Trust in our system is falling and this is why


Based on the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the average trust in Singapore’s national system has fallen. This is at least partly a result of our government’s actions. For example, the way the legislative amendments concerning the elected president was handled. First, the election was made a mockery of. Second, the government failed to dispel the notion that the amendment was targeted at preventing a specific candidate from running. Third, it disrespected minorities. Fourth, it reinforced the idea that the presidency is reserved only for the elite. 

Every system of governance is built upon trust; Singapore is no different. In an excellent and impassioned speech during the recent budget debates, nominated member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin cited the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

What did the study indicate?

Between 2016 and 2017, the average trust in Singapore’s institutions fell by four points. These included the levels of trust in our government, media, business and NGOs which had been steadily increasing between 2012 and 2015.

It seems that after GE 2015, between 2016 and 2017, the overall public trust in our system plummeted by three points. These three points may appear insignificant at face value; however, between 2012 and 2015, the levels of trust in our institutions only appreciated by one point. It seems then that we took one step forward and not two, but three steps back. Most notably are the following two metrics.

trust graph 1[1]

The public’s trust in government evaporated by five points. In terms of magnitude, this represents a seismic shift – perhaps the greatest drop in all of the developed world apart from South Korea whose president was just impeached.

Trust graph 2[2]

Public trust in our media plummeted to an “all time low”. This is perhaps unsurprising given the general public perception of our media being controlled by the state. Our businesses and NGOs took a small hit in terms of public trust falling by one point. This however, is minor dip in comparison to the decrease in trust in the government and the media.

Is this something we can just wait out?

One might argue that the average trust in national institutions worldwide has diminished across the board recently, and therefore we should not be too concerned. There are two reasons why we should not accept this argument.

Firstly, as seen in the above graphs, public trust in many countries increased despite the global trend. This is not limited to far flung countries in the west. We need to look no further than Indonesia to find an example of a country whose public trust in institutions increased despite turbulent times. In Indonesia, the average trust in institutions increased by 5 points.

Secondly, while we may accept that trust is fast becoming a scarce national commodity all over the globe, this does not prove that the decline in public trust in our institutions was inevitable, nor that we should avoid remedying this problem.

trust image 3a[3]

Let’s look further into the report. A staggering 30% of the study’s respondents felt that it was true that the system was biased in favour of elites, that that there was a lack of reward for hard work, that they had little faith in our current leaders and that there was a need for forceful reform. In addition, 73% either believe the system is failing or is uncertain as to whether the system is working. This might be the first time in our national history where it is the minority (27%) who are the ones who have faith in the system.

Trust image 3[4]
The above metrics are premised upon issues which have existed within Singapore’s social political discourse for a long time, including immigration, globalization and the conservation of social values. The following points are noteworthy:

  • It is worrying that 1/3 of Singaporeans surveyed are growing increasingly concerned with corruption despite the system’s tough stance and the purported incorruptibility of the system’s leaders.
  • 4 years since the 2013 Population White Paper, 91% of Singaporeans are either fearful or concerned about immigration related issues. It is certainly troubling given the government’s insistence that its stance on immigration is essential to the country’s long term prosperity.
  • 73% of Singaporeans are concerned or fearful that globalization may overtake Singapore.
  • More than half of Singaporeans are concerned about the erosion of the values which made Singapore “great”.
  • A fifth of Singaporeans are afraid that we are not going to catch up with technological innovations. More than half are concerned about this.

Issues don’t necessarily foster mistrust; sometimes, it’s the way they are handled

I believe most Singaporeans are not unreasonable. Most people have a sense of when it is unfair to blame our system for certain things. What the Edelman study pointed out are not senseless grumblings, but deep-seated unhappiness over how certain long-standing issues are treated by the system. We cannot treat these problems as if they do not exist.

Edelman’s survey illustrates how quickly a party that gained 70% of the popular vote can lose the trust of the citizenry if it is not in tune with their aspirations, goals, obstacles and attitudes. Let us consider one example of an issue that can potentially reduce trust in the government.

Case study: Presidential Amendments

While there may be sound reasons for making amendments to the presidency, what is undeniable is the degree of controversy relating to how this issue was handled. Arguably, it was an example of the sort of trust-diminishing incidences which the Edelman study alludes to. I will provide four points to explain why.

To clarify, I am not alleging the incidences were engineered to foster distrust. I am saying that regardless of its intentions, this is the perception created.

Trust image 4

  1. Erosion of values & lack of hope in the system

Chan Chun Seng addressed the speaker as “Madam President” not once, but twice. By “calling” the election result long before the election has taken place, he made a mockery of the electoral process. He actions were equally objectionable as a judge who jokes about putting a person to prison before the trial has even started. Yet, this purported gaff was not met with a stern rebuke, but treated by fellow Parliamentarians as a joke to be laughed off. Respectfully, this is not funny; I do not find it in the least bit humorous.  Democracy is not something to be mocked or joked about. People have died for democracy, and our founding fathers shed blood, sweat and tears so that we may inherit it. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 1955,

“If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.”

Being democratic is a Singaporean value; let us never forget that. As an elected representative of the people, Mr Chan is supposed to represent our values, not mock them, intentionally or otherwise. It is troubling that this came from the very heart of our democracy – our parliamentary chambers. This casts serious doubts as to whether our democracy is truly fair or just a farce at its very core.

  1. A sense of injustice

Next came the allegations made by Tan Cheng Bock about how the amendments were engineered to debar him from running. We shall never know if this was true, since we cannot read our politicians’ minds. All we know now is that the amendments mean he can no longer run, in spite of losing the last presidential election by just 0.35% of the vote. When you combine this with the fact that one of our ministers – one who is tipped to be the next Prime Minister – treated the whole amendment affair as light-heartedly and jokingly as he did, can you really blame people for losing trust?

  1. A lack of confidence in the government’s narrative

The most appalling thing about this affair is how patronizing the amendment was to our ethnic minorities.  It seems cynical to say that Singaporeans need help in electing a minority president. Furthermore, it comes across as utterly hypocritical to say Singapore is not ready for a minority Prime Minister and then insist on legislating a minority into Presidency. Can we blame minorities for feeling insulted and losing faith in the system.

  1. A system catered to the elite

Related was a perception that amendment did little but to enforce the notion that leadership in the system is reserved for the mega rich and successful. Are the only “capable” and “worthy” people the ones who have had $500 million in equity under management before? By these standards, Barack Obama (if he was Singaporean) and Lee Kuan Yew himself (before he became Prime Minister), would not have qualified. However, guess who would qualify? Donald Trump.


We have always vested a great degree of power in our government. The use of this great power in this case study leaves much to be desired. This is because, this power appeared to have been used in a self-serving way, and the government did little to dispel this notion. If anything, Mr Chan’s conduct in Parliament entrenched it.

If the government keeps this up, trust in our system may decline even further, and Singapore may no longer be that “exceptional” country that you and I want it to be in the years to come.

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[1] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer

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