The Worldfolio talks with Wilf Blackburn, CEO of Prudential Assurance Company Singapore, about the insurance multinational’s presence in the country and the challenges and opportunities in the ASEAN marketplace.
From your experience here in the region, from a business point of view, what do you believe is the potential of ASEAN in the coming years, and how would you hope Singapore’s chairmanship can affect the region?
For businesses, some of the greatest opportunities in ASEAN are found in the development of the digital economy. Southeast Asia is home to more than 650 million people, the majority of whom are internet users. Yet the region’s digital market is still young, worth some 50 billion US dollars. Industry expectations are for this to exceed 200 billion dollars by 2025 - a significant increase in less than a decade. There is a tremendous opportunity to integrate supply chains, reduce transactional and production costs and to create new jobs, if the region commits to greater investment in digital R&D.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of deeper connectivity will be SMEs. And this is vital since SMEs employ 70% of ASEAN’s workforce and drive more than a third of its GDP. There is a transformative opportunity for SMEs, and for the region, if they could carry out their transactions more easily, cheaply and reliably.
The good news is - with Singapore as Chair of ASEAN, the focus is firmly on e-commerce and the digital economy. In line with Singapore’s Smart Nation vision, we can expect to see a greater push in the region towards a cashless society with e-payments being the main mode of transactions. Greater collaboration between businesses and ASEAN Fintechs can also be expected. This year, the Singapore Fintech Festival, of which Prudential is a grand sponsor, has a strong ASEAN theme to promote innovation and calls for Fintechs to find solutions that are not just specific to Singapore but the rest of the region.
Can you tell us a little bit how you’ve seen the evolution of your operation over the last few years and how this lead to transformation of the business?
Prudential first came to Southeast Asia in 1924. In Singapore, our roots go back over 87 years, making us one of the longest established life insurers in the country. Today, Singapore is the second largest market for Prudential in Asia and its fastest-growing market in South East Asia. Our operations have grown over the decades – we now serve close to a million customers.
As expectations of our customers change with the adoption of new technologies, our business and ways of working have had to evolve too to meet new and rising demands. Recognizing this, the company embarked on a culture and digital transformation two years ago to become a more innovative company with the agility and ability to meet the current and future needs of our customers.
Our transformation has yielded positive outcomes for the company and our customers. Last year, we launched several innovative solutions such as an industry-first e-claims solution and an AI-powered askPRU chatbot that has helped reduce call volumes in our Call Centre by 30%.
We also launched our own innovation platform, the PRU Fintegrate Partnership programme, where we are working with Fintechs, insurtechs, healthtechs, and medtechs to create truly great customer experiences, help our employees work smarter and complement the efforts of our financial consultants to provide customers with valuable advice and solutions in meeting their changing needs.
You’ve managed how you’ve been able to move people to higher value jobs by making them move towards that sciences, but how have you been able to increase your workforce so much?
First, we are fortunate to be in a sector that is growing. ASEAN is still an underpenetrated market for insurance. The protection gap in Singapore alone is $355billion (LIA study, 2018). So, while we are counting on technology as a productive tool, we are also hiring more people to develop the right solutions, to bring insurance to more people and to help our customers make informed financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones.
Secondly, we are part of an industry that is undergoing an innovation-led transformation. While some roles are no longer relevant with automation, there are new roles being created as a result of technology. We see tremendous opportunities for those willing to take on new roles and experiment with new ways of working in our digital transformation journey.
If we were to come back here in 10 years, how would you see prudential evolving here?
Preventative healthcare will be a key thrust of our business as we move forward. The insurance industry as a whole needs to re-evaluate its role in our ecosystem as the key payer for rising healthcare costs. In Singapore, our challenge is that we are serving an ageing population that could potentially live till 100 years. To survive and thrive in this business, it imperative to move away from the traditional role of underwriting a life, collecting a premium and paying for treatment when the person falls sick.
We will be working in collaboration with the government as well as with employers to deliver technologies and services to customers to help them manage their health and diseases better, so they have the best shot at living longer and healthier lives.