A question of trust

Everyone who is concerned about the future of the besieged Estrada presidency eagerly awaits the results of the next surveys.  Many think that if the President’s net ratings fall below zero, he may have a hard time fending off moves to remove him from office or to make him resign.

If we want to know what proportion of the Filipino people might be inclined to support a move to impeach President Estrada or to ask him to step down, short of asking the question directly, which survey question would provide us a sound basis for an answer?

Not many people are aware that the country’s top survey firms, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) of Mahar Mangahas and PulseAsia of Felipe Miranda, use two different measures of the public’s assessment of Erap’s performance.  SWS uses “satisfaction” ratings, while PulseAsia uses “approval” ratings.  The two concepts overlap in meaning but they refer to different things.  To gauge satisfaction, SWS asks:  “Are you satisfied with the President’s performance?” (“Nasisiyahan ba kayo…”), while PulseAsia sticks to the more standard “Do you approve of the president’s performance” (“Sangayon ba kayo o aprubado ba sa inyo…”).

In his Nov. 5, 1999 Manila Standard column, Mangahas explains the incomparability of the findings of the two outfits: “Contrary to what many media people assume, a survey satisfaction rating is not synonymous to a survey approval rating, which is the term that should be used if the operative Filipino word is sang-ayon, or some such. To ensure consistency in trend-analysis, the SWS survey ratings are all satisfaction ratings.  There’s no reason for us to change, since a satisfaction rating is definitely not inferior to an approval rating. Using ‘satisfaction’ or ‘approval’ in a survey question is a matter of personal taste.  Just remember that the two ratings aren’t comparable to each other.”

So which of the two is the more accurate gauge of the public’s opinion of the president’s performance?  Accuracy may not be relevant here, for there is no single objective picture of presidential performance. The suitability of our measurements depends on the uses to which we put them.  I think however that “satisfaction” is the broader and the more “tolerant” of the two concepts.  As Mangahas himself points out in the same article, a professor like him may be dissatisfied with a student’s performance, but may nevertheless give him a passing grade.  On the other hand, it is doubtful if a professor who disapproves of a student’s performance can bring himself to give this student a passing grade.  “Approval” is the more exacting of the two words.  In an authoritarian culture, it may be more prudent to admit you are dissatisfied with a president’s performance than to say you disapprove of it.  The first expresses merely unmet expectations; the other manifests a more active rejection.

Since available opinion survey data from the time of Marcos are based on the “satisfaction” question, I can understand why, in the interest of comparative analysis, SWS would continue to use satisfaction ratings. But the predictive value of satisfaction and approval ratings as indicators of what people may be inclined to do would, I imagine, vary greatly.  Between satisfaction ratings and approval ratings, I would say the latter would be the better measure of an inclination to act.  Thus, if we wish to know whether the public would support a move against a president, I think “approval” ratings would provide the better basis.

Of greater concern to me, however, is whether these two concepts –“satisfaction” and “approval” — make much sense to the average Filipino as measurements of their opinion of their leaders.  How do we usually gauge people who make decisions in our name?  Is it by asking ourselves if we are “satisfied” with or whether we “approve” of their performance?

Neither, I think.  In our culture, we are accustomed to measure the performance of subordinates, but not of leaders.  It makes sense to say we are satisfied with or we approve of an employee’s performance, but we rarely say this of the boss.  It is normally not the performance of our leaders that concerns us, but rather their intrinsic trustworthiness.   My hunch is that “trust” or “tiwala” is a more meaningful concept to use when measuring the Filipino’s opinion of a leader.  Trust (tiwala) focuses on the “loob”, the inner heart or character of a leader, rather than on something external like performance.   Measures of trust, rather than measures of performance, are more meaningful to a culture that expects its leaders to be not so much  competent as kind-hearted (mabait), and not so much intelligent as accessible (madaling lapitan).

We may feel dissatisfied with or disapprove of a leader’s behavior, but, by offering excuses, continue to trust that leader.  But if we lose faith in a leader, no amount of explanation can possibly neutralize that judgment.

There is, of course, no single correct way of measuring attitudes. Different questions yield different responses.  The same questions may yield different responses in different cultures.  The choice of questions to ask is not a matter of taste, but a matter of what we want the responses to signify.  Opinion polls are important because they are taken as measures of a public’s predisposition to act.

We already know what the public thinks of Erap’s performance.  The point is to ask what the public is prepared to do about it.  The relevant question, it seems to me, is: “May tiwala ba kayo kay Estrada bilang pangulo ng ating bansa?” (“Do you have faith in Estrada as president of our nation?”)


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