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Public Trust

In Singapore, where I am at, there has been a second lockdown of sorts due to a rise in Covid cases. This spike in cases follows a stable period of no or very low community cases. It has been reported that the number of Covid cases carrying the B1617 variant is disproportionately high in Singapore - in other words, it was imported, and subsequently saw a community spread. Moreover, out of the recent spike, a large cluster comes from airport staff - who, clearly must have been infected by visitors. One other important detail - Singapore has depended a lot on foreign workers from 

This has led to some Singaporeans being very unhappy with Singapore's border policies.  The source of this anger is varied:

  • Some folks are unhappy that border measures have been too lax. In particular, given the massive spike in cases in India and the prevalence of B1617 infections, some have lashed out at the authorities for not closing the border to India and other surrounding countries temporarily. 

  • Others accept that borders must be kept open for a small country like Singapore, but measures at the airport are not stringent enough, with reports that some incoming folks have been able to move about the arrival terminal, putting airport staff at risk, which in turn might lead to a community spread

  • Yet others have taken the opportunity to lay out racist or xenophobic attacks.


There are a number of policy decisions, communication suggestions, and engagement potential that can be explored. But I wanted to touch on something – Trust.

Here, the findings of anthropologist Dr Heidi Larson provides interesting food for thought. In her previous career as part of UNICEF’s global immunisation programme, and in her current capacity as the director of the Vaccine Confidence Office, Larson has been trying to figure out why people are anti-vaccines.


She shares several reasons why 2 reasons she shares are pertinent for our discussion. The first is that mistrust might not be WHAT the message is about, but WHO delivers it.

Consider who advocates for vaccines:

1) Large companies, associated with the bottom line, a relentless pursuit of profit

2) Governments, but many of whom might have lost trust in one way or another

3) Scientists, who speak too technically, and often seek to prove themselves right and others wrong

It might not be vaccines per se that anti-vaxxers do not believe. Rather, it is that they do not believe, or do not want to believe the authorities, the powerful, the financially driven, or the experts. They do not trust the intention or the mannerisms of these actors. Are they really trying to get me vaccinated for my own safety? Or for their own political or financial or academic gain?

Political scientists in her team studied hundreds of thousands of data points with some interesting findings. Many of the anti-vaxxers, especially in Europe, are supporters of populist political parties, parties who appeal to voters by advocating what people seem to want. The message is tied to the deliverer.

This also ties in well with the second reason:

Larson's team found out that those who are undecided are FIVE times more likely to be persuaded by anti-vaxxer groups than pro-vaccine groups. Several reasons for this, but Larson’s team noted that anti-vaxxer groups tend to be better listeners to concerns, nimbler to adapt their messages, and quicker and more pro-active to drive the drift of discussion.

Most of the time, trust isn’t lost instantly, it is lost (or gained) over time. For this reason, Larson’s office works to identify earlier when the authorities seem to be losing trust and to intervene earlier.

This brings us back to Singapore, to our border policies during Covid. Could things have been done differently?

If intervention was earlier, when people first raised questions and suspicions, the resentment will likely be lower. This is especially if efforts were made to first listen to what people were questioning – it might NOT be about shutting borders completely. And to explain the considerations behind decisions, and the struggle in balancing between options, rather than the high and mighty route of “We are right, listen to us. Obviously, we are doing this for Singapore. We will not tolerate xenophobia and racism. No country can shut their borders” – none of which indicates that the authorities had actually listened to what most people were questioning.

We also look at the second point: that people trust the message because they trust the people who deliver it.


Here, it is worth exploring “trust” a little bit more.


Take a look at the pictures attached. Suppose you go to a restaurant, and you place an order for duck. The waiter comes and tells you, could I recommend you the chicken instead? It just got delivered, very fresh, and we prepare it really well. On the other hand, the duck was delivered 4 days ago. If you still prefer the duck, we will of course prepare it for you as well as we can.

The duck is more expensive than chicken. Yet the waiter is recommending you the cheaper option. Moreover, he is giving you additional information he doesn’t need to, for you to make a better choice. The waiter is clearly looking after your interest, even at the potential expense of his. He might be told off by the manager, or in some places like the US, it might affect his tip.

Consider a second scenario. Same restaurant and you order duck again. This time, the waiter tells you, could I recommend you the wagyu? It just got delivered, it is very fresh, and we prepare it really well.

Could the waiter be telling you the truth? Of course. Perhaps the wagyu is really awesome; he is making the best recommendation he can. But at the back of your mind, you will surely wonder – is he really looking out for my interest, or his? The wagyu is a lot more expensive than the duck. Maybe he’s just trying to get better business for the restaurant or to get a larger tip. How do I know?

So trust isn’t just about being correct or accurate. When it involves others, trust is built when it becomes accepted that the other party isn’t in it just for themselves, but also looks after your interest. And as the example above shows, it is not just about the intention, the signalling of this intention is very important. It has to be obvious.

(Sidetrack: I maintain that this the main reason why females like receiving flowers from males. We think it looks terrible, it inevitably dies quickly, it’s inconvenient to carry about, it has no tangible purpose, I could go on. But perhaps because it is such a terrible gift to males, that it becomes a valuable gift to females - even though you think it is so terrible, you are still willing to get it for me. It signals to me your intention).

Back to Covid and Singapore's border policy, what could some examples of actions that the government could have taken?

- It could be proactive reporting of how incoming folks are processed, to ensure safety.

- It would be highlighting how additional steps have been taken to keep airport staff safe because we want to keep everyone safe.

- It would be engaging neutrals to give the message, and not just politicians

- It would be a statement that signals strongly to the citizen that he/she is the most important, like: “Every Singaporean and PR is very important. We are all part of Singapore, and if you run into trouble, we want to be able to look out for you. If you are abroad, we want to provide you with a chance to come back to the place you call home. But we have to look at both the collective and the individual. To be fair to everyone, for those returning or reuniting if your families, we will also impose strict measures to reduce the risk of infection. We know it is difficult, but we seek everyone’s help to comply with these measures to ensure that everyone can stay safe.”

Some folks might argue that well, this is a lot of work. Early intervention. Listening. Communication. And signalling that you have citizens’ best intentions at heart. The government is busy enough as it is. And everyone is a genius with hindsight.

But consider the alternative – resentment, a loss of trust, greater corrective communications needed, which might not be as effective because people already don’t trust you. The worry of a widening split in social fabric because of conflation.

Trust has to be a constant endeavour. And sometimes, this requires things to be overdone, even when it might seem obvious

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