More than ever, we need to nurture Trust
People & Society Articles

More than ever, we need to nurture Trust


We usually equate a good life with good health, a comfortable home, a well-paying job, and a clean environment. These are aspects we are more than ready to pursue and protect. There is another very important aspect of a good life that may sometimes escape our notice, but which we need to guard as forcefully: the social bonds that bind us as a nation.

Over the past months we have seen with concern a dramatic increase in violence around the world and the pain and anguish of particular groups or individuals being victimised. This wave of violence raises two important questions:

  1. Why does violence happen?
  2. How can Singapore avoid a similar spate of tragic events?

Prejudice versus trust

Much has been written by experts on the roots of violence. We know that aggressors often focus their hostility against people they see as different from themselves. These differences can be deep-seated or superficial – in terms of religious beliefs, political ideology, nationality, cultural practices, or simply looking or sounding different. Perceived differences can result in prejudice and distrust of those seen as different, which can be ignited as violence and communal unrest. Distrust — the absence of trust — produces a rift between “them” and “us”, and fractures communities and societies.

What is trust? Trust is not naiveté. On the contrary, trust needs to be earned.

Trust has been defined in many ways but at the most basic level, trust is being willing to rely on someone for help in a crisis.

We place our trust in people who have gained that trust.1 I trust you if your deeds show me that you are sincere, that you empathise with my situation, that you share my values or identity, that you are altruistic and accessible when I need you, that you are capable of providing help and that you know how to help me in a friendly, fair and reliable manner. These reasons for one person to trust another are called the ‘warrants for trust’.2


Just as most vaccines cannot protect us against diseases for life and we require periodic inoculation, nations and communities need to nurture trust constantly.


More importantly, these warrants for trust go beyond individuals: trust is needed in communities and institutions. We see this in the trust placed in Singapore’s rule of law, because there is reliability, fairness, and everyone is treated equally.

The warrants for trust are of critical importance when communities face crises.3 If citizens of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country trust each other, their nation is cohesive and has the strength to prevent and withstand civil unrest and violence. A cohesive nation is ‘vaccinated’ against hatred and violence in the name of religious, racial or political differences. But there is an essential caveat: just as most vaccines cannot protect us against diseases for life and we require periodic inoculation, nations and communities need to nurture and rebuild trust constantly.

This leads into the second and related point of how Singapore can minimise the risks of experiencing the crises and violence we see around the world.

The state of trust in Singapore

For the past five decades, Singaporeans have experienced communal violence only as observers of it happening elsewhere. That Singapore has been spared so far testifies to the high quality of our collective life sustained by trust.

Remarkably, we have built trust among the different ethnic and religious communities, despite the fact that one of the warrants for trust is the sharing of values and identity. We have accomplished this through a common, unifying Singaporean identity that transcends but also strengthens ethnic and religious identities.4-10 There is also a high level of trust in national institutions and the governance system.3,9,11

fab-party (1) Neighbours from different backgrounds becoming fast friends at a Familiarisation and Bonding (“FAB!”) party, which welcomes new residents in HDB estates.

Besides daily experiences where we build mutual respect and trust, we have broader frameworks to maintain trust: laws to ensure fairness and equality, such as the Constitution, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Penal Code, and the Societies Act; and initiatives such as the National Integration Council, the Community Engagement Programme, and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles or IRCCs.

The trust we place on our institutions and on each other across ethnic and religious differences is a priceless and fragile commodity that needs to be constantly nurtured.

Singapore society evolves as each generation of citizens and leaders brings in differences in outlook, needs and goals; new members are added through immigration; and society as a whole becomes more educated and globally connected. These changes challenge the warrants of trust by increasing the diversity in attitudes and identities, and may require trust to be reaffirmed. Consequently, it is imperative to persist and continuously strengthen the warrants for trust.


Keeping Singapore society together: Initiatives to maintain trust

  The Inter Racial & Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) were formed in 2002 in every constituency. Comprising leaders from racial, religious, social, educational, business groups and organisations, IRCCs help to deepen residents’ understanding of various beliefs and practices through heritage trails, inter-faith talks and religious festivities. Being closer to the ground, they also help to calm raw nerves and assuage anxieties that might arise in the community. 

The work of the IRCCs is complemented by the Community Engagement Programme (CEP). Initiated in 2006, the CEP strengthens ties and builds trust among people of different ethnicities and faiths in a particular community. The CEP readies a community to respond during times of crisis in order to quickly marshal help, aid recovery, and support broader national efforts.


The National Integration Council (NIC) was set up in 2009 to coordinate and encourage ground-up integration efforts through partnership of the public, people and private (3P) sectors. The NIC provides strategic direction to actionable programmes devised by four Working Groups (NIWGs) in the areas of education, workplace, community and the media. The Council also facilitates efforts by community groups, private sector organisations, as well as trade unions to bring about greater interaction and mutual understanding between foreigners, immigrants and Singaporeans.

Source: Heart of Public Service (2015), Public Service Division.Image credit: Roundicons, Freepik from / CC BY 3.0.

