IN THE FIRST nine months of the year, it was hard to get away from DBS Bank, the heavyweight of the Singapore banking scene. The government-backed lender appeared to hog the headlines, either through its exploits away from its home base or, more of the time, about goings on at its Shenton Way headquarters. Some of the coverage was the type of stuff that executives presumably like to read. Most importantly there was the bold swoop into Hong Kong to buy up Dao Heng Bank Group, although DBS did have to parry a few brick-bats about the HK$45 billion price that was agreed. Still, that deal does potentially open up access into East Asia, a goal that most businessmen and analysts would endorse if it is well executed in the years ahead. 'This army [of Dao Heng staff] will be extremely useful to us as the markets in Greater China liberalise,' president and chief operating officer Jackson Tai said. Most of the other headlines though were the type that made people shudder. In June, DBS waded into a domestic consolidation battle with a S$9.4 billion (about HK$40 billion) cash-and-share bid for Overseas Union Bank (OUB). However, it lost out to United Overseas Bank (UOB), which scooped up the family-run rival and now challenges DBS for supremacy in the city-state. If losing the bid were not bad enough, the manner in which DBS was seen by some observers to have done so was worse. Its tactics for snaring OUB were derided as 'arrogant', and its media campaign to support the bid was criticised as being 'presumptious'. By far the most embarrassing spin-off from the showdown was the bizarre legal threats from both UOB and OUB that DBS had libelled them when making its pitch to European fund managers. The debacle was blamed on DBS' adviser, Goldman Sachs, who had apparently written the damning document but had not cleared it with DBS staff. In a rare show of very public, corporate fence-mending, Goldman chief executive Henry Paulson Jr hopped on his corporate jet to make a whirlwind visit to Singapore in August. DBS itself had to pay S$2 million to settle with UOB and OUB. On top of all this, there was the tip-off in August from persons unknown to the Press that DBS chief executive Philippe Paillart had botched the listing of his qualifications in corporate material. Mr Paillart, who has no need to inflate his credentials, said it was a clerical error but the episode prompted yet more firefighting. 'DBS red-faced again in CEO degree gaffe,' was one headline typical of many. 'Essentially, what the bank is dealing with is not just staff morale,' said one local commentator, 'but a management-credibility issue.' The downward spiral reached its nadir in early October, when DBS was forced to deny rumours that surfaced in an insignificant local paper that Mr Paillart was in danger of getting the chop after just nine months in the post. 'There is absolutely no foundation to the rumours,' DBS chairman S. Dhanabalan said. 'Mr Paillart is and remains the CEO of the bank.' Since then, perhaps understandably, the shutters at DBS have come down firmly and the news flow has dried up. While many would agree that DBS deserves the bad Press after such a spectacular series of own-goals, what they frequently fail to recognise is the sense of near glee that many Singaporeans have when the lender stumbles. Locals and some of the domestic press seem to revel in pointing up the latest short-coming at the bank. Insiders at DBS, without a trace of self-pity, agree that they face a much tougher sell in Singapore than many other companies of their size, and certainly face a harder ride than the other banks. The intriguing issue is why this schadenfreude - the malicious enjoyment of another's misfortunes - should be so well entrenched. DBS staff from many levels suggest that their company attracts such flak as its acts as an easy Singapore target for some of those who are disgruntled in what is a very tightly run society. They may well have a point. People know that to hit out at the government is to invite, in most cases, stern retribution from some of Southeast Asia's most combative and litigious politicians. Opposition, or dissent, is only for those with a strong constitution. The next best thing, they say, and it is hard for your correspondent to disagree, is to find a convenient proxy. And what better institution to take pot-shots at than DBS, partly owned by the state and run, as it is, by non-Singaporeans? It is not an enviable position.