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President Ma's leadership crisis
Publication Date : 10-08-2013
All of a sudden, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's “Golden Decade” has changed colour. It has turned dark half way through the promised decade which is bound to go down