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Incisive, comprehensive vision needed for reforms

Publication Date : 02-06-2014


A nation-defining moment was what President Park Geun-hye called the Sewol ferry tragedy in which three hundred died. In the aftermath of the disaster, the president disbanded the coast guard, blaming that organ of government for failing to respond to the crisis properly.

“It's the duty of the living to make reform and a great transformation for the country so that the sacrifices of the dead are not wasted. If we cannot reform ourselves in a situation like this, we will become a nation that will never be able to achieve reform,” Park was quoted by the NY Times as saying.

Park's decision has yet to be evaluated in terms of its efficacy. Splitting the functions of the coast guard between a newly created agency and the police may hamper their ability to provide reliable services. She has also been criticized for attempting to shift the blame to that arm of government instead of shouldering it herself.

But what the president of South Korea is doing is setting the tone for soul-searching as well as identifying the moment for reforms to salvage the nation's character.

By contrast, President Ma and his government's response to problems seem to be overly focused on assuaging public opinion and lack a determination to solve entangled root causes.

The government needs to comprehensively address the accompanying aspects of each problem from the vantage point of determination and incisiveness, coupled with compromise but not vacillation.

Determination is needed to solve problems in the face of inevitable differences in opinion. Incisiveness refers to an ability to

identify the complexities of a problem as well as to design a solution. When a superior decision is available between on-or-off choices, it should be courageously adopted.

All this requires expert understanding of the subject, to defend one's position and dispel misconceptions. Where the trade-offs are known, achieving a balance between conflicting priorities is also a difficult but needed task.

Mothballing the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and leaving it to future generations to decide is an example of not confronting the basic problem behind the controversy, which is the country's long-term energy policy. While the consensus is to move beyond nuclear power, mothballing betrays a lack of conviction in moving toward that stated goal.

An accompanying issue immediately surfaces when, by not activating the fourth nuclear plant, the scheduled decommissioning of the first, second and third reactors may have to be postponed. The Atomic Energy Council said in April that “extending the service terms” of those reactors “may be a feasible option.”

This contradicts the head of state's declaration in a press release called “Consistently Reducing Nuclear Reliance and Marching toward a 'Nuclear-free Homeland'” in 2011.

In the release, Ma said that when the service terms for the three older reactors expire, they will not be extended.

While a “nuclear-free homeland” is a vision that both parties have adopted, the Ma government's wavering on the issue of service extensions indicates a broader lack of cohesion in long-term planning.

 An attitude of just wanting the nuclear protests to quiet down results in only providing a decision on the most superficial levels of the issue.

The same can be said of how the government handled the national outrage over Corporal Hung Chung-chiu dying in disciplinary confinement last year. It is true that a huge change in the justice system was instituted, with the military justice system mothballed in peacetime and all cases transferred to civilian courts.

However, Hung died at the end of a sorry chain of events including entangled under-the-table dealings in the military, insufficient protections for complainants, a lack of timely medical response at facilities as well as a bully culture that allows for contravention of proper procedure.

Last year's legal reforms treated only the very end of the chain.

In fairness, the government's problematic mindset partly stems from the dilemma of cross-strait relations and its existential implications for Taiwan. Taiwan's unwillingness to simply acquiesce in the face of continuing pressure from the mainland means that for many people, putting off a political resolution is the preferred thing to do.

While Taiwan continues to seek to reinvent a political philosophy for the evolving cross-strait relationship, the mainland has had the luxury of sticking to a much harder line because of its vastly greater power.

Responding to citizens' desires is a core principle of democracy. Yet when answering complaints, the Taiwan government seems to lack the proper conviction, patience and sincerity to look at the deeper and longer-term causes of problems.


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