Top civil servant: Silent majority's views are vital

PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong and Law Permanent Secretary Beh Swan Gin (above) are among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong and Law Permanent Secretary Beh Swan Gin (above) are among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong (left) and Law Permanent Secretary Beh Swan Gin are among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday.
PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong (left) and Law Permanent Secretary Beh Swan Gin are among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday.ST PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, MARK CHEONG

... or very loud minority will shape policy, says top civil servant

WEEKS after Dr Beh Swan Gin became the Law Ministry's permanent secretary, he was tasked to oversee the reform of a law on Singapore's mandatory death sentence.

The experience in 2012 left an indelible mark on the 47-year-old.

He learnt how vital it was "to find ways to understand what the silent majority is talking about".

"Otherwise, your policies and laws may well be shaped by a very loud and noisy minority," he told The Straits Times earlier this week.

The change in the death penalty law since January last year gives judges discretion to impose a life sentence, instead of death, in certain instances of murder and drug trafficking.

But feedback showed a silent conservative part of society felt it "signalled a reduced commitment to law and order", he said.

Mr Beh and PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong were among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday at the Administrative Service annual dinner and promotion ceremony.

Mr Chew, 46, said understanding the needs and views of the public has been a "very big lesson" for him. Since taking up his present post in 2011, the former navy chief has had to tackle a series of severe flash floods in Singapore as well as the recent, worst-ever dry spell.

Underlying the important role of engaging the public, he highlighted two crucial measures.

One, having a central point of collecting information - where the public can also send details about what is happening where they are - is key in helping PUB decide how "to prioritise our response".

Two, the need to be transparent when engaging the public. "We need to lay out whatever information we have. And if the public is telling us (something), we better recognise it as something we don't know and pick up on it."

Dr Beh said there is a need to seek views in an in-depth manner as people get more involved and social media gets more popular. "You have to engage in deep conversations... you have to invest effort in doing that.

"Is it about having more presence on social media, more presence on the Web? To a certain extent yes but that's just superficial," he added.

A medical doctor by training, Dr Beh held various posts while working in the public sector.

These include being managing director of the Economic Development Board and executive director of the Biomedical Research Council in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

At the dinner, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam paid tribute to two recently retired permanent secretaries.

They are Mr Chiang Chie Foo and Mr Bilahari Kausikan.

Mr Chiang, who is now chairman of the CPF Board, was in the Administrative Service for 32 years.

Mr Tharman, in noting his "outstanding" career, listed several key positions he has held and his achievements while leading them.

These include being director of the Internal Security Department, where he strengthened its capabilities and operational effectiveness.

Mr Kausikan had a "distinguished" career at the Foreign Affairs Ministry for 31 years, said Mr Tharman, as he described his achievements.

Among them is the groundwork he laid for Singapore's historic election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations.

maryamm@sph.com.sg