Big bank, big government, but the similarity ends there

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At my request, the teller brought the branch manager to see me. I began: “I have no intention to take ‘no’ for an answer.” Then I explained what I was here at the bank for. On behalf of the charity organisation I volunteer at, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), I needed a letter from the bank confirming our bank account number and account name.

The request originated from Benevity.org, a US-based organisation that certifies charities. Google employees had wanted to do some pro-bono work for TWC2, but apparently, they had to first ensure that the benefitting charity is properly certified by Benevity.

One thing led to another and Benevity then said that in order to fully register with them, we had to prove the bona fides of our bank account. It didn’t make any sense to me since it was not as if the Google employees were giving us money, but who knows — tomorrow, somebody else might want to shower us with cash. In the interest of foresight, it would be good to be fully registered, and thus to comply with their request.

To prove the bona fides of our bank account meant producing a letter from the bank confirming that a bank account number really belonged to us. In these days when money-laundering is making the news, it’s an entirely fair request.

And that’s where the trouble began.

Anytime you ask a massive organisation for something that is not in their SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) you hit a brick wall. For two weeks, attempts to reach the bank often meant listening to muzak through the phone. Even when we managed to get through, the letter that the bank drew up omitted the one detail we absolutely had to have: confirmation about our bank account number.

We tried again, but when Benevity sent us an email to say the registration process would be aborted if we didn’t produce the asked-for letter soon, I felt that it was time to march personally into the bank.

Despite my saying “I have no intention to take ‘no’ for an answer,” the young bank manager still tried to say there was no way the bank could generate such a letter. At least not immediately. We had to have all the signatories of TWC2 signing a formal request…. and even then, the process would take days.

I didn’t have the luxury of time — two weeks had been wasted hitting the brick wall — and the need for a formal application seemed quite disproportionate. “Why do you need a formal request complete with full signatories?” I asked. “It’s not as if there is transaction involved here.”

Her reply: “You’re asking us to release confidential information, that’s why a formal, properly signed request is needed.”

“What confidential information?”

“Your bank account number,” she said.

I needed a long, long second to process this. “How is a bank account number confidential?  You guys print it on every cheque in our chequebook. Any party who receives a cheque from us can see our bank account number.”

She then agreed to “make an exception”,  and shortly after, I had the letter in hand exactly the way I wanted it.

I draw from here a story about government, power and doublespeak.

But first, let’s take stock of what happened at the bank. A middle-level official tried to hold the line on stated company policy. That’s her job. But the moment I could show that there was a logical fallacy within the heart of that policy, she knew what she had to do. In all rational situations, that’s how things should work. Or so we’d like to believe. But we also know from experience that very often, logical arguments move nothing.

Why the difference?

Logic as a means to finding an agreed solution requires both parties to share similar or complementary goals. When the ends are mutual, logic can be deployed as a way to search for optimal means. It can also be used to refine policy. The bank’s goals are clear. As in virtually all commercial organisations, they are profit and, as a route to profit, customer service. I wanted service; they wanted to deliver service. The bank’s existing policy stood in the way and I could show it was insupportable due to an inherent logical fallacy.

Dealing with a bank is nothing like dealing with government

At TWC2 we see an endless stream of foreign workers seeking help because they have either not been paid their salaries or been short-paid. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has a division that deals with such complaints. However, for workers, full and satisfactory resolution is elusive. For years, MOM did not require employers of foreign workers to provide detailed itemised payslips. Without them, workers were severely disadvantaged in arguing that their wages (including overtime and deductions) had been wrongly calculated. Many, in fact, had no idea at all if the amount was right or wrong.

We also knew from our casework that even when employers revealed how the month’s wages were determined, the actual cash in the envelope was less than the stated amount. But how could workers prove to MOM that the payslip differed from the cash?

(MOM publishes statistics that boast that over 90% of salary cases are “resolved” at mediation. Most of the time, as seen from our casework, “resolved” means workers, after being emotionally pummelled, agree to accept a tiny fraction of what they’re owed. There’s a fine example of doublespeak for you.)

For years we advocated rules that would (1) make detailed itemised payslips mandatory and (2) require all salaries to be paid into employees’ bank accounts. Banks statements can then be used to demonstrate if the correct amounts have been paid.

