Ethnic and Religious Diversity and Trust in South Asia

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Wikipedia: List of ethnic groups on the basis of language. South Asian language families

                                                        Riaz Hassan      8 January 2019                                           

A growing body of social scientific research shows that trust plays is a key component of social capital, as well as the social ‘glue’ that facilitates societal integration and economic and political transactions. It is associated with a host of pro-social behaviours that contribute to social cohesion, collective welfare and community and individual wellbeing. As a human value, trust signifies the belief that others are trustworthy and part of one’s moral community, laying the basis for cooperation between people.

At an individual level, social trust implies mutuality: that the parties involved are positively inclined towards each other. It can also be described as a cognitive affirmation of expectations. In this sense social trust involves risk, because it relies upon expectations concerning an event that has not yet been determined by the individual.  Social trust reinforces the commonly held conception that trusting people are ‘nicer’ than ‘suspicious’ people. Psychological research on the personalities of ‘trusting’ and ‘suspicious’ subjects show that ‘suspicious’ subjects are more likely to have a low opinion of human nature and to be submissive to authority, punitive of deviant behaviour and less interested in feelings.

The social, economic and political benefits of social trust have prompted research focusing on factors that may reduce social trust. Findings show that several factors have negative effects on trust: a history of individual misfortune; belonging to groups that have been discriminated against and/or that are economically unsuccessful; cultural and religious beliefs that may lead to different philosophical orientations towards social interactions.

Income disparities and ethnic/racial heterogeneity have also been found to have a significant negative effect on trusting behaviour. In heterogeneous communities, participation in groups that require direct contact among members who are different to each other tends to be low, which is not conducive to building trust Indeed, individuals are less inclined to trust those who are different from themselves  because familiarity breeds trust. Research also reveals that trust declines with age. Income and education are positively correlated with trust, whereas financial misfortunes are strong determinants of low trust.

Social interactions influence trust, as does racial and income heterogeneity. Indeed, people are more likely to trust others in communities with high income inequality, rather than in a racially and ethnically fragmented one. This is attributed to an ‘aversion to heterogeneity’, meaning that ethnic minorities tend to trust other people less.  However, the heterogeneity of a community particularly influences the component of trust that is related to interpersonal interactions.  In other words, ethnicity affects more strongly the level of trust of those individuals who are averse to ethnic and racial mixing.

There is much debate about the nature of trust and whether it is simply a by-product of good institutions and only has a causal independent effect in human affairs. In a seminal study, economist Ernest Fehr examines this question by focusing on the determinants of trusting behaviour. He postulates that trusting behaviour is determined by risk aversion, betrayal aversion, sociability and altruism.  Risk and betrayal aversion are important elements for institutional design because the risks that people face in their economic activities are socially constituted, such as the risk of being cheated by a trading partner or the risk of expropriation by politicians or civil authorities.  Betrayal aversion, in particular, is likely to be a potent inhibitor of economic activities, which means that the design and implementation of efficient legal enforcement institutions is very important.

Betrayal aversion refers to trust as a form of risk. By trusting another person the trustor is taking a risk by expecting an event to occur according to his or her expectations. Trusting behaviours and risk are therefore different sides of the same coin. Betrayal aversion is essentially an aversion to non-reciprocated trust, which facilitates a willingness to punish non-reciprocating individuals for ‘negative reciprocity’. This means that measures of negative reciprocity can be taken as a good proxy for betrayal aversion.

Sociability refers to the interactions that are confined to family members, friends and close colleagues. Individuals involved in such interactions are likely to be less trusting of ‘strangers’, i.e. those outside of their close networks. Altruism refers to ‘asymmetrical reciprocity’ and can be described as ‘things we do that benefits others’. Thus, altruistic people are more inclined to trust others (i.e. strangers) than those who are not altruistic. If risk aversion, betrayal aversion, sociability and altruism are determinants of trust, they should have predictive power in trust regressions. In a German study Fehr demonstrates that these four variables are indeed predictive of trusting behaviour (Fehr 2009).

