Ensuring operational resilience

Shortly after the initial cases of COVID-19 were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in end December 2019, and Singapore’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced on 23 January 2020, the ABS Standing Committee on Business Resilience and Continuity (SCBRC) began to organise regular conference calls to discuss and coordinate industry-wide contingency measures to manage the impact of the disease.

On 28 January 2020, ABS issued the first communique on COVID-19 to inform member banks to be guided by the Ministry of Health (MOH)/Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website regarding precautionary measures for employers and employees who travel overseas for work and leisure.

A week later, the Association followed up with an advisory to member banks on contingency measures to be adopted at the banks’ discretion. An “Infectious Disease Management Guidelines” developed by the SCBRC, was also distributed to the Business Continuity Management and HR functions of banks.

On 18 March 2020, the ABS Council initiated its dialogue with MAS on managing COVID-19 in the banking sector, covering areas such as funding, bank credit, manpower and operational resilience.

DORSCON Alert Level Orange

In response to MOH’s elevation of the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) Alert Level to Orange on 7 February 2020, the SCBRC convened an emergency conference call on that day to align the industry-wide measures with the Alert:

  • Temperature screening for customers implemented progressively at retail branches;

  • Staff performing temperature screening to wear face mask and gloves and use contactless thermometer;

  • Signages put up at branches to inform customers of measures;

  • Staff informed to handle customers with care;

  • Offer assistance to perform transactions at other online or digital channels;

  • Temperature screening for corporate visitors, and corporate visitors to make travel and health declaration; and

  • Readiness to activate split operations for critical functions.

COVID-19 circuit breaker and elevated safe distancing measures

Immediately after the Government announced that Singapore would enter the “circuit breaker” period, from 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020 (which was subsequently extended to 1 June 2020), the ABS issued a media statement assuring customers that the full range of banking services continued to be available and all bank branches remained open according to their normal operating hours. However, as customer traffic fell in response to the elevated safe distancing measures, banks temporarily closed some of their branches from 9 April 2020 to 4 May 2020.

To minimise inconvenience to the public, ABS coordinated among its member banks to ensure that branches remained well distributed across Singapore to adequately meet their customers’ needs. The Association in collaboration with MAS also encouraged customers to use digital channels and services such as PayNow, FAST, Interbank GIRO, credit and debit cards to minimise physical contact. A comprehensive campaign was launched to promote the use of PayNow by consumers and corporates.

In April 2020, as the COVID-19 situation evolved, the ABS stepped up its communications with member banks and the public. As banking is deemed as an essential service, banks were required to comply with all applicable laws and advisories issued by MAS, MOH, Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and other government agencies.

The Association also issued a media statement on 14 April 2020 seeking the understanding and cooperation of bank customers of mandatory masking when they visit bank branches to safeguard their own health and well-being, and that of other customers and staff working at these premises. Failure to wear a face mask could result in refusal of entry. Masking was also extended to customers when queuing up to use ATMs. ABS also strongly advised customers to use their banks’ online, mobile and digital channels to access banking services during this period and to refrain from going to bank branches, unless absolutely necessary.

For customers who need to go to bank branches, ABS and MAS announced on 17 April 2020 a whitelist of banking services that were available at branches while urging customers to minimise banking visits during the circuit breaker. With the concerted promotion of digital services and online banking, footfall at the bank branches declined sharply and about half of the domestic bank branches in Singapore were closed.

The ABS Outsourcing Advisory Committee also reached out to the material outsource service providers enquiring on their business continuity plans and to ensure there were ongoing communications to their bank clients on the status of their operations.

Easing of COVID-19 circuit breaker

Ahead of the completion of the circuit breaker, the Government announced the easing of some of the stringent circuit breaker measures on 2 May 2020, as well as the preparation for the safe and gradual resumption of economic and community activities. Singapore entered into three phases of safe reopening – Phase 1 on 2 June 2020, Phase 2 on 19 June 2020 and Phase 3 on 28 December 2020.

ABS Return to Onsite Operations Taskforce

ROOT Infographics v5

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In tandem with the Government’s phased-in safe reopening approach, ABS facilitated the banking sector’s Return to Onsite Operations Taskforce (ROOT) in May 2020. ABS ROOT is formed to provide members with a platform to share and coordinate responses to the COVID-19 situation and plan for the post-COVID “new normal”. ABS ROOT also consolidates good practices by its members, and shares them by:

  • conducting industry briefings for ABS member banks/institutions and other industry associations, and

  • addressing queries from the briefing’s participants.

ABS ROOT, which is supported by eight workstreams, has been deeply involved in assessing the operational changes and challenges triggered by COVID-19.

