Malaysians don't trust each other much
Tuesday, 12 Jan 2021
10:45 AM MYT
There is no better catalyst for self-reflection than the solitude a pandemic offers. It applies even more so when an entire nation has to swallow the bitter pill and look at its imperfect visage in the mirror, identifying how we have collectively fallen short in flattening the infection curve months into the Covid-19 crisis.
A stricter movement control order (MCO) has been announced amid rising numbers of cases and deaths and a healthcare system stretched to capacity. And, as usual, we incessantly play the blame game at times like this: It’s the government’s fault for slowly relaxing the MCO even when cases first began hitting four figures, it’s the local authorities’ fault for lax enforcement, businesses’ fault for compromising on SOP implementation to make up for months of lost profits, people's fault for flagrant SOP violation – everyone’s fault but our own.
The truth is, as always, a mixed bag. But there is a common undercurrent in our societal fabric that explains elegantly this tendency to absolve oneself of blame – and it all boils down to this one question: How much would you trust a random member of your society to fulfil his/her civic duty, sometimes even at the expense of his/her personal benefit?
This is called social trust. Each and every individual has an obligation to their self, to their family, to their immediate community, to the larger society, and finally to the country. As such, in extraordinary times when the needs of the many trumps that of the few, we need to be certain that the folks we are riding into battle with have our backs just as well as we have theirs.
Social trust manifests itself in every situation, however trivial: Let’s say the traffic lights at a T-junction aren't working; how confident are you that your fellow motorists will organise themselves to take turns stopping so that everyone gets to travel with little trouble? If you were to shop at a mall where a sign says “Return trolleys to designated spots”, how sure are you other shoppers will comply? How certain are you that people will make use of a bin instead of littering with impunity?
Ever travelled in the West and wondered how people can live in houses without fences and gates, with just lawns running right up to the pavement?
The concept of social trust is a critical metric. In a Global Attitudes and Trends study by the US-based Pew Research Centre think tank, social scientists held that “good things tend to happen to societies where people tend to trust each other – they have stronger democracies, richer economies, better health, and they tend to suffer less often from any number of social ills”. Societies with high social trust are also able to organise quickly in response to a larger threat and, more importantly, embark on a path of common sacrifice for the greater good.
In the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Survey, Malaysia fared sufficiently well when it came to trust in established institutions such as NGOs, businesses, government, and media. All these categories (except government) experienced an increase from 2019 to 2020, averaging between 50% and 60% trust from respondents (comprising a set of the informed public and the mass population).
While this is good news, it is contradictory to the level of trust we possess among ourselves. The World Values Survey 7th wave (2017-2020) showed that when Malaysians were asked if they agreed that most people could be trusted, only 19.6% of respondents said yes. In comparison, countries like Australia, China, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States registered trust figures above 30%.
In order of increasing pessimism:
> When Malaysians were asked if they would trust their family, 85% said yes.
> When Malaysians were asked if they would trust their neighbourhood, 74.2% said yes.
> When Malaysians were asked if they would trust people of another nationality, 31.4% said yes.
> When Malaysians were asked if they would trust an individual they met for the first time, 14.9% said yes.
But perhaps most shocking is the discovery that Malaysians are just as likely to trust as they are to distrust any person from a different religion! The tally was at 50.2% in favour of those who trust, which, by every notion, is as worrying a statistic you could find for a country fundamentally built on multiracial harmony.
So, why are Malaysians so wary of trusting each other?
One argument is that the systemic divisions imposed on Malayan/Malaysian society from even before independence in 1957 from British colonisers have not been overcome meaningfully. This could mean race, ethnicity and developmental inequality in terms of education, infrastructure and wealth. This is already a tough beast to take down without it being exacerbated by political players looking for mileage. When one faction is constantly pitted against another, it’s no surprise that these factions find themselves irreconcilably separated, unable to trust each other when a bigger threat arrives.
But this is not to say that this chronic situation is single-handedly blunting our MCO compliance. Often, it could just be something as simple as people wanting to travel after weeks of being cooped up in their houses. What is implicitly expressed here, however, is that when priorities are mistakenly ordered as such, the collective effort is undermined as a whole. When people renege on their civic duty under the premise that their singular dereliction is too small to affect the overall effort, they have to understand just how many people are out there thinking the same way.
And with healthcare workers currently pushed to the brink, it is more vital than ever that every single person empathises and does his or her part in the fight instead of deserting.
But how does one help bring about social trust?
Firstly, by recognising the fact that it takes a government directive to keep us Malaysian on our toes instead of a sense of civic duty, and that this is unbecoming of a mature society. This is akin to disciplining kids by force instead of instilling in them a sense of responsibility to help them judge the consequences of any action they take.
Most of us are responsible adults who are accountable to ourselves and our families. But our locus of accountability very rarely extends beyond that – we tend to draw a line between family and community and seldom venture into territory everyone else is also uncomfortable with. When we leave everything outside our gates for our local authorities and politicians to deal with, that is the first sign that we have washed our hands of bettering our society. Every reform, be it institutional, educational or economical, can only follow suit if we take ownership of our situation as part of Malaysia’s citizenry.
Malaysians don't trust each other much