrilled with.”
“What we’re finding, and this is a critical thing, is that people are looking for better life insurance experience and are looking for better value. We have been absolutely true to deliver that aspiration for clients and we’re seeing that traction coming through in the early days of activity that we’ve seen,” he noted.
“We feel empowered. We feel well-accepted by customers and the market. We will grow strength to strength,” de Oude concluded.
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