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Research Insight

Fixing the System Calls for Us to Be Just Like You and Me

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We have become accustomed to seeing Malaysian trust levels dip year after year. However, this trend is not peculiar to just Malaysia. While the trust placed by Malaysians in four key institutions – government, media, business and non-governmental organizations – have all dropped slightly between 2016 and 2017, it is very much in line with global trends.

Without trust, belief in “the system” starts to fail. In addition to declining levels of trust around the world, there’s a sense of injustice, a lack of hope, a lack of confidence and a desire for change, as indicated in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Globally, 53 percent of people believe the system is failing them. In Malaysia, that figure is 52 percent, with only 12 percent saying the system is working for them. Malaysians are pointing specifically to corruption and immigration as their main concerns.

In Malaysia, more than 80 percent are concerned that widespread corruption makes it difficult to make the changes necessary to solve our problems and is compromising the safety of our citizens. The concern could, in part, be driven by the higher visibility of success by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission, which made several high-profile arrests in 2016. Sabah’s Watergate comes to mind, as authorities arrested two top officials from the Sabah Water Department. During the raid, it took 30 officers some 15 hours to count RM48 million (USD 10.75 million) in cash! In a clear warning to business to do no harm, Malaysians agree that paying bribes was the action most damaging to their trust in a better future, with 66 percent saying this action would damage their trust.

Unlike Western countries, the issue of immigration in Malaysia may not be just that the influx of people from other countries can damage the economy and national culture. Largely, Malaysians are warm, inclusive and welcoming to foreigners. Their concerns on immigration are possibly also skewed to socioeconomic factors, such as security and health. The rising levels of crime have been linked to the influx of these migrant workers who enter the country in large numbers to sustain industries such as construction and agriculture; although there is no strong data from the police to substantiate this theory, social media amplifies people’s concerns. Similarly, while Malaysia imposes mandatory health screening for all migrant workers, undocumented migrants give rise to health concerns around transmittable disease such as rotavirus. And the issue of corruption comes back to play again: Just how did these undocumented migrants get to Malaysia?

Interestingly, while more than half of Malaysians agree the system is failing, the trust in government by the informed public went up to 43 percent, a rise of nine points.

In 2016, there were no new flash points that further hurt the government’s credibility, while businesses and consumers have accepted that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is here to stay. Political fatigue from the constant repeat of the same 1MDB allegations may have turned the issue to white noise – the people hear it, but are they really listening?

The doom and gloom forecast by critics that Malaysia’s economy would tank were disproved by the government. In a climate of global economic slowdown, Malaysia’s economy continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace, with minimal job cuts. The multi-billion dollar trade deals with China have been well received. While the recent move by the government to legalize the popular ride-sharing platforms Uber and Grab, against sustained protests from the taxi industry, will no doubt have won it brownie points too, and may be indicative of a government that is really listening to the voice of the people.

Business remains the second-most trusted of the four institutions in Malaysia, but the credibility of business leaders, be they CEOs, board of directors or successful entrepreneurs, took a big hit, with CEO credibility falling by 16 percentage points. Also losing credibility are academic or industry experts, as well as financial or industry analysts. A “person like yourself” now takes the lead in credibility levels.

Fueling anxiety and distrust in the system is the emergence of a media echo chamber that elevates search engines and algorithms over editors, reinforces personal beliefs and shuts out opposing points of view. The fear is that we will evolve to become narrow-minded and gravitate towards the extreme, as we only accept views that are in line with our own values.

While there is some merit to discussing how to get people out of the echo chamber, we can also take the approach of entering the chamber. CEOs can move to the masses (social media is a good start), and be viewed as more human. Be seen as a person – a father, a foodie, a weekend musician – and eventually you may be accepted as a person just like you or me. It is possible that if they can relate to you, they are more likely to trust you.

There is a dramatic shift of influence and trust from all leaders to the people. We saw the inversion of influence last year. The way forward is to bridge the divide that separate the elite and the masses, and perhaps the divide between the roles of government, media, business and non-governmental organizations. It’s no longer about doing something for the people. It is time to be with the people. All the people. You and me. We are one, and we’re in it together.

Robert Kay is managing director, Edelman Malaysia.

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