Insurance is a significant part of Singaporean’s lives. From the government-mandated MediShield Life to the more comprehensive Integrated Shield Plan (IP), Life Insurance, Disability Income Insurance and more complex products like Investment-linked policies (which, in my opinion, one should stay far away from), it is a topic that comes up from time to time in conversations. For many, there is a slight negative connotation to the word “insurance” and the first thought that comes to mind is pesky and persistent agents getting in your way while rushing to an important appointment or flooding your inboxes with an “innocuous” message of “just wanting to catch up” or “get your help with a survey”. Above that, the medium of insurance purchasing has traditionally been, and is still very much, conducted face-to-face. That is, until MoneyOwl (DIY Insurance) came to be, and now Singapore Life.
MoneyOwl was my first exposure to online purchase of insurance. They claim to be “Singapore’s 1st Bionic Financial Adviser”, meaning that they “have the best of both worlds – humans and technology”. Indeed, that seems to be the case, as one would go on the website, input profile information like age, date-of-birth, protection needs (life, occupational, salary etc.) and then give you a computer-generated recommendation of the type of insurance you should consider. You can then purchase it directly from the website, or choose to have an “agent” / employee contact you to find out more. Other than that, you could choose to circumvent the entire online process and contact them via email directly and have someone reach out to you.
Singapore Life, comparatively, offers just two products now – term life insurance and an endowment plan. They also operate completely online, which is the ethos on which it was built on – to “provide customers with a better life insurance experience by using the efficiency that technology creates” and be “the next generation life insurance company”. On first look, they seem to have made progress in doing just that. The website is simple and easy to navigate, and with just two products, takes away a lot of the friction of online buying, which, ironically, is the over-abundance of choice the consumer has. (More on this later)
Who are they?
Founded in 2014 by Walter de Oude (also CEO) and most recently valued at $200M, Singapore Life was conceptualized to solve the problem of excessive paperwork in insurance purchasing, digitizing the process and hence making it more accessible to Singaporeans. Prior to establishing Singapore Life, De Oude was the CEO of HSBC Insurance (Singapore) Pte. Ltd and was a board member of HSBC Asset Management Singapore.
Singapore life was approved as a fully licensed direct life insurer by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in mid-2017 and started off by targeting High Net Worth (HNW) individuals and offering them life insurance. It was first registered as a technology company and obtained licenses along the way to be a technology-focused insurance provider. Investors include U.S. insurer Aflac, U.K. investment company IPGL and Aberdeen Asset Management.
In early 2018, Singapore Life acquired Zurich Life Singapore and took over S$6B worth of life insurance coverage, transforming it as a significant player in the insurance space in Singapore overnight. The acquisition, de Oude says, is “proof that the company has the technology and capability to serve such an expansive portfolio of customers”.
What is the team?
Singapore Life is led by founder-and-CEO Walter de Oude, who moved to Singapore in 2000 and prior to founding Singapore Life, was CEO at HSBC Insurance Singapore. He also sat on the board of HSBC Asset Management Singapore.
Executive team includes:
- Varsha Bipinchandra (CFO/CRO) – formerly Regional Head of Operational Risk, Insurance and COO at HSBC and Head of Internal Audit at Great Eastern Life
- Chun Keong Fong (Head of Ops) – formerly COO and SVP at HSBC Insurance
- Robert Ross (CTO) – formerly CTO (4 months) of iPaymy, a cash solution provider for SMEs, SVP (4months) of Open Banking Product Management at Citi and 4 years as Head of IT at a unknown(?) firm in Hong Kong
Board members include:
- Ray Ferguson (Board Chairman) – formerly CEO of Standard Chartered Singapore
- David Gelber – Board member of IPGL and former COO of HSBC Global Markets
- Estella Chiu – previously led the actuarial practice at KPMG for Asia Pacific and Regional Chief Actuary and Head of Investment and Insurance Risks of HSBC Insurance in Asia
- Laurence Wong – Senior Director of Business Development for the Singapore International Commercial Court and previously CEO of Great Eastern Life Vietnam
The board and executive team look to be a group of experienced professionals in the finance and insurance field, other than the CTO whose background isn’t as clearly stated online, which until further investigation, might prove to be an issue given the focus on technology of the company.
What is their value proposition?
Singapore Life is currently offering two products on its website – term life plans and endowment plans, hoping to tap on the gap in insurance coverage in Singapore.
For the term life plan application, you will be asked personal details such as age, gender and amount desired to be insured for, contact details, some risk assessment questions (e.g. whether you drink, engage in certain dangerous activities, health declaration) and identity verification. It takes some time to complete the process but it is straightforward.
Similarly, an application for an endowment plan can be done completely online. You are asked to indicate an investment amount of S$1-500K and tenure (3 / 5 years), with the p.a. returns clearly stated (2.2% / 2.5%). The application can be done through myinfo (i.e. Singpass login) which simplifies the process. Overall, the application processes for both products are simple to understand and the website is user friendly.
On top of insurance purchase, you can submit a claim online as well, and they also maintain a blog that has information on financial/insurance planning.
However, there could be more coming post its recent acquisition of Canvas, a prepaid Visa card firm, from mobile payments company Yolopay. Pitching Canvas as a medium with which parents control their children’s spending, Walter says that it will be “an excellent teaching tool for young adults to learn how to prioritize their allotted pocket money prudently” and “adds payment functionality to our core offerings”.
Despite all that’s said, it seems like Singapore Life is, in many ways (insurance, payments) trying to carve a niche in the market that might already be targeted by much large and well-funded companies like Grab, who recently announced a tie-up with Chinese Insurtech company ZhongAn and aims to deliver a digital insurance marketplace.
I feel that there are two most likely scenarios (the third being shutting down) for Singapore Life. First, leveraging on its simplicity and consumer-friendly interface and reputation, successfully being the online insurer of choice for a few products that it so chooses to offer, and slowly building out additional capabilities (e.g. payments) that further takes away friction from online insurance purchasing. The second, tieing up with, or even being taken over by, a larger player that wants to quickly scale up its insurance business (think Grab).
Either way, there is little debate that the way we purchase and view insurance, frequently overlooked, is one that is archaic and ripe for disruption. The approach of Singapore Life, while simple, might just be the solution we all did not know we were looking for.
- Fintech startup Singapore Life acquires prepaid card brand Canvas
- Singapore Life: investing in tech to better serve customers
- CEO banks on his own insurance business
- Grab Works with China’s Insurtech Giant to Offer Insurance by Mid 2019