Taking responsibility for Trust

With more affluence, education and connectivity, every Singaporean is empowered and accountable in building trust. Relying on the government to safeguard our way of life is a misconception.

In the not too distant past when the public was less educated, only the voices of a few ‘intellectuals’ could be heard through their books or articles.12 But today, with our very high literacy rate and connectivity – in 2013, 97% of households had mobile phones and 82.7% had personal computers13, any Singaporean can speak up and join in the national conversation by sharing his or her opinion online. All citizens are responsible: to make sure that our country is governed fairly and reliably, to uphold the integrity of our institutions, and to respect individual differences, while protecting our shared social and physical space.

Nonetheless, Singaporean intellectuals in the third millennium have an increased responsibility to be vigilant and protect our trust in the nation’s institutions and in each other, that has been built judiciously over the past 50 years. Today, the rise of online and social media means that intellectuals can reach wider publics faster and with greater impact than ever before. But these same developments also create an environment of intense competition for attention, where it might be tempting to sensationalise events or to exaggerate the significance of a few cases of friction between groups. Thus, it is the moral responsibility of intellectuals to investigate and scrutinise any claims, and combat misinformation with impartial evidence.14

Current world events provide a clear lesson in the importance of strengthening the warrants for trust. Through international media, we are witnessing the spectacle of political campaigns in other countries where demagogy surpasses veracity, and pandering to prejudices can drum up more support than rational arguments. This is a poignant but valuable example of how trust in the time-tested governance institutions can be easily undermined by individuals spreading falsehoods and mistrust and inciting their followers to engage in escalating prejudice and aggression.15 Unfortunately, many countries continue to endure this vicious cycle of falsehoods, distrust, prejudice and violence.

On the other hand, studies suggest that if we – as individuals, communities and a nation – remain committed to transcend differences and affirm the identity, values and institutions that bring us together, Singapore will remain compelling proof of how trust can flourish in a diverse society.


1Wuthnow, R. (2004) “Trust as an aspect of social structure.” In J.C. Alexander, G.T. Marx, and C.L. Williams, eds., Self, Social Structure and Beliefs. Explorations in Sociology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
2 Wuthnow, op.cit., p. 146.
3Quah, S.R. (2007) “On trust and health consensus-building in the governance of epidemics.” In S.R. Quah, ed., Crisis Preparedness – Asia and the Global Governance of Epidemics. Stanford, CA: Shorenstein APRC and Brookings Institution, pp. 113-133.
4Quah, S.R. (1983) “Social discipline in Singapore: An alternative for the resolution of social problems,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 19, 2: 266-289.
5Ooi, G.L., Tan, E.S., and Koh, G. (1998) Survey of State-Society relations – Social indicators research project. Executive Summary Report. Singapore: IPS Working Paper No. 5.
6Koh, V., Koh, G., Low, D., and Tan MW (2014) The politics of sustaining inclusive growth and social inclusion. Singapore: IPS Working Paper No. 23.
7Mathews, M., Mohammad, K.K., and Teo, K.K. (2014) Religiosity and the management of religious harmony: Responses from the IPS survey on race, religion and language. Singapore: IPS Working Paper 21.
8Tan E.S. and Wang, Z. (2007) Singapore. Country Report: Second Wave of Asian Barometer Survey. Taipei: Asian Barometer Project Office, National Taiwan University and Academia Sinica Working Paper Series No. 35.
9Quah, J.S.T. (2010) “Trust and governance in the Philippines and Singapore: A Comparative Analysis”, International Public Management Review, 11, 2: 4-37.
10Mathews, M. and Hong, D. (2016) “Keeping harmony in Singapore: An examination of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) in Singapore.” In M. Mathews and W.F. Chiang, eds., Managing Diversity in Singapore. Policies and Prospects. Singapore: Imperial College Press, pp. 65-83.
11Schwab, K. ed. (2015) The Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016. Geneva: World Economic Forum.
12The literacy rate was only 52.6% in 1960 but it increased to 96.8% in 2015; the average number of years of schooling for adults rose from 4.7 in 1980 to 10.7 in 2015. Department of Statistics (2016) “Annual mean years of schooling”, Education and Literacy, M850591, M850001,
13Department of Statistics (2016) Singapore in Figures 2016. Singapore: Department of Statistics, p. 24.
14See for example the careful analysis of six cases in Lai, A.E. and Mathews, M. (2016) “Navigating disconnects and divides in Singapore’s cultural diversity”. In M. Mathews and W.F. Chiang, eds., Managing Diversity in Singapore. Policies and Prospects. Singapore: Imperial College Press, pp. 3-40.
15Presenting a false situation as real has severe consequences. This principle—the Thomas theorem—was first established in sociology nearly a century ago: “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. It was formulated by sociologist W.I. Thomas in his 1928 book with D.S. Thomas, The Child in America (New York: Knopf, p. 572). This theorem was the basis for Robert Merton’s concept of ‘the self-fulfilling prophesy’ discussed in his 1949 book Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, Ill: Free Press).

Share this

Share Share Share