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Lessons in values and tradition from Taiwan

An "elevator girl" greeting customers at a Shinkong Mitsukoshi department store in Taipei. Even though this particular practice was imported from Japan, Taiwanese service staff are genuinely friendly and helpful. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Publication Date : 15-12-2013


The island's somewhat rocky transition to modern democracy is also salutary


I confess. Before coming to Taiwan more than three years ago to take up this job, I had never set foot on this island.

Why bother, I thought, as it was probably very similar to Singapore - two Chinese-speaking, Chinese-majority societies, observing similar customs. I also thought I "knew" enough about Taiwan through my work at The Straits Times' foreign desk.

That assumption was wrong, of course, as most preconceived notions are. In many ways, the two places could not be more different.

For starters, everything here is rendered in Chinese, and I mean everything - from the colloquial terms for the local coffee shop latte (na tie) and the mug (ma ke bei) it is served in, to the archaic Chinese used in trial verdicts and presidential award citations.

It is more "Chinese", in fact, than mainland China or Hong Kong (the former I visited in 2006 for work; the latter in 2009).

It was all rather confusing at first, for me and the Taiwanese. I look like them, of course, and speak Mandarin with just a faint accent. Most took me for a local and stared when I asked what na tie and ma ke bei were.

At times, I felt compelled to "out" myself as a Singaporean, when I explained my ignorance of terms such as zhen nai (short for bubble milk tea), or asked what zhu xue gao, the local snack of pig's blood rice cake, tasted like.

Gastronomic revelations were only the start. Taiwan is both more traditional and more liberal than I thought - this dichotomy gives rise to its greatest strengths and weaknesses, from its tight-knit society to the political paralysis it often suffers.

A backwater, agricultural society only half a century ago, Taiwan has morphed into a developed, high-tech "silicon island" without losing its reverence for tradition and all the attendant values - filial piety and consideration for others, for instance. Commuters readily give up seats to the elderly and others who need them.

Children are generally well-behaved in public; those who are not are soon told off by their parents. Service staff are genuinely friendly and helpful. Ask a Taiwanese for directions, especially in the more rural south, and chances are, you will be given a detailed run-down of the exact twists and turns, or even walked to your destination in person, as my friends and I were.

Yet, the island has also opened its arms to Western values such as human rights and democracy - part of its transition from authoritarianism to democracy in the 1990s.

Voter turnout, at around 80 per cent, is among the highest in the world. Rights of all kinds, from the consumer's right to demand a refund for online purchases within seven days to the death row convict's right to live, are championed loudly - and sometimes opposed - by various advocacy groups. The island also hosts some of Asia's largest gay parades. A Bill to legalise gay marriage has passed its first reading in Parliament.

For these reasons, many Taiwanese are rightfully proud of their island, despite its lack of international recognition. Indeed, a Taiwanese friend remarked that it is almost like Shangri-La here. That view might be overly rosy, but to me, Singapore does have some lessons to learn from Taiwan.

And vice versa. Singapore is often cited by the Taiwanese, from the average office worker to commentators, as a model of economic management and governance, even if they thumb their noses at the Republic's less liberal climate.

Singapore's high per capita income, strong economic growth and orderly society are sources of envy - especially when compared with Taiwan's now plodding economy and stagnant wages.

How did the erstwhile front runner of the Asian Tigers fall behind its smallest cousin? One might blame the flip side of liberalism.

In government, the parliamentary fisticuffs and histrionics that have made headlines around the world, one might argue, are the least of Taiwan's problems.

Major policies sometimes stay in limbo for years, even decades, stuck in a cycle of parliamentary partisanship (and fisticuffs), public consultations and reformulations. Some end up as done deals that please no one - all in the name of democracy.

Look at the fate of the plans for Taiwan's first casino (proposed almost 30 years ago, it is still a work in progress despite having won conditional parliamentary support in 2009), a fourth nuclear power plant (which is 10 years behind schedule) and, more recently, a services trade deal with China.

As for the media, 62 TV stations and more than 2,000 newspapers have sprouted in the past two decades. The result: a fragmented market, dispersed resources, news reports fixated on the domestic, the sensational and the trivial.

Director Lee Ang, one of Taiwan's most famous exports, sums it all up. "Taiwan has good people and a good environment, but its politics and media are not so good," he said at a college symposium last month, to huge applause.

My greatest takeaway from the past three years is the fuller, clear-eyed appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of my own country that I have gained from working away from home.

I witnessed a dramatic election-eve shooting, interviewed a fellow Singaporean at a local prison, flew in military planes, trailed farmers and postmen, hiked up Taiwan's highest mountains and hunted down the best night market food... I could not have asked for more - though I could have done without the earthquakes and typhoons that hit Taiwan each year.

Then there are the people - some of the friendliest, earthiest folks anywhere. I had not been to Taiwan before coming here as a correspondent. Now, a part of me wishes I did not have to leave.


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