Bread. 21 April 2009
DBS Bank's public hanging
When DBS Bank publicised its opposition to Josie Lau taking on the post of president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), some bloggers accused the bank of being oppressive, interfering with what its employees could or could not do in their spare time.
I think these accusations are way off the mark.
To begin with, it was soon reported in the mainstream press that it is standard practice in the financial industry for senior officers to obtain clearance before they got involved in other organisations to avoid conflict of interest problems. See box at right.
DBS detailed the sequence of events as they knew it in a press communique, which I received late in the evening of Thursday, 16 April 2009. This was the second of two statements it made, expanding on the first statement issued less than 24 hours earlier. It said:
DBS has not specified what they would do now that their vice-president in charge of credit card operations has blatantly flouted the code of conduct, only saying that it was reviewing the matter internally. It is not likely, in my view, for the bank to publicise the final decision it reaches.
This begs a question: While it may be one thing for DBS Bank to take to task an employee who has breached company policies, why do it so publicly? Why didn't they deal with the matter without issuing press releases?
Immediately, netizens and even Straits Times journalist Wong Kim Hoh suspected that it had something to do with the Focus on the Family (FOTF) fiasco last December. See my article Educating DBS. The Straits Times wrote:
This was the only plausible connection. No other possibility even comes to mind. Plausibility then became a whole lot stronger when an sms message began circulating. Reportedly originating from the Church of Our Saviour (COOS), the sms, which I received at 22:34 h on Friday 17 April, said:
The church was apparently bragging that one of their own had this laudable track record and is now chief of AWARE. FOTF's chief, Tan Thuan Seng, also belongs to COOS.
Perhaps mindful of the boycott that DBS faced last December, the bank wanted to distance itself from whatever Josie Lau might be up to in future with AWARE, especially as many online commentators including Yawning Bread have pointed out that the group which carried out the coup at AWARE had fundamentalist Christianity and militant homophobia as its most glaring characteristics.
I mean, consider this: except for two, none of the new executive committee members have been members of AWARE for more than a few months prior. Not only have they not been involved in AWARE's work before, from what we know, they have not even spoken up on women's issues before. Where they have spoken up by writing letters to the press, every single one of those letters have been on just one topic: homosexuality is bad, bad, bad. The record speaks for itself. [Addendum 1]
You could say that DBS must have been very worried that the FOTF fiasco might repeat itself and damage the bank's relations with its customers, and for this reason, choose to disavow any support for Josie Lau at AWARE preemptively.
And still, that does not explain it. There are many ways for an organisation to distance itself from someone else's agenda without taking one of its employees to task so humiliatingly.
So why did the bank do what it did? Was it over-reacting, or did it have good reason to believe that this was really serious? Inside information I have received is that this matter is considered acutely so, warranting instructions coming from the Chairman's Office. This factoid is supported by a close reading of the timeline:
Think about it. Her superiors must have been extremely upset to have a statement prepared in advance for just that eventuality. They must have foreseen the possibility that she would deliberately flout their instructions. What do they know about her that they have not revealed?
* * * * *
In the first week or so, as complaints piled in, DBS' response was that:
When complainants got this response, they blew their top. Many then wrote back to DBS with a list of hyperlinks, pointing to FOTF's track record here and in the United States. In fact, even a cursory glance at FOTF Singapore's website would demolish the above claim.
After those letters reached DBS, the bank's position became much more conciliatory. Eventually, the bank changed its credit card promotion scheme.
Now, imagine yourself as the head honcho of DBS. You'd be asking yourself why the bank was getting so much flak, and worse, was putting out an initial response that seemed only to fan the flames. And then you would discover, from subsequent emails by irate customers providing more details, that your organisation's first response was a disgraceful lie.
Wouldn't you ask: Who crafted that first response? Who fed the public relations department with those misleading assertions?
While I don't know the answer the head honcho got, chances are they would be the same people who had proposed FOTF as the beneficiary in the first place. It's the most logical possibility.
If -- a big if -- that was indeed what happened, wouldn't you understand why DBS treated the matter of Josie Lau as president of AWARE as seriously as it did? Why DBS felt it had to signal in the strongest possible terms, and publicly, that it did not condone Josie Lau getting involved with yet another organisation?
Despite all the speculation, despite the lack of any alternative possibility, DBS refuses to link the present matter with last December's FOTF affair despite reporters asking about it. DBS probably realises that if it did, it would beg questions whether it was pro-gay or anti-gay, when in the banks' mind, I'm sure that is not the issue at all. The issue is likely to be one of professional standards. As the bank said in its statement above, "Such attitude is not one that DBS, or any other organisation, can condone in a leader."
© Yawning Bread