A little distrust goes a long way — Adrian WJ Kuah

DECEMBER 8 — It has been said that for well-functioning societies — and we can debate what “well-functioning” actually means — trust is an important but taken-for-granted prerequisite. It is as water to fish.

Indeed, at the recent People’s Action Party (PAP) convention, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put the issue of trust front and centre.

“In the coming years, this trust between the PAP and the people will be tested, but it will be more important than ever,” he said.

“Like other countries, Singapore too will be affected by social and economic disruptions. But unlike other countries, in dealing with these challenges, we must hold together and not pull apart.”

Trust is the social glue that provides the stability and solidarity so that the nation may move forward together towards a shared vision. Interestingly, though not unexpectedly, Lee also framed trust primarily as “getting the politics right.”

This is a reiteration of his 2016 National Day Rally speech, in which he also warned what might happen if trust is destroyed, citing how the disconnect between policy elites and the people in “Western democracies” had led to a politics of distrust and protest.

These have manifested pre-eminently in the Trump presidency and in Brexit.

“If the political system malfunctions, we fail to produce good leaders, whom we trust and work with; or we cannot work together amongst ourselves and we are divided, then all our best laid plans will go to naught,” he said in his Rally speech.

In particular, he explained Brexit as a case of how “voters [had] lost faith, lost faith in their leaders, in their whole political class.”

Brexit, along with the election of leaders like Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, resulted from the voting public’s distrust in the establishment.

Here, “establishment” is a dirty word that refers to that cast of actors described by President Trump as the “dishonest media,” “crooked politicians,” and “phony experts.”

The economist Kenneth Arrow defined trust as the “invisible institution” that provides the moral dimension to the mere legitimacy of democratic processes such as elections. Trust functions as a sort of social heuristic so that not all of our everyday activities require contracts and verification.

But while the focus has been on the erosion of trust, paradoxically, it is actually distrust that lies at the heart of politics understood as democratic, even if only in procedural terms.

In fact, the level of trust in society does not simply “pop” into existence. Rather, trust emerges from being continually tested by inquiry and critique, by checks and balances.

In other words, trust comes about from the exercise of ritualised distrust. For example, the US Constitution is itself an expression of distrust in the concentration of power. James Madison, nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution”, sought precisely to create a weak government in which not just scepticism but distrust was institutionalised.

And I am using the term “distrust” deliberately. One can be sceptical about the veracity of statements made by those in power. Distrust goes beyond that to adopting a stance of suspicion towards that power itself, in terms of how it was obtained, retained and wielded.

Distrust, exercised in good faith and in small doses, is instrumental in keeping politics honest and positive.

It underpins the citizen’s ability to remedy, if not prevent, dysfunctional politics through activism, lobbying, protests and so forth.

In this Internet age especially, a healthy sense of distrust translates into the ever-growing ability of the people to conduct surveillance on governments and to evaluate, and even check, the actions of governments.

The lack of critical and authentic distrust can be catastrophic. Remember that the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution came about precisely because an uncritical and naive trust led to men of apparently good standing assuming positions of power, and who subsequently sanctioned murderous rampages and purges.

A healthy distrust reflects an informed and critically-minded society that acknowledges that it may not have all the answers, but is willing to continually question its fundamental assumptions in order to arrive at a better appreciation of the world and its problems.

At unhealthy levels, distrust mutates an active, positive interest in inspecting what the government is doing into an obsessive and visceral vilification of those in authority. Excessive distrust transforms a responsible vigilance into a desire to condemn and to “throw the incumbents out.” It transforms a judging public from one desiring accountability into one that is accusatory and merely vindictive.

Given that Singapore is frequently described as entering an era of contestation, with the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories, and “echo chambers,” distrust can be heightened and manipulated to produce divisive and cynical politics.

Ironically, though, it will have to be a responsible and civic-minded distrust that serves as the bulwark against that.

The challenge for us is to keep distrust at a healthy level so that it can elevate the level of political discourse rather than wreck it. — TODAY

* Adrian WJ Kuah is Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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