A growing sense of distrust, and with it polarisation, has been sweeping across our region, and the world.

It feeds on itself. It is driven by a combination of increased distrust in government and media, a lack of shared identity, sense of systemic unfairness, economic pessimism, and societal fears all contributing towards a more polarised society.

And once divided, a polarised community makes fostering trust all the more difficult.

These are the headline findings of the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer for the Asia Pacific region, published today by Edelman, a global communications advisory firm, which has been studying the issue of societal trust for over two decades.

Understanding the social and political forces fuelling these divisions is all the more critical given the backdrop against which they are playing out – looming inflation, a lingering war in Ukraine, and rising Sino-US tensions, the effects of all of which are being felt around our region.

These could also have electoral implications, as countries such as Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia move into higher political gear, with major elections on the cards.

Our latest report shows that overall trust in major institutions across the world is not only deteriorating but deepening at a societal level. In fact, 42 per cent of this year’s respondents in Asia-Pacific say their country is more divided today than in the past.

In South Korea, 63 per cent of people say their country is more divided today than in the past, amid widening political and economic divides. In Japan, there is serious concern that the present divisions will be too difficult to overcome.

Across Asia, six in 10 people say the lack of civility and mutual respect in their country is the worst they have experienced, and 61 per cent say the social fabric that used to hold the country together is now too weak to do so.

The fact that these regional figures are similar to the global average offers scarce comfort, given that harmony, civility and mutual respect have traditionally been seen as defining features of Asian societies.

The biggest measured contributors to polarisation are distrust in government and lack of a shared identity, followed by a feeling that the system is unfair. Other significant drivers include economic pessimism, societal fears and distrust in the media.

Asked whether they think they will be better off in five years, the average across Asia was 44 per cent, down significantly from 57 per cent in 2019.

Since last year, economic optimism fell by 20 percentage points in Malaysia, 11 points in Australia and South Korea, and by eight and seven points in Indonesia and Singapore respectively.

Strikingly, Japan sat at the very bottom of this optimism scale, with just nine per cent of those polled expressing hope for their future economic prospects, in a country buffeted by a drawn-out Covid-19 exit strategy, lingering inflation, and anxieties about its rapidly ageing population.

This gloom is widely shared. In our global survey, 24 out of 28 countries recorded all-time lows in terms of economic optimism, with the global average down by 10 percentage points from last year.

Significantly, our study also found a relationship between income and trust, in what might be called a “mass-class trust divide”. This reflects how those who are better-off in a society are generally more trusting of its institutions.

Globally, there is a 15-percentage point gap between high- and low-income groups in their average trust of the four core institutions.

Turning to Asia, Thailand – whose election in May is widely expected to be a re-run of rivalries between royalist and populist groups – has the widest income-based divide of all countries in the survey, with a 37-point difference between high and low-income trust levels. The gaps in China and Japan stand at 19 points, while Singapore has an 18-point divide.

Most troubling of all is that this lack of trust appears to be getting personal. When we asked people how they would feel or act toward someone who had different views from theirs on an issue they cared strongly about, just 31 per cent of Asian respondents said they would help them in a time of need. Only 21 per cent are willing to have such a person as a co-worker, and just 19 per cent would live in the same neighbourhood.

These are troubling signs of distrust feeding into social divisions and giving rise to a deep polarisation of societies.

The only small mercy for Asia seems to be that things appear to be worse elsewhere. Thankfully, Asia’s sense of division is 11 percentage points less than the global average.

Even so, the findings also show that South Korea and Japan are in danger of joining the ranks of the world’s most polarised nations, countries that include the US, South Africa, Colombia and Argentina.

What is to be done about this deepening cycle of distrust?

Clearly, there is work to be done by all stakeholders in our societies.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, in January, former British Labour Party foreign secretary David Miliband lamented that too many government leaders have “given up being in the solutions business”. Instead, politics has supplanted sound policy-making, with key decisions being shaped more by electoral and news cycles.

In his argument, Miliband cited the recent book, the “Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing politics for the 21st Century”, by the Venezuelan thinker Moises Naim. In it, Naim warns that authoritarian leaders are exploiting “the 3Ps – populism, polarisation and post-truths” – to sway voters to win, and consolidate, power.

Leaders and voters alike, he noted, will have to stay alert to the threats posed to democratic systems, in both developing and developed countries, as recent events in the US and Brazil have shown.

But it is not only governments that will have to work hard at bridging the trust gap and averting a distrust spiral. Business, especially, has a key role to play. Edelman’s study found that business is the most trusted institution in Asia-Pacific, with an average score of 65 per cent, ahead of non-governmental organisations (62%), government (60%) and the media (55%).

Significantly, 79 per cent of Asian employees trust their employers, the most trusted institution overall, 19 points more than government. “My CEO” enjoys 69 per cent trust among Asian employees.

Besides, both consumers and employees are demanding more of businesses - buying brands that match their values and wanting to work for companies that have a positive societal impact.

Those polled say business leaders are obligated to ensure workers are paid fairly, and they expect CEOs to take a public stand when it comes to employee treatment. They also believe business should do more to address issues such as climate change and economic inequalities in society.

Encouragingly, clear majorities in Singapore (55%), China (60%), Malaysia (61%), Indonesia (64%), India (65%) and Thailand (69%) think there is room for business leaders to make an impact on societal issues without becoming political. In contrast, only about a third think this way in more polarised countries like Japan (30%) and South Korea (35%).

The consensus across the board, however, is that business is seen as being more ethical and competent than other institutions, and most effective in addressing societal issues when working in partnership with government, rather than trying to do it on its own.

If there’s a guiding principle that runs through our findings, it’s that business has an opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, to become a unifying force that helps restore harmony in Asia.

Given the growing and deep divides within and between countries, people everywhere expect – and need – more of business and its leaders in 2023.

Warren Fernandez is the CEO of Edelman’s Asia-Pacific region.

The views expressed are his own.