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Ma's timid arrogance at the root of Taiwan's discontent

Publication Date : 26-03-2014


Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's latest performance in reacting to the student protests represents the continuation of his unfortunate habit of souring the most well-intended initiatives with his demeanour of timid arrogance, inciting the ire of the populace while hampering Taiwan's progress.

With the applause of industry leaders and organisations, Ma's agenda of promoting closer ties with China is clearly backed by the people, as seen in his two overwhelming presidential election victories. Meanwhile, few but the most fringe opinions would support the notion that former president Chen Sui-bian's policies of protectionism and isolation represents a viable path toward Taiwan's prosperity.

Yet under Ma's leadership the methods employed by the ruling party to gain legislative approval for the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement managed to ignite the largest outbreak of student protests in Taiwan's history. The situation quickly deteriorated following responses issued first by Premier Jiang Yi-hua last Saturday and then by the president on Sunday, resulting in the need to resort to heavy-handed law enforcement intervention.

In addition to the injuries suffered by those on site, the TAIEX lost 154 points over the course of last week, causing share losses of NT$533.7 billion (US$17.5 billion), amid concerns of delayed prosperity through cross-strait collaborations when it is most direly needed following 15 years of suppressed growth in wages and soaring goods prices.

Some examples of Ma's timid arrogance include last year's “September strife,” where Ma's pursuit of justice against illegal lobbying resulted in the conviction of Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming, while the target of the investigation — opposition party caucus whip Ker Chien-ming—stands unscathed and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng retains his position as perhaps Taiwan's most respected elder statesmen and arbitrator of disputes.

In that instance, Ma's mission was noble, yet the methods employed were lacking in the planning of contingencies. A miscalculation of the public's response followed by Ma's inability to comprehend the potential outcomes often turned the narrative against him.

Throughout his career as a political leader, Ma has exhibited a timid arrogance and penchant for secrecy and close cliques, which may have contributed to the escalation of recent developments. Ma's refusal to address the appeals of protesters through dialogue may have been the final straw that compelled students to storm the Executive Yuan. The students may feel that there are simply no possible alternatives, and that perceived extreme incompetence must be met with extreme action.

In the past Taiwan has witnessed on numerous occasions Ma buckling under the pressures of overwhelming social outcry. In 2010, Ma's anti-death penalty stance was reversed following public outcry over the stay of execution on a number of criminals issued by then-Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng, with 21 inmates executed in short order. The replacement Justice Minister then resigned in September of last year following the aftermath of the “September strife.” In 2012 former Finance Minister Christina Liu resigned following her refusal to carry out the ruling party's watered-downed version of the capital gains tax to fulfill Ma's vision of tax justice. In all these instances Ma's initial stance of firm resolve quickly buckled, ending with resignations and no tangible change achieved.

Contrary to the resolve of the protesters, during his youth Ma was known as a “professional student” of the ruling party, tasked with providing information on ongoing anti-government student movements. Meanwhile, the Kuomintang Youth League remains as equally mum as their party leader on the current conflict, a squandered opportunity for an exchange of opinions and debate.

In light of recent developments one cannot help but wonder which of Ma's allies will face resignation, and whether the trade pact may garner the desired economic prosperity. The lack of even Ma's usual canned “thanks for your input”, however, may be indicative of a new level of dogged resolve in fulfilling certain agreed-upon terms across the strait.


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