We Are All To Blamed

By TAN Kee Wee

(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 23 October 2008, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

About forty years ago, on 16 March 1968, in the middle of the US-Vietnam War, a horrible incident happened which has since been known as the My Lai massacre.

On that day, as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, were massacred by US soldiers. The scale of the massacre spiraled as it progressed, and its brutality increased with each killing.

Three years later in 1971, in a widely-publicized court martial, 2Lt William Calley, the platoon commander who led Charlie Company into My Lai, was the only person found guilty of the massacre.

The whole massacre was presented to the American public as the misguided actions of Lt Calley. Naturally, the public was shocked, and many vented their anger and disgust at him.

Today, Singaporeans are gripped by an issue which, although no lives have been lost, many find very disgusting. This is the mis-selling of investment products to financially unarmed civilians.

It’s easy to think that the fault lies squarely on the relationship managers, or RMs, who mis-sold these products. The reality may be very different.

To satisfy the public’s disgust, perhaps a RM could soon be charged in court for mis-selling. It would be interesting to find out the thoughts of one of these RMs. Actually, we don’t need to wait at all. That’s because a former RM has already confessed in a blog on 24th September.

In her blog, this former RM said that she and her colleagues were constantly pressured to sell products which their bank was pushing, and had already committed to another party.

Sales figures of all RMs had to be reported regularly. Those who could not achieve their targets were forced to explain to senior management. The experience was very humiliating, she went on to say.

All banks and their RMs are supposed to assess the customers’ suitability for any investment product before it is sold to them. But this rule, according to the former RM, was seldom applied. The rule was only useful to protect the bank against lawsuits. So there we have it. RMs may not be solely responsible for the mis-selling.

Going back to the My Lai massacre, Lt Calley, in his own defense, claimed that he was only following orders. Few believed him then. But Lt Calley’s claim was in fact the truth.

Last year, declassified US Army documents proved that the My Lai massacre was indeed more than the actions of a few rogue soldiers. In fact, the whole operation was meticulously planned, and the orders came from senior officers who were never convicted.

Just as Lt Calley was pressured by his superiors to perform the wartime atrocities, it’s very likely that many RMs were also forced by their superiors to perform their financial atrocities.

Should we blame the CEOs of banks then? We could. But if we continued along this path, we would end up blaming ourselves. Because CEOs of banks ultimately report to shareholders, like you and I, who are always demanding more profit. The truth is, we also had a hand in the mis-selling.

We have created a system whereby, through the “division of labour”, we bank shareholders have delegated the dirty job of mis-selling to RMs. In Lt Calley’s case, a system had been created whereby, for peace and prosperity to exist in a state, the dirty job of dealing with the enemies of the state had been delegated to soldiers.

Unless a revolution is desired, the system cannot change. People in power will continue to order and tell us subordinates what to do. We cannot do anything about it. But we can remember that, how so ever we are told to do, or by whom, our souls are in our keeping alone.

In the end, when we stand before our Maker, can we say “But I was told by others to do this”? Can we say “I did this because virtue was not convenient at the time”? These excuses may not suffice.