Yawning Bread. 6 December 2008

Educating DBS




Within People Like Us (PLU), we had just about sorted out our group position when the reporter from the Business Times called regarding DBS Bank and Focus on the Family (FOTF). Admittedly, we were slower off the starting block than the "young turks" on SiGNeL, PLU's email list, who had been seething for two weeks.

They were furious when the saw the Christmas credit card promotion of DBS: "For every set of *limited edition bears* redeemed, DBS will contribute a sum towards *Focus on the Family*, a charity dedicated to helping children and families thrive" words taken from the bank's website, mid-November 2008.


Signeller Chan opined that it was "not acceptable for [DBS] to be making money from gay community, non Christian, and give that money to fundamentalist Christians whose aim is anti gay..."

He accused the bank of being "a supporter and participant of cultural genocide."

Playwright Ovidia Yu was among the first to make her feelings known to the bank. She called and spoke to an officer, who told her that "as long as you spend above the promotion amount the donation (to Focus On Family) will be automatic." This hardly pleased her, so she told him that as she objected to the values promoted by Focus on the Family, she would not be using their card and would be looking around for another bank.

Taking the cue from this, Ng Yi-Sheng set up a Facebook group calling for a boycott. It grew rapidly to over a thousand members.

Dominic Chua too wrote to the bank, on 24 November:

DBS should be aware that Focus on the Family, quite apart from "helping children and families thrive", is at the forefront of a great deal of anti-gay measures and initiatives in the United States. In an age of growing inclusion and plurality, and especially given that it is a season of love, surely DBS could do better than support an organization that willfully perpetrates misinformation about and prejudice toward gay persons.

If it is a deliberate policy on DBS' part to support institutions that are so opposed to the well-being and happiness of gay people everywhere, I will ask my friends, both straight and gay, to consider switching their accounts to banks that are affirm and support social diversity.

The Facebook group had a suggested letter format which would point out that FOTF has used its "counsellors" to spread misleading information in secondary schools, using a brochure called "Straight Talk" that spreads lies and negative stereotypes about gay and lesbian people and their "lifestyle"; it is aligned with Choices, a group that attempts "reparative therapy" of homosexuals despite the fact that the American Psychological Association sees homosexuality as a normal condition, and attempts at deprogramming of gay people as damaging to mental health. FOTF's founder, James Dobson, has been accused by scientists of manipulating data to create statistics to back up his anti-gay prejudice. 

Their feelings were hardly assuaged when the first replies from DBS came through. The first version, as received by Dominic Chua on 25 November, was boilerplate:

We are currently looking into the matter and will respond to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for banking with DBS Bank.

Then Signeller Loupgarou shared the reply that he got, complete with a grammatical mistake ("appreciates"). Others too received the same reply with the same mistake, so we know it originated from DBS.

Thank you for your feedback of 26 November 2008 and we appreciates your concerns.

Our charity partner, Focus on the Family (Singapore) is a non religious and non political organisation. It is a voluntary welfare organisation supported and endorsed by the National Family Council and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in Singapore. Socially responsible corporate citizens such as MediaCorp, Far East Group, to name a few, have also supported its community programmes.

The contribution from DBS will go towards supporting the children's programmes in Singapore. This is part of our efforts at DBS to support families and children during this festive period. We have supported various local charities in the past such as The Children's Society during Christmas in 2006.

DBS will continue to play its part to support the community at large and we hope to have your kind understanding and support.


Seeing the denial ("Focus on the Family...is a non religious and non political organisation"), Loupgarou exploded. "Does anyone have a fact sheet I can throw at them on FOTF sins?"

Signeller Desmond wrote on Signel: "I immediately wrote back telling them that they really are blind or stupid, even a 6 year old kid can google FOTF and find out that it is a fundamentalist Christian group. I also said that if a DBS cannot even do a simple task like google to find out things before sprouting nonsense, then what more with entrusting millions with them."

Dominic Chua too received a similar reply. His response was firm but measured:

Thank you very much for your answer, which sidestepped my initial query as to whether DBS is consciously supporting an anti-gay organization.

