THE PUBLIC TRUST

Public officers share an unspoken sense of duty
that often takes precedence over personal matters –
for them, it’s service before self, with those charged
with communicating with the public feeling an extra
responsibility to get things exactly right.

It was a Friday night in August 2004. Mr Goh Shih Yong and his wife were on a flight to Sydney, Australia, to visit their daughter who was studying there. The holiday had been much-delayed due to Mr Goh’s work at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

The plane touched down on Saturday morning. The minute Mr Goh stepped into his hotel room, he flipped open his laptop
and logged on to check his email. An outbreak of bird flu had just struck Kelantan, Malaysia. At that time, Singapore imported half of its poultry supply and two-thirds of its eggs from Malaysia. “Sunday afternoon, I was on a flight back to Singapore,” he recalls.

AVA’s action was equally swift; that very day, the agency banned the import of chickens and poultry products from Malaysia. This strict food safety regime spared Singapore from the outbreak, and a steady stream of updates and advisories helped reassure an anxious public.

Mr Goh, 67, who retired as AVA’s Deputy Director of Corporate Communications in 2010, was part of this effort. A pioneer in
his field for his open and responsive media relations efforts, he slept with a phone by his bedside for much of his career so that he could respond to media queries straight away. “I’m hardworking by nature,” he recalls. “Besides, having come from a poor family, I knew how it felt to be hungry, and why we must always give our best.”

Mr Goh started work in 1968 as an animal health inspector with the Primary Production Department (PPD). Five years
later, he was sent to Holland to study pig husbandry and later worked closely with farmers in rural Singapore to help produce
better breeds. As local pig farming was phased out, Mr Goh switched to the communications portfolio in 1990.

Media relations then were a different ball game. Queries had to be faxed in and it took a day, sometimes longer, for answers to be faxed back to reporters. Mr Goh knew this wouldn’t do, and he got his bosses’ blessings to respond swiftly, openly, clearly.

“We wanted to tell people more so that they’d have a good idea of any given situation and could make informed decisions, rather than worry or speculate,” he says.

“So if I received a call from reporters at 11 pm, I always made sure that they got what they needed by 11:45 pm, before the newspapers went to print. We have to be quick, certain and consistent.”

In 2008, AVA rushed to test thousands of milk products for melamine contamination. This process took time and the agency came under pressure from manufacturers and businesses. But standing its ground on food safety, AVA asked the public to only consume products that it had declared
melamine-free.

The memory of one tragic accident remains crystal-clear to Mr Goh. In November 1998, a man who’d been feeding stray dogs was accidentally shot dead by a PPD shooter. Mr Goh immediately organised a collection of funds for the victim’s family. Though he was unsure of the reception he’d receive, he summoned his courage to attend the victim’s wake.

His heart was pounding, his knees shaking, but compassion guided his actions. “What got me through was the thought that the victim was someone’s brother, someone’s son,” he says. “I knew what we had to do, and it meant a lot to the family for us to be there.”

Mr Goh attended the wake for three days. Following the accident, PPD conducted a thorough review of its processes, and the shooting of dogs was halted from then onwards.

One of Mr Goh’s proudest moments came after the bird flu scare of 2004. The ban on the import of poultry from Malaysia had just been lifted, and long queues at the chicken rice stalls at Maxwell Food Centre returned. “I knew then that we’d done well,” he says. “The queues showed the trust Singaporeans had in AVA keeping our food secure; in keeping us safe.”