For years, MOM resisted. On more than one occasion, a senior bureaucrat countered that it would be too cumbersome on employers to have to provide detailed itemised payslips. The example he cited was that of an “auntie” who ran a market stall. How can we burden her to produce detailed itemised payslips for her assistants?

It may not be obvious at first sight, but it’s quite a mind-blowing reply, especially coming from a senior civil servant. Firstly — and he should know that — “aunties” running hawker stalls are not allowed to employ foreign workers. He was citing a completely inapplicable category in his rebuttal. Secondly, how would the woman know how much to pay her workers if she didn’t do some calculation in the first place? And if she did, how much more effort would be required to write down each element in the calculation and give copies to workers?

What we had here was a response that made no attempt to be rational. One cannot but suspect that the ministry was not prepared to engage in a meaningful discussion. Why? We’ll take this up below.

Anyway, time passed and in April this year, MOM instituted a new rule that made it compulsory for employers to issue detailed itemised payslips. However, a recent survey by TWC2 found about one in three workers were still not getting this essential piece of paper.

What about bank giro? Still not mandatory. In other words, bosses can say one thing on paper and pay a different amount in cash. And workers would be in no position to prove they had been shortpaid.

To this, the ministry’s response — repeated several times — was that the law already requires bosses to pay via bank if a worker so requests. Again, it may not be obvious at first sight, but this reply is as nonsensical as all that went before. MOM’s own rules allow employers to sack workers at any time with no need to provide any reason. Moreover, a foreign worker (unless give rare, special exception) is not allowed to seek a new job. He must go home and then pay thousands of dollars to recruiters before he can come here to work again. Given this high ‘price’ should he make his boss angry, no worker would risk it all by asking for banked-in salaries if his employer is not of a mind to.

MOM knows this, yet, the ministry shamelessly showcases this ‘reason’ — that workers already have a so-called right to bank payment — to resist better policy.

Either bald power or hairy motives

The refusal to engage in rational discussion is an assertion of bald power. Deploying utterly illogical counter-arguments with no trace of embarrassment only buttresses this conclusion. (In fact, it can be argued that if your chief intent is to display power you should NOT supply a logical rebuttal. Your interlocutor might not get your intended message; he might think you’re serious about discussing the merits of the issue with him.)

And yet, the above is a charitable conclusion. Because there can be more than meets the eye.

When your logical proposals make no impression, you can begin to suspect that the organisation’s goals aren’t what you think they are. I was able to succeed with the bank because as a commercial organisation, their mission is transparent. When arguments dovetail with their (knowable) objectives, a solution can be found; change can be procured.

On the other hand, when an organisation resists logical suggestions, it is entirely possible that there are hidden mission objectives that differ than stated objectives. They may declare that such-and-such (e.g. fairness in employment) is their aim, but actually it is something else. They can’t own up to that something else, so you can never quite grapple with it. If you accuse them of having hidden motives, they will play the victim card.

But there is another symptom you can look out for. Organisations with hidden motives cannot empower lower level and frontline staff. These organisations are characterised by inflexibility and insistence on the rulebook. That is because hidden objectives, by definition, cannot be widely disseminated, not even within the organisation. Uninformed about the organisation’s true motives, lower and middle staff have nothing to go on but the doublespeak the organisation puts out about itself and its goals. For example, if they worked in a Ministry of Justice they might believe that their jobs are to deliver justice. If these staff members are empowered to make exceptions or tweak policy in small ways — in other words, to get things done — they will then be receptive to logical arguments that others may put up. Most people are well-intentioned enough to want to do good. If what the other side is asking for is entirely rational and consistent with the organisation’s publicly stated aims, why not consider implementing them?

That of course would be “inconvenient” to organisations with hidden agenda. You can’t have your own staff acting as if your publicly stated goals are what you’re really about, doing things that further those goals! So keep a tight rein on them. Don’t give line officers any leeway. Make them stick to the rulebook however absurd.

Unfortunately, while hidebound inflexibility may be a symptom of hidden motives, it is not a litmus test for it. Many other conditions can also lead to inflexibility, chief among which is sheer arrogance and a compulsive defensiveness whenever one meets with an idea one had not thought of — the infamous “not invented here” syndrome. In Singapore’s halls of power, arrogance is another thing we have in spades.

In short, my bank example shows you this: You can do business with business, but the business of government is ultimately power, and power has never taken kindly to logic.

 

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