I'm sure I'm not alone in pointing out to you that the simplest of Google searches will reveal that Focus on The Family is far from being a 'non-religious organization'; that same search will also patently show you how Focus on the Family has repeatedly attacked gay people all around the world, whether in terms of the talks they do with adults and adolescents, or the literature they put out -- the message that gay people are mentally ill and socially deviant is Insistently hammered home, and scientific studies are cited out of context and distorted in an attempt to 'prove' their case.

So the case seems fairly clear to me: either DBS was remiss and neglectful in doing due diligence about Focus on the Family, or DBS was fully aware of Focus on the Family's anti-gay agenda, and chose to support it. I would appreciate a clear answer as to which of these paths DBS chose.

If you agree with my premise -- that Focus on the Family is clearly opposed to the well-being of gay people, and that such opposition is an instance of homophobia, then whether or not other institutions and organizations have supported Focus on the Family is beside the point. Homophobia is wrong, and should be recognized and challenged wherever it occurs, rather than supported and financed.

On a separate note, I'm glad that DBS is supporting children's programmes. What I object to is the support of children's programmes run by a homophobic institution. I have no wish for young Singaporeans to grow up burdened with the instinct to revile and condemn gay people.

News about DBS' credit card promotion and campaign appeared on gay portals Fridae and Trevvy. The "young turks" were making headway. By 30 November, it was noticed that DBS had removed references to the promotion on its website. But did it mean the financial support to FOTF had been dropped, or was DBS simply doing it on the sly?

* * * * *

That was the nub of the matter. Ultimately it would be up to the directors and shareholders, and we might never know.

What do we want to achieve? What, in addition to the boycott calls, is needed? Even if we sent out a press release, how do we ensure the media would carry the story? Those were the questions that we in PLU debated. We took a while over them - all of us seem to be so busy with other projects and campaigns.

Finally we settled on this: Our aim would be wider than just DBS Bank. We would want to impact norms of corporate social responsibility more generally. Through this example, we would try to convey the point to all corporate communications managers that LGBT customers and their concerns should not be trifled with. To do this, we'd need mainstream publicity. As for how to get the media's attention....

Business Times was the perfect vehicle for this message, but before we approached them, they approached us. However, as the old saying goes, luck is to be ready when opportunity strikes.

In keeping with PLU's agreed position, I sounded relatively conciliatory. I told the reporter that in my view, most likely the bank made a mistake through carelessness, ignorance and a degree of negligence in not conducting due diligence before tying up with FOTF. Bank executives might also not have been sensitised through their work experience and corporate policies to the gay issue, which is not surprising when in Singapore there is so much censorship and an official habit of dismissing gay concerns.

What I wasn't so happy about was - as conveyed to me by the reporter - the bank's new position, trying to make a distinction between the cause (supporting a family and children centre) and the organisation.

On that I was more forthright. This distinction is artificial, especially when money is involved. I said to the reporter: Look, money is a fungible thing. You put money into one side of the organisation, you are indirectly helping its other sides, either through the possibility of money saved here being diverted there, or through a raised public profile.

I'm glad the Business Times story carried my comments. You can see the full text here. It was on page 2 of the edition of 5 December 2008.

* * * * *

Here is another example of how gay advocacy is spread out among various actors, some more radical than others, but all taking their own initiative. It's also an example of how different communication platforms have a part to play, from writing to DBS Bank through various channels to engaging traditional media - and People Like Us has a standing policy of always being ready to speak to reporters.

It is also an example of how difficult it is to measure success. We still don't know what Karen Ngui, speaking for DBS, meant when she told the Business Times that they "still support the cause.... and thus will be contributing a small amount to the New Learning Centre for children with learning disabilities."

But we're confident that bit by bit, we are nudging corporate social responsibility in the right direction.

Yawning Bread 





There is also the question of FOTF being a group out to spread its religious values. 

How can DBS be so insensitive to its non-Christian customers, by donating a sum to a Christian group, each time a customer spends above a certain amount via his credit card?