In the offices of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) there is a fast-growing pile of applications from foreign banks desperate for a better crack at Singapore's retail banking market. Up for grabs are two more so-called Qualifying Full Bank licences, which permit holders to establish a presence at 15 locations in the city-state, up to 10 of which may be branches while the balance may be ATMs. That may not seem much of a privilege, but in a market as hemmed in as Singapore's, where takeovers of domestic banks by foreign players are not yet permitted, that is as good as it gets. Part of the attraction lies in what may happen in future. Most analysts see further opening by the MAS in the years ahead and licence-holders will be better positioned to exploit a freer regime if it materialises. Four of the licences were awarded in October 1999 when the MAS held a first round of liberalisation. The award triggered a scramble from more than two dozen players. Standard Chartered Bank, ABN Amro, Banque National de Paris and Citibank won out. MAS chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the fresh contest on June 29 while broadening the range of powers enjoyed by the licence holders, permitting more branches and a slightly freer hand. Banks have until the end of this month to signal their interest with the awards soon afterwards. Analysts say two of the strongest candidates in the race are HSBC and Malayan Banking (Maybank). Both companies, which already have a limited retail presence in Singapore, applied unsuccessfully in 1999. HSBC Chairman Sir John Bond used the bank's interim results announcement to outline his firm's intentions to apply for a licence. Maybank's executive director Ismail Shahudin said he would 'do whatever necessary'. 'Maybank is keen on acquiring the licence because it will be to our benefit in the long run.' Part of Mr Lee's revised package included permission for licence holders, from July next year, to provide point of sale electronic debit services, a move which potentially extends the banks' reach. Holders will be permitted to negotiate with Visa, Mastercard or NETS, a network owned and run by Singapore's retail banks, to join their networks. There have also been unconfirmed reports in the local press that Singapore's foreign banks have been in talks to forge a deal to pool their ATM networks.