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The case of the baker

Publication Date : 26-03-2013


Taiwan's Ministry of Education (MOE) moved last week to amend existing regulations that would block an application by renowned baker Wu Pao-chun for the country's Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) program.

The MOE's uncharacteristically rapid response came after President Ma Ying-jeou publicly instructed the government to keep Wu in Taiwan by all means necessary. Wu was contemplating further education to boost his business skills but was reportedly put off by Taiwanese regulations, which currently require a college degree or a class A certification for EMBA application. Wu applied for the EMBA program at the National University of Singapore (NUS). While the NUS program also requires a college degree, it makes exceptions for applicants with outstanding business achievements.

The news that Wu, who won the title of Bakery Master in the bread category of the Bakery World Cup in 2010, was not qualified for local EMBA application and could possibly be “acquired” by NUS triggered a media outcry over Taiwan's rigid regulations, especially in comparison to NUS' flexible approach.

Ma stressed yesterday that although the relaxation in Taiwan's EMBA requirements to also consider non-academic and non-certificated accomplishments originated with the Wu incident, it is not an amendment tailor-made for one person but a comprehensive measure to bring flexibility to the nation's system.

The brouhaha over Wu's EMBA enrollment in some ways reminds people of the Taiwanese government's rebuff of another famous Wu. Taiwan's Intellectual Property Court (IPC) rejected Taiwanese-American designer Jason Wu's application to register the brand name MISS WU on the same day US first lady Michelle Obama wore Wu's gown at her husband's second Inaugural Ball. The IPC based its decision on the grounds that the surname Wu is too common and the brand too generic.

While in both cases the media had no doubt attempted to blow the “scandal” out of proportion - the baker now is considering staying in Taiwan and the fashion designer is allowed to reapply for his patent - the two incidents highlight one of the fundamental shortcomings of Taiwan, namely the bureaucratic rigidness resulting from the application of a governmental framework designed for a large republic in a small country.

The Republic of China's five branches of the government originated from Dr. Sun Yat-sen's modification of the three- branch approach in Western democracies by adding two systems from the ancient Chinese system - the Control Yuan is based on the Censorate in imperial China and the Examination Yuan is inspired by the imperial examination system. Both systems were designed to enhance the central government's (or ancient Chinese emperors') control of a vast nation - the Censorate helped the central government to keep an eye on magistrates and other officials to prevent abuse of power or corruption and the imperial examination system helped the government to acquire talents in a universal and centralised way. The advantage of such systems is easily imaginable for a large nation such as the pre-1949 ROC. When applied in an island nation of 23 million, however, such systems - and the governmental framework they represent - can seem cumbersome.

The Chinese heritage in the ROC can also be seen in more mundane details of the government. Many government documents are still written in classical Chinese - a form of ancient written Chinese - that is in some cases incomprehensible to the public (sometimes even to the officials addressed).

When a republic system based on traditional Chinese experience is applied in a small nation like Taiwan, they lead to unintended consequences such as the strong continental mentality among governmental bureaucrats. As a result, while Taiwan's policymakers acknowledge Taiwan's status as a small country, they fail to take full advantage of the flexibility available to small nations.

Taiwanese leaders should encourage government officials to recognise Taiwan's status - its size and its unique international position - not only as its limitations but also as its strengths. If the president meant what he said about comprehensive changes, he should start using the Wu EMBA case as an anecdote to spur the government to act with more agility and originality.


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