  1. Workstream on Retail Activities

  2. Workstream on Onsite Activities

  3. Workstream on HR Practices

  4. Workstream on Technology

  5. Workstream on Workspace/Office

  6. Workstream on Digitalisation of Workflow

  7. Workstream on After Action Review (AAR)

  8. Workstream on Remote Working

ABS ROOT has expanded the coverage beyond focusing on onsite and retail activities to reviewing forward looking human resource practices, future workspaces, new remote working risks, sustainability practices, and finding ways for technology to play an active role in the delivery of solutions.

ABS ROOT had conducted over 30 main committee meetings and held more than 100 workstream meetings from May 2020 to March 2021.

While the COVID-19 pandemic situation had improved and stabilised through 2021, the ROOT committee continued to hold regular meetings with MAS to share industry feedback and seek clarifications, given the dynamic safe management measures announced by the Government. The meetings helped MAS provide the industry inputs to the COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF).

Retail activities

The Workstream on Retail Activities’ main priority is the resumption of customer-facing services including a review of the optimal proportion of branch network to remain open and the whitelist of banking services. The Workstream also plans the communications to the public and bank customers. It also established the Safe Management Measures (SMM) for retail branches and offsite ATMs to ensure that frontline activities remain safe for customers and staff.

The Workstream leveraged on technology to manage footfall in the retail banking network. For example, customers can check on the traffic in bank branches in the retail bank’s website before visiting the branch. This real- time information enhances the safe distancing measures necessary for the safety of the public and front office staff.

Onsite activities and safe management measures

The Workstream on Onsite Activities focused on the resumption of onsite activities including reviews of the wholesale/commercial and global markets business and operations, and the optimal proportion of Onsite/ Work-from-Home (WFH) and staggered working hours arrangement.

It provided guiding principles for the determination of onsite functions/resources in the different phases (i.e. Phase 1 and Phase 2) of safe opening in Singapore.

Recognising the challenges of implementing SMM, the Workstream coordinated industry feedback to MAS, which enabled the Government’s effort to enhance nation-wide SMM. Some of the operational challenges shared with MAS included:

  • Safe distancing measures upon return-to-onsite;

  • Implementing Working-in-Office (WIO) on enterprise and location basis; and

  • Implementing TraceTogether app/token as the only safe entry method.

The Workstream also provided inputs on MAS’ protocol on conducting inspections in the “new normal”.

Health and well-being of employees

The Workstream on HR Practices focused on managing physical, mental and emotional well-being of WFH and WIO employees and sharing common issues/best practices of these employees during the pandemic.

It compiled a set of good practices for managing employee wellness implemented by ROOT member banks comprising:

  • Webinars, virtual meetings, workshops, activities;

  • Ergonomic practices;

  • Employee communication;

  • Building rapport; and

  • Mindfulness apps to support employees in building habits to focus and stay engaged.

The practices help employees manage the stress arising from significant changes needed to adapt to the “new normal” of WFH or WIO.


The Workstream on Technology focused on identifying challenges, best practices and tools for telecommuting/WFH and collaborating with third-party vendors/telco companies/government agencies to provide support for WFH. It held discussions with telecommunications providers and shared ways to improve home internet experience with member banks.

The Workstream compiled good technology practices developed in prolonged WFH environment and provided guiding principles on technology enablers for the new normal:

  • New collaboration tools;

  • Secure video conferencing capabilities;

  • Call recording for critical functions;

  • Virtual IT support; and

  • Security considerations in the “new normal”.

After Action Review and lessons learnt

The Workstream on After Action Review (AAR) focused on AAR on crisis management and response plan, and documenting lessons learnt and areas for improvement. It shared with member banks the lessons learnt based on five pillars:

  • Crisis management and response plan;

  • Business Continuity Management and operational resilience;

  • Third parties and service providers;

  • Regulations and guidelines; and

  • Moving beyond COVID-19 to be an agile and resilient organisation.

Digitalisation of paper-based workflows involving government agencies

The Workstream on Digitalisation focused on identifying paper-based workflows involving banks and government agencies to reduce paper-based workflows.

The Workstream, MAS and Ministry of Finance (MOF), during the COVID-19 circuit breaker period, have identified paper-based workflows which could be considered for digitalisation to facilitate efficient WFH arrangements. To support this important initiative, ABS and banks will be collaborating with MAS and MOF to strategise the digitalisation process under the proposed Digitalisation Standing Committee.

Remote working risks

The Workstream on Remote Working Risks and MAS jointly issued an information paper on “Risk Management and Operational Resilience in a Remote Working Environment” on 2 March 2021. The paper aims to address new risks that could emerge from extensive remote working arrangements adopted by FIs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Paper aims to manage new risks that could emerge from extensive remote working arrangements adopted by financial institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Paper highlights that, in view of the protracted remote working arrangements and the adoption of hybrid working arrangements, it is important that FIs remain vigilant towards remote working risks and take pre-emptive steps to mitigate them.

