At the end of a typical job interview, the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for me?” Usually, the interviewee will ask questions about next steps, experiences in the role or in the university, things they may want to work on or that sort of thing. In a recent interview, one interviewee asked me, “So, what do you think is the role of trust in national development?”
Indeed, a heavy question.
I was (pleasantly) taken aback by the question. I pointed out that there was economic research that showed that levels of generalised trust and trust in fellow members of society correlated with many positive indicators of economic development. I added that what was true at the macro level might not be true at the micro level.
For instance, if I meet a stranger, being part of a functioning society requires us to trust one another up to a certain level; it would be tiring to be part of a society in which I become suspicious of everyone who approaches me. But that holds true only up to a certain point. If either of us is too trusting, one may take the other for a ride.
I reflected on my answer a bit more after the interview concluded. I had given an answer based on economic research, but I do not think I answered the interviewee’s question properly (sorry!). All I had discussed was observed patterns of trust, not the actual role of trust.
I had not answered why trust matters. So, in this essay, I would like to spend a bit of time thinking through a proper answer, with some reflections on what Malaysia needs as we continue to stumble in our search for a medium- to long-term exit from this pandemic.
As I thought about it, a computer game that I have recently been addicted to, Jurassic World Evolution, came to mind. In this game, you build dinosaur theme parks. To a dinosaur maniac like me, this game is equal amounts thrilling and frustrating.
Thrilling because, well, I get to run a series of dinosaur theme parks. Frustrating because it just convinces me that dinosaurs were the biggest divas ever, and maybe their extinction was not because of a comet, but because the rest of the animals rose up in revolution against their diva-ness.
Anyway, if you have watched the Jurassic Park or Jurassic World movies, you can imagine what happens. Freak storms happen, and dinosaurs escape their enclosures. The Velociraptors are the worst and most vicious of them all. Now, when the Velociraptors — and the Tyrannosaurs and the Dilophosauruses (you get the idea) — escape, they hunt down people in the park.
Now, when people die from being eaten by dinosaurs in your park, it is admittedly bad for your park’s reputation. What was a five-star rating for your park dips significantly to three stars. And you have to build back.
To do that, visitors need to feel that their safety can be assured. They need to feel like they will not become dinner for the carnivores. It is a long campaign to rebuild that trust — perhaps you need more emergency shelters, more asset containment unit teams, better fences for enclosures, and more storm protection. But the point is, trust can be easily lost, and it can be rebuilt, but it will take time.
Coming back to real life, we should square up to the fact that, while Malaysia did well in managing the Covid-19 pandemic up until the Sabah state elections, we really have been playing whack-a-mole with the pandemic since.
Let us also be clear — it took an all-of-society approach to control the pandemic in mid-2020, and it also took an all-of-society effort to get to where we are now. This means both the people and the government deserve credit for last year (at least till September), and deserve some of the criticism over events thereafter.
What has happened, particularly in 2021, is a feeling of a breach of trust. Without listing the specific events, I would guess, with some confidence, that the levels of trust in government measured today would be lower than what they were in, say, July 2020. The short-term repercussions are clear; what troubles me are the longer-term ripples.
An example of short-term effects of mistrust is illustrated by political science scholars Steven Pfaff and Michael Hechter. They find that, in the Age of Exploration, seafarers could tolerate expected harsh conditions on their long voyages. They believed, however, that the ship commanders had an obligation to keep the men healthy and manage disease outbreaks.
Indignation grew when seafarers felt that their commanders failed in that obligation, especially if it was in an unfair manner and “in ways that violated the customs of the sea”. To quote the authors, “Discontent motivates [mutiny] when people believe that the authorities should be competent, effective and willing to assist or protect them, but that they have fallen short.”
Turning to a more long-term example, from 1932 to 1972, members of the US Public Health Service tracked African-American men infected with syphilis so that they could see how the disease would pan out in the human body. The service did not treat the men, despite telling some of the men they did.
A recent academic article found that the study and its subsequent public exposure in 1972 increased mistrust in the medical system by African-American men, particularly those living closer to the location of the study. This has led to higher mortality and lower life expectancy among this population, even up to today.
A regular stream of events that breach trust between members of society and those who are supposed to protect or govern that society can therefore have far-ranging effects over time. Indeed, economists Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian show that, based on annual country-level data that covers six decades, in countries that have lower levels of generalised trust, economic downturns are more likely to cause political turnover. Effects can therefore last not just for an election cycle, but decades.
We need to rebuild that trust in Malaysia. My guess is that it had been severely affected by issues of governance even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Covid-19 may have further escalated those feelings of distrust, especially between the rakyat and the government.
This must be remedied immediately. For instance, in the immediate term, some concession of accountability by the government would help instead of continuing to censure the people for failing to follow SOPs — necessary though that may be — as would a greater sharing of data. If we are serious about “all-of-society”, then let us really make it all-of-society and walk the talk.
Coming back to my interviewee’s question, what is the role of trust in national development? As we have seen, trust grants a sense of security in society that those being governed will be taken care of by those who govern. It builds a foundation for society to build on, such that we can move to the next phase — imagination of what our shared future may be.
I believe that we can build that trust and strengthen it in Malaysia. And I hope that we will. After all, despite what happened in Jurassic Park, the Jurassic World theme park was still built. Sometimes, hope needs to triumph over experience.
Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research division