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Economy

Asia bucks trend of deepening public distrust, shows survey

'Edelman index' suggests faster economic growth brings more belief in institutions

Trump supporters gather at a rally outside Trump Tower in New York on Feb. 5. (Reuters)

TOKYO -- Around the world, people are growing increasingly distrustful of the government, business, the media and nongovernmental organizations. But some Asian countries are bucking the trend, according to a survey by U.S. public relations consultancy Edelman.

The latest Edelman Trust Index, which measures public trust in the four institutions, showed that people were more distrustful compared with the previous year. The readings, obtained through an online survey of 33,000 people across 28 countries in October and November 2016, also showed that trust declined in three-quarters of the nations surveyed, the most ever.

Trust in government declined in 14 countries, with the total number of nations on the "distrust" side increasing to 21. Trust in business eroded in most countries as well. But the hardest-hit institution was the media, with 23 countries distrustful of it. In 17 countries, including Russia, Australia, the U.K. and Argentina, trust toward the media plunged to an all-time low.

A total of 53% of the respondents believed that "the system" -- defined by Edelman as "the machinery of society that is supposed to keep order, meet people's needs and make sure everything runs smoothly and fairly" -- was failing them. That sentiment was reflected in the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as the new U.S. president.

One striking finding was that even people at the high end of the social ladder were disillusioned, with 48% of high-income individuals, 49% of college-educated people and 51% of "well-informed" people saying the system was failing them.

Against the tide

While some Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, placed deep in "distrust of institutions" territory, India, Indonesia, China and Singapore displayed continued trust in the institutions.

Respondents in those "trusting" countries also had a lower propensity to say "the system" was failing, with the ratio coming in below 40% in India, Hong Kong, Singapore and China. The survey concluded that, "Systemic loss of faith [is] restricted to Western-style democracies."

Economics also likely played a role, as India, Indonesia and China were easily the three fastest-growing economies among the 28 covered in the latest survey. Ross Rowbury, president of Edelman Japan, said it could be that the institutions in high-growth countries are engaging more with the people, leading to a more trusting environment.

"It is possible to say that the 'nation building' role played by the media, government, business in the high-growth countries may be seen as being more 'with the people,' ..."which may, in a sense, be perceived as a form of engagement," Rowbury said.

Ben Boyd, president of practices and sectors at Edelman, was careful to point out that the survey provided "rational data on an emotional topic" and was a "snapshot in time." Said Boyd, "You cannot forget to overlay the societal construct into any analysis of this data," stressing the importance of looking at such variables as the flow of information, government type and digital penetration.

Still, he believes the world is a less trusting place now. "I think people are more distrustful. ... It is not that we saw a double-digit decrease in any one institution; it is the continued erosion of trust," he said. "I think the tide of uncertainty ... is not irreversible, but I don't see a lot of signs to believe the uncertainty which I believe breeds a lack of trust ... is going to calm down."

Added Boyd: "I was really struck at New Year's. ... I don't remember in my lifetime, getting to a New Year's and having people say, I'm glad 2016 is over but I know that 2017 will be no better. Just reflecting on that, I believe that 2016 was a pivot in terms of our new reality as opposed to an anomaly of a year."

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