The paper seeks to:

  • Raise awareness of key remote working risks in the financial sector;

  • Share good practices adopted by FIs to mitigate key remote working risks; and

  • Encourage all FIs to adopt good practices on managing remote working risks.

The Paper looks at possible risks to FIs in the areas of operations, technology and information security, fraud and staff misconduct, and legal and regulatory risks. It also examines the impact on people and culture that may arise from remote working. Drawing from the experiences of ABS member banks, the Paper recommends key risk management actions needed to address these areas of concern. The risks and risk mitigation measures set out in the Paper are also applicable to non-bank FIs.

Study on future workspace

The Workstream on Future Workplace and MAS jointly published the “Study on Future Workplace” for FIs in Singapore on 23 March 2021. Workplace strategies and good practices identified in the Study, relating to the building environment and Safe Management Measures (SMMs), aim to support FIs in enhancing resilience in their operations for the present and beyond.

Some of the key practices and suggestions to be considered by FIs include:

i. Strengthening internal governance to increase responsiveness in managing issues centred around corporate functions such as human resource, information technology and facilities management during a crisis;

ii. Building a pandemic-resilient workplace, seamlessly shifting between ‘Pandemic OFF’ (steady state) and ‘Pandemic ON’ states by adjusting the four levers – SMMs, office density, air quality and operational measures – to meet the varying degree of severity in a pandemic;

iii. Embedding agile design principles into the workplace to allow greater flexibility in the use of workplace;

iv. Embracing new technologies to streamline operations and enhance employee experience;

v. Exploring a distributed strategy in workplace locations outside of the central business district, including on demand workplace options, to increase work flexibility, minimise staff commute, human concentration and facilitate faster response time during a pandemic; and

vi. Assessing the “must-have” and “good-to-have” initiatives in the design of future workplace such as workplace ecosystem, integration of SMMs, workplace density and technology adoption.

The Study’s insights and recommendations on future workplace design strategies have been summarised into a playbook for FIs. The Study was the result of five months of research conducted in close consultation with the ABS ROOT Workstream on Workplace/Office, and advice from an expert panel that provided multi-disciplinary views on managing infectious diseases and designing workplaces for health and safety. An external consulting consortium, led by Cushman & Wakefield, was commissioned to undertake the Study.

Banks in Singapore have demonstrated their ability to provide essential financial services during the circuit breaker period in 2020. Overall, the Study provides additional guidance where required, to ensure that banks would be able to provide substantially the same level of service standards customers expect of them, including not impacting services to customers.

Industry briefings and engagement

The Association conducted industry briefings to engage and share best practices with all member banks covering topics on:

  • Onsite activities and employee well-being;

  • Construct of workspace and office, and technology for the “new normal”; and

  • HR practices in the new future of work, technology for the “new normal” and COVID-19 lessons learnt; and

  • Key findings and recommendations from the “Risk Management and Operational Resilience in a Remote Working Environment” paper and the “Study on Future Workplace”.

On 18 September 2020, ABS and the Workstream on Future Workspace/Office also participated in the MAS International Advisory Panel (IAP) to present a topic on “Future of Workspaces and Supporting the Workforce” to IAP members.

The way forward

The banking sector came together in 2020 to tackle the operational challenges arising from COVID-19. ABS ROOT has shaped the banking sector’s coordinated response to operational risks arising from the pandemic, facilitated the smooth transition to the next phase and helped the industry to safely resume onsite activities. Looking ahead, ABS ROOT will continue to help chart the way forward in ensuring the safety and resilience of the financial sector.

National Awards (COVID-19) – The President’s Certificate of Commendation (COVID-19)

ABS received The President’s Certificate of Commendation (COVID-19) for its work during the pandemic, one of the National Awards (COVID-19) for contributions to Singapore’s fight against COVID-19 that were announced on 29 December 2022 by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The award is a testimony of the contributions and commitment by banks and their staff, as well as the ABS secretariat, who demonstrated tireless dedication, collaboration and support over the crisis period. In particular, the following committees/taskforces were actively involved in driving initiatives to mitigate the effects of the pandemic:

  • Taskforces for the Special Financial Relief Programme and Extended Support Schemes;

  • PayNow Steering Committee;

  • Return to Onsite Operations Taskforce; and

  • Standing Committee on Business Resilience and Continuity.

The successful and effective rollout of these programmes was possible only with the strong collaboration among member banks and the close partnership with MAS, Credit Bureau Singapore, Credit Counselling Singapore and NETS/BCS.