Friday 30 January 2015

'Fear and paralysis' in Taiwan's policymaking

Ex-minister warns about reluctance to make correct but unpopular decisions
By Li Xueying, Regional Correspondent In Hong Kong, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2015

IN TAIWAN, 1,000 litres of tap water cost NT$7 (S$0.30). In Singapore, consumers pay seven times more - NT$50.

Little wonder then that the Taiwanese guzzle 274 litres a day each on average against Singaporeans' 155 litres. And the chickens will come home to roost by 2030 when Taiwan is confronted with a severe water shortage, warns Dr Lee Hong-yuan.

Yet, the former interior minister found it tough going when he tried to introduce a plan two years ago to build water-recycling plants. Calls for water prices to be raised - something he has lobbied for in the past two decades - were deemed even more politically untenable, with legislators unwilling to support such a plan.

This fear of making "correct but unpopular decisions" has paralysed policymaking, and Taiwan's officials and politicians - with an eye constantly on the next election - are crafting short-term policies only that look just one or two years down the road, he charges.

"Long-term plans that require 10 or 20 years to be realised - they don't exist any more..."

Taiwan "is kidnapped by our own democracy", asserts Dr Lee in an interview about his new book, How To Make Taiwan A First-Rate Country.

Released on Jan 7, it is generating buzz, having made it to best seller lists with 12,000 copies sold. This is amid a general malaise within Taiwan, one of the so-called Four Asian Tigers together with South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Concerns abound over the rising costs of living, stagnating wages and the sense that the island is lagging behind its peers.

Dr Lee, who left the government last February, sidesteps the question of what "rate" he thinks Taiwan is at today, but alludes to a certain nostalgia in society for the 1980s, when Kuomintang (KMT) strongman Chiang Ching- kuo was in charge.

"We were not quite a modern country but the economy was booming, everybody had hope and was motivated," recalls the 58-year-old, a hydraulic engineer by training.

By contrast, today, "everyone is depressed and people complain about their salaries".

"I don't feel any good energy. If you turn on the TV, you see our very popular talk shows blaming the government. The whole society is jammed with negative messages," he says.

But make no mistake. Dr Lee is not harkening back to an era of martial law dictatorship.

What has happened to Taiwan, he says, is that it has lost the "essence of democracy" - one based on debate, compromise and eventually crafting the best policies for the electorate.

Instead, what it has now is a system with two political camps constantly sniping at and undermining each other to win votes.

"It looks like democracy but it's not democracy," he says.

"In the last 15 years, with the conflict between the blue and the green - it (democracy) was totally destroyed. There is no dialogue between them now," he adds, referring to Taiwan's two broad political coalitions led by the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party respectively. This means that policies set forth by one side, whatever their merits, will not be supported by the other.

Meanwhile, the media fuels people's desire for "reports attacking officials". "When I was Interior Minister, we were busy dealing with such matters - the problems of yesterday. There is no room or luxury to think about tomorrow," he recalls.

Dr Lee's damning assessment is not one that all agree with.

For one thing, Taiwan could be at a stage where its people's definition of a "first-rate country" is not necessarily one that is economically competitive.

Political scientist Tsai Chia- hung of National Chengchi University says: "Indeed, in today's Taiwan, we do lack long-term planning. But for many Taiwanese, the watchdog mechanism and transparency traits of democracy are more important."

But Dr Lee avers that these are not mutually exclusive. After all, there remains a distinction in the Taiwanese' confidence in the political system and their politicians. A poll in 2010 shows that 51.3 per cent said no matter what the circumstances, democracy is the best political system. But a survey last year found 80 per cent said they distrust their politicians.

How then to rout out the ills within the system? And what about the old saw that the people get the politicians they deserve?

The signs are that the Taiwanese are getting "angry" with the state of affairs, says Dr Lee, pointing to Dr Ko Wen-je, whose shrewd decision to run as an independent won him the Taipei mayoral race last December.

As disenchantment with party politics grows, the proportion of Taiwanese who identify themselves as independents has risen from about 35 per cent in the 2000s to 45 per cent last year, according to polls by the National Election Centre.

"People are fed up with both parties," observes Dr Lee. "The parties have to upgrade, change or they will fade out."

He sees his book as a clarion call for "the right people" to step up, be tough and do what is right. They can work to change the political landscape from within either of the parties, run as independent candidates or form a third party. He also wants the government to establish a think-tank to provide "scientific evidence" as ammunition for leaders and ministers to push for the "right policies".

Dr Lee left the Ma Ying-jeou administration as one of its more popular ministers after being asked by then-Premier Jiang Yi-huah to give up his post for that of Minister without Portfolio. Asked if reports of conflict with Mr Jiang were true, he says: "I don't know why he asked me to leave. Maybe he didn't like my policies or felt I was too aggressive or could not work with the team."

Dr Lee has since rejoined the civil engineering department at the National Taiwan University.

With a presidential election due next year, is he himself contemplating a run for the top job?

"I will participate. I can be part of the drive for a think-tank, an adviser, as a candidate. I'm keeping my options open.

"But my hope is that no matter what, there will be change."



"We have elections every four years, and for the mayors and legislators, popularity is most important to them.

And the media, where people want the talk shows to attack the officials, covers only negative messages.

We have been operating on conflict. We only care about the political "colour" - if you are part of the blue camp, the green camp won't endorse your policies.

For example, when I come up with policies, they tell me the policies are attractive but they cannot endorse them."


"For example, many protested against the building of our fourth nuclear power plant and the President decided we will not go ahead. But we have spent NT$400 billion (S$17 billion).

It's brand new and we don't want it. That's fine. But based on what? Who is assessing the impact on our society and economy? Nobody bothers to say, without this plant, we have to change our plans since we have no new sources of energy supply. No one is making a plan.

Not a single minister said a word. Everyone kept their mouths shut."


"I want to tell my countrymen that we used to be proud of our economic achievements.

But now South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong - they are getting better and we are not.

I'm really worried about the situation, and about the country not having a direction. There is much anger among the middle class and so I believe the politicians who want a career in Taiwan will need to change their mindsets.

And the government needs to change the way it works too."


"Singapore is perhaps a good model for Taiwan when it comes to long-term planning but it has its own problems.

From my point of view, the system in Singapore is close to the situation in Taiwan during the Chiang Ching-kuo era, when the elite ruled.

Since our people have enjoyed democracy in the last decade, it is impossible to move back. We have to find our own way out.

Our current model is perfect - there is no problem with the car. The problem is with the driver."

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