Since all these investigations have been carried out in developed, Western countries, it is important to ask whether these findings have universal validity. In other words, do the same dynamics concerning trust and its determinants occur in non-Western societies? This paper seeks to answer this question by investigating how some of the research findings outlined above apply in South and Southeast Asian contexts. More specifically, it investigates the impact of ethnic and religious diversity on trust in four South Asian countries: India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.   In doing so the paper seeks to replicate some of the aforementioned studies by using proxy variables from the latest wave (2010-2014) of World Value Survey data for India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Why focus on these issues? One defining condition of modernity and post modernity is the rupture in the nexus between ‘blood and soil’ and the emergence of ethnically and religiously heterogeneous societies. This trend is apparent globally and it is accelerating. The four countries included in this paper provide an ideal research setting to examine the impact of ethnic and religious diversity on social trust. Moreover, a logical corollary of ethnic and religious diversity is that it is connected to the majority/minority demographic composition of a population.  It will therefore also be possible to examine the effect of majority-minority demographic status on social trust.

Some Observations on Diversity: The theoretical basis for focusing on ethnic and religious diversity is that people’s trust of others is based on their experience of the (generalised) ‘other’ in their social environment. Peoples’ belief in the trustworthiness of others is informed by cues from their social environment. The evidence from psychological studies indicates a general human tendency to evaluate members of other ethnic and religious groups as generally less trustworthy and more threatening, compared to ‘in-group’ members. Experimental studies on the economics of the trust game reveal lower levels of initial trust when the trustee has a different ethnic background to that of the trustor.  Learned prejudice probably accounts for some of this tendency. However, some recent studies also point to the evolutionary roots of this tendency, which show that human beings are better at inferring other human beings’ thoughts, intentions and feelings if a person belongs to their own ethnic group, as opposed to a different group. The negative relationship between ethnic diversity and trust is generally explained by conflict theory, which posits that exposure to groups with different ethnic backgrounds spurs conflict and competition over scarce resources. These conflicts in turn lead to ‘out-group’ prejudice.

Dinesen and Sonderskov (2015) offer a nuanced explanation for the relationship between ethnic diversity and social trust. They argue that the likely reason for this relationship originates

“…. in a general human disposition to evaluate individuals with a different ethnic background as less trustworthy. This disposition exists regardless of the level ethnic diversity in residential setting. However, being more heavily exposed to people of different ethnic background leads to lower levels of social trust because ethnic background functions as a social cue about the trustworthiness of specific others, which in turn affects the overall assessment of generalized other.  The crux of this argument is thus that residential exposure to people of different ethnic backgrounds affects social trust negatively, because more diverse contexts provide cues- of which humans are receptive due to an evolved or learned negative out-group bias- that lead residents to believe that generalised other is less trustworthy” (Dinesen and Sonderskov 2015:553).

In short, exposure to people of different ethnic backgrounds influences social trust negatively.

This paper seeks to investigate the relationship between ethnic and religious diversity and majority-minority status on social trust in four countries of South Asia, namely: India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Data and Methodology: This paper is based on survey data extracted from the latest World Value Survey wave 6 (2010-2014) from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore ( The variables applied in the paper were: trust behaviour and the respondent’s religion and ethnicity. The proxy survey question and measure used for establishing general trust was: “Generally speaking would you say that most people can be trusted or that one has to be very careful in dealing with people?” The responses were coded as follows: Most people can be trusted. Yes=1; No =2. Trust in people of other religion was ascertained by the survey question: “I’d like to ask you how much you trust people of other religion?” The response categories were: Trust completely; Trust somewhat; Neither trust nor distrust; Do not trust at all.

Findings: The responses to the question “Generally speaking would you say that most people can be trusted or that one has to be very careful in dealing with people?” given in Table 1 below, show that general trust varies considerably across the four countries. The percentage of respondents saying that most people ‘cannot be trusted’ varies from the lowest result — 66.5 percent in Singapore — to the highest result, 91.5 percent in Malaysia.

