Wednesday 29 August 2012

Resolving Taiwan's collective anxiety

By Alice Yang, Published The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

I HAVE made four annual trips back to Taiwan since 2009, but the collective anxiety there has never felt stronger than in my last two trips. Hong Kongers have collective anxiety. Taiwanese have it even worse.

According to a recent poll conducted by China Times, 80 per cent of those surveyed think Taiwan has not progressed. They fear for the next generation and are disappointed with the ruling and opposition parties.

Half the respondents blame it on President Ma Ying-jeou's poor leadership, while 50 per cent say the stagnation is due to the Legislative Yuan's parliamentary inefficiency, and 31 per cent fault the Democratic Progressive Party for its indiscriminate boycotts.

Taiwan has achieved democracy, so the government's actions should not affect the people much. But thanks to six news broadcasters fanning the flames round the clock, the people of Taiwan are easily anxious, feeling defeated, despondent and finicky.

It is not just in Taiwan, as other ethnic Chinese also feel this anxiety. Hong Kongers are anxious, Singaporeans are anxious, mainland Chinese are even more anxious. In his recent essay, Professor Chen Yung-feng from Tunghai University called the anxiety of the Taiwanese the "collective anxiety of post-modern Taiwan".

He thinks that Taiwan has walked the path of modernisation - establishing a Constitution, democracy and strong economic growth - to reach post-modernity. People regard the new-found democracy as a matter of course; but the country's overall goals are lost, the society is divided and values are sharply opposed.

But is Taiwan that bad?

Tourists who visit Taiwan are full of praises. Taiwan shines in hard figures, too. Its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at nominal value has hit US$20,000 (S$25,000), four times that of mainland China. Its GDP at purchasing power parity per capita is about US$38,000, leading Japan and South Korea (after Hong Kong). In other words, the Taiwanese are enjoying a higher level of material comfort in Taiwanese dollars than the Japanese do.

The Forbes magazine in the United States published a survey on its investment website on the world's top 10 great societies, based on 10 indicators, which include economic freedom, ease of doing business and globalisation.

Taiwan came in 10th on the list, even "greater" than North European countries.

After democratisation, the two political parties wanted to compete, and they changed the way they served the people. When Taiwanese head to the district offices, volunteers will serve tea and the staff are friendly.

When foreigners come to Taiwan, they are usually surprised by how developed the service industry is, and how good service attitudes are. This is also after democratisation, when several industries began to put the people first, ahead of national interests, and when special privileges were greatly reduced. Firms had to compete to profit, outdoing each other in service and efficiency.

But the people of Taiwan seemed like one-eyed dragons, focusing on the bitter fruits of democracy, for example, the incompetent government and the economic recession, but failing to see the advantages brought about by democracy.

For instance, many feel ashamed on seeing the Legislative Yuan members fight, but do not acknowledge that the Yuan conducts several committee meetings every day, and passes hundreds of Bills. About a month ago, a poll showed 70 per cent of voters regret choosing Mr Ma, but did not reflect on the fact that every Taiwanese has one vote each in a direct election (that's 18 million votes - Hong Kong's chief executive election features 1,200 votes only), and realise how rare this is in the Chinese world.

Taiwan has three important things to do, and anxiety can be substantially reduced upon completion.

One, the government must create more jobs.

A recent survey by Taiwan's CommonWealth magazine showed that if the government wants to increase the people's happiness, they must first increase job opportunities. Since the semiconductor and PC industry boom 30 years ago, Taiwan has not been able to cultivate a major job-producing industry.

Big and small firms all rush to set up factories in China, taking away Taiwan's manufacturing and service industries, draining the economy day by day. Not only do middle-aged people become jobless, the effect on the next generation is worse. According to a Jardine Fleming Asset Management survey, 70 per cent of Taiwanese worry that the next generation will be worse off than them.

Employed people also fret over low salaries and long working hours. The Taiwanese work an average of 197.5 hours a month (close to 50 hours a week), even longer than those in Japan and South Korea, and almost the longest in the world.

Taiwan's wages have remained stagnant for a long time (no difference as compared to 13 years ago), and especially in the technology sector, deaths from over-exhaustion have been heard of.

Two, the government and the people must decide the closeness of their relationship with mainland China.

Taiwan's attitude is not as mature as Hong Kong's when handling mainland China issues, with its people having conflicting attitudes towards China.

Over the years, I have observed that the problem is getting more serious. Those who are unwilling to interact with China have become even more unwilling, as many of them do not want Taiwan to be turned into another Hong Kong or China, and the sentiment towards the mainland Chinese seems to be "united over misunderstanding, but separated over understanding".

Three, the people of Taiwan must choose happiness and create happiness themselves.

Taiwan already has democracy, so the people should be responsible for their own fates. They should learn from a "little happiness" recipe created by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, which is to seek a "small, but sure happiness" in life. Reading a book, taking a walk in the park, enjoying a cup of coffee - these are all examples of a "little happiness".

Mr Murakami believes that, even folding freshly laundered underwear and placing them neatly in a drawer also constitute a small but sure happiness of its own.

In the past, Taiwan believed in the saying, "If there's a will, there's a way". Even without resources, Taiwan achieved several "world No. 1s". Hence, the Hokkien song Strive In Order To Win is a Taiwanese favourite, moving the hearts of numerous people.

But now, "to strive" does not guarantee "to win", and instead, those who do so get battered with cuts and bruises. Taiwan needs its government to be more strategic, more targeted, and map out the future in greater detail, and not just focus on its own environment and situation - it needs to take a step back to include China and the changing world as well.

This is an excerpt from an article in the Aug 5 issue of the Chinese-language weekly Yazhou Zhoukan.

Translated by Kua Yu-Lin and Lee Choo Kiong.

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