Yawning 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:

The bank takes pride in the fact that many DBS employees pursue their interests and passion outside work, and are involved with various community/charity/volunteer organisations in their personal capacity. These employees had sought and obtained prior approval to do so, in accordance with the Bank's staff code of conduct. Approval is granted on a case-by-case basis, depending on the demands of the proposed external appointment as well as the job responsibilities that the individual holds in the bank.

Josie informed the bank of her appointment as AWARE Exco member on 13 April, over 2 weeks after she was appointed on 28 March. She had not sought prior approval for this appointment and thereby breached the staff code of conduct. Nevertheless, DBS made a concession and agreed to support her involvement as Exco member.

Early this week, Josie broached the subject of her intent to run for President of AWARE. We reviewed her request and subsequently informed her that while the Bank continues to support her involvement in AWARE, we could not support her intent to run for President, given the demands associated with the top post of a leading advocacy group in Singapore. Banks worldwide are facing very challenging times and her role as VP in the credit card space today is even more challenging, given the environment we are in.

Every year, all employees are required to acknowledge that they will abide by the bank’s policies. We are disappointed that Josie knowingly disregarded DBS’ staff code of conduct twice. Such attitude is not one that DBS, or any other organisation, can condone in a leader. We are now reviewing the matter internally.

-- DBS spokesperson, 17 April 2009.


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:

Last year, DBS Bank drew protests from some customers upset that it had chosen the group Focus on the Family as the beneficiary for a charity drive.

Customers pointed out that the charity, and its American parent body, took a conservative Christian stand against abortion and homosexuals.

The Straits Times learnt this week that Ms Lau's division was given the job of recommending a charity for DBS to support. Neither she nor the bank would comment on that.

-- Straits Times, 17 April 2009,
DBS tells why it rebuked Josie Lau

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:

Yes, t new president of Aware n a few other newly elected members r from COOS. T new president Josie Lau head of credit card space in DBS, is behind the "Focus on Family" idea last Christmas.

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:

  1. Josie Lau informed her superiors "early this week... of her intent to run for President " (words from DBS' statement above). Her superiors told her they did not approve.
  2. The new exco of AWARE held a meeting on the evening of Wednesday, 15 April. At the end of the meeting, she was introduced to the media as the new president of the organisation. This would have been quite late in the evening.
  3. Within a matter of minutes or an hour, DBS bank released its first statement. It was so prompt, it made the next day's news story just as Josie Lau's appointment did.

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?

* * * * *

I went back to relook at the sequence of events during the DBS FOTF fiasco. It was interesting that DBS had two different responses.

In the first week or so, as complaints piled in, DBS' response was that:

Our charity partner, Focus on the Family (Singapore) is a non religious and non political organisation....

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 


OCBC Bank backs the position taken by DBS Bank on the need for staff to seek approval before holding office in other organisations.

A key concern for financial institutions is possible conflict of interest, especially when someone senior takes on a role in an outside organisation, said OCBC spokesman Koh Ching Ching.

'It is important that financial institutions know of potential conflict of interest for their bank employees as we are required to regularly report to the regulators and our respective boards on any credit facilities to entities where our employees are directors, executive officers, guarantors or sureties,' she said. 'Financial institutions also need to know of potential conflicts for any possible supplier-buyer situations, even for accounts held by non-profit organisations or charities with us.'

That was why it was 'common human resource policy' for senior employees to get approval before taking on board positions in companies or non-profit and charitable organisations, she said.

-- Straits Times, 17 April 2009, DBS tells why it rebuked Josie Lau





  1. Correction 22 April 2009: Angela Thiang did have one letter published by the Straits Times that was not on the topic of homosexuality. Her 4 August 2008 letter argued for a tightening of abortion laws - the other pet topic of Christian fundamentalists.
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