Table 1. General Trust by Majority and Minority Status in India, Pakistan,

Malaysia and Singapore (%)

Cannot be trusted India Pakistan Malaysia Singapore
All Respondents 66.1 76.1 91.5 61.5
Among Majority 65.1 76.1 90.7 60.7
Among Minority 68.4 N/A 92.7 65.2  

Source: World Value Surveys (

Malaysia and Pakistan, the two Muslim majority countries, displayed significantly higher levels of distrust in other people than the two countries where Muslims are in a minority, namely India and Singapore. Comparatively, there was a slightly elevated level of trust deficit among minorities in India, Malaysia and Singapore. This data was not reported for Pakistan because of the very small number of non-Muslims in the Pakistani sample.

These variations cannot be attributed to the countries’ ethnic heterogeneity, as all four countries have significant ethnic and religious diversity, although their respective diversity profiles vary. To examine the underlying dynamics that produced the trust profile in Table 1. further analysis was performed focusing on trust in people of other religions. This analysis was based upon responses to the survey question asking how much respondents ‘trusted people of other religion.’ The analysis of the data by religious communities is reported in Table 2. It shows that among religious minorities trust deficits were lower, compared with the majority religious community.  

Table 2. Trust in People of Other Religion (%)

Cannot be trusted India Pakistan Malaysia Singapore
Among Majority 42.8 73.7 69.1 41.7
Among Minority 34.8 N/A 61.9 39.5

Source: Same as Table 1.

In India, Malaysia and Singapore, three countries that have significant religious diversity, the majority religious groups were significantly less trusting of members of other religions, compared to the members of minority religious communities. This finding is consistent with the ‘group- threat’ theory, which postulates that inter-group antipathy is a function of the

Majority group’s perception of the size and characteristics of the minority group, and the threat it poses to the majority group’s economic and cultural ‘domination’ and competitive economic and cultural advantages.

The evidence also reveals significant differences in the level of trust and distrust of people of other religions among majority and minority religious groups in India, Malaysia and Singapore (see Tables 3. 4. and 5.). In India, the majority Hindu and minority Muslim and Christian communities make up around 98 percent of the population. Compared to their Hindu and Christian compatriots, Indian Muslims display significantly higher levels of trust and the lowest level of distrust towards members of other religions. In Muslim majority Malaysia, it is the non-Muslim minorities, consisting mainly of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, who display more trust in members of other religions. However, the proportion of minority religious group respondents expressing “Trust completely” was significantly lower in Malaysia than in India.

Table 3. India: Trust in People of Other Religion by Religious Affiliation (%)

  Muslims Hindus Christians All
Trust completely 24.1 16.1 7.7 16.6
Trust a little 45.1 41.2 57.1 42.8
Neither trust or distrust 18.5 27.9 22.0 26.2
Do not trust very much 12.3 14.9 13.2 14.4
Total 100 100 100 100
N= 195 1096 91 1382
Likelihood-ratio chi 2(6)=24.0630  Pr=0.001- Significant

Table 4. Malaysia: How Much Do You Trust People of Other Religions (%)

  Non-Muslims Muslims All
Trust completely 2.1 1.2 1.5
Trust a little 35.6 31.0 32.8
Neither trust or distrust 46.0 52.9 50.4
Do not trust very much 15.4 15.1 15.2
Total 100 100 100
N= 952 1509 2561
Likelihood-ratio chi2(3)=10.768  Pr=0.013-significant

Buddhists/Taoists constitute 45 percent of the Singaporean population with Christians, Muslims and Hindus accounting for 18, 14 and 5 percent respectively. The rest of the sample declared no religious affiliation. Table 5 shows that 58 percent of Buddhists — the majority religious group — trusted ‘completely’ and ‘somewhat’ people of other religions. The corresponding figures for minority Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups were 60, 72 and 66 percent respectively. This again shows that the majority religious community in Singapore (i.e. the Buddhist community) displayed a significantly lower level of trust in members of other religions than religious minorities. These differences are statistically significant. 

Table 5: Singapore: Trust in People of Other Religions by Religious Affiliations (%)

  Muslims Buddhists Hindus Christians Total
Trust completely 6.2 5.7 7.0 8.7 6.6
Trust somewhat 66.1 52.6 59.4 51.0 55.8
Neither trust or distrust 24.1 35.6 31.5 35.7 32.7
Do not trust at all 3.7 6.1 2.1 4.6 4.9
Total 100 100 100 100  
N= 324 686 143 347 1500
Likelihood-ratio chi 2(9)=28.633  Pr= 0.001-significant

The data reported in Tables 3, 4. And 5 indicate an interesting and unexpected pattern concerning trust in members of other religions by members of majority and minority religious communities in India, Malaysia and Singapore. In the non-Muslim majority countries of India and Singapore, Muslim minorities displayed a significantly greater level of trust in people of other religions, compared with the majority religious communities. But in Malaysia the pattern was reversed. It is the non-Muslim minorities that display a greater level of trust in members of other religions, compared to their Muslim compatriots who constitute the majority in the country. These differences are statistically significant. This analysis indicates that size matters. Minority communities are more trusting of other religions than the majority community in South and Southeast Asia. An explanation of this pattern will require more focused research, using in-depth interviews, which the World Value Survey data does not offer.  However, it will be examined in a follow up paper that will explore the reasons for these findings by focusing on the role of risk aversion, betrayal aversion, altruism, sociability, gender, income, age and education in shaping trust behaviours. 

Discussion: The findings show relatively low levels of general trust across all countries; all four have varying degrees of religious and ethnic diversity. These findings are consistent with the findings of other studies which show that ethnic, economic and religious heterogeneity has a negative effect on trusting behaviour. The comparatively lower levels of trust in Muslim majority Malaysia and Pakistan suggests that religious homogeneity is more prone to the distrust of other people compared to religious heterogeneity, which characterises India and Singapore.

The finding that majority communities consider minority communities to be less trustworthy can be attributed to conflict theory posits that exposure to groups with different ethnic backgrounds accentuates conflict and competition over scarce resources, as well as the general human disposition to mistrust people with a different background. However, this ‘theory’ does not explain one of main findings of this paper: those minority religious communities in India, Malaysia and Singapore display comparatively greater trust towards their respective majority religious communities. Muslim minorities in India and Singapore are significantly more trusting of non-Muslim majority communities. In Malaysia, on the other hand, it is the non-Muslim minority that is significantly more trusting of the Muslim majority.  These findings also suggest that size does matter.  

These findings raise interesting questions about the relationship between trust, ethnic religious affiliation and diversity in South and Southeast Asian countries.  These questions warrant further investigation into the determinants of trust behaviour. They will be the subject of a follow up paper that will explore the reasons for these findings by focusing on the role of risk aversion, betrayal aversion, altruism, sociability, gender, income, and education age in shaping trust behaviours.

Riaz Hassan is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Flinders University of South Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His most recent book is: India Muslims: Struggling for Equality of Citizenship, Melbourne University Press.


Fehr, Ernest. 2009. “On the Economics and Biology of Trust.” Journal of the European Economic Association 7 (2-3):235-266.

Other relevant reference

Alesina, Alberto and Eliana La Ferrara, 2002. “Who Trusts Others?” Journal of Public Economics, 85 (2):2017-234.

Dinesen, Peter T. and Kim M. Sonderskov. 2015. “Ethnic Diversity and Social Trust: Evidence from the Micro-Context.” American Sociological Review, 80 (3): 550-573.

Fukuyama, F. 1995. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press.

Inglehart, R. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Countries. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Knack, S. and S. Keefer. 1997. “Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff? A Cross – Country Investigation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 12:1251-1288.

Leigh, Andrew. 2016. “Trust Inequality and Ethnic Heterogeneity.” Economic Record, 82:258-80.

Putnam, R. 1993. Making Democracy Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Uslaner, Eric. 2002. The Moral Foundation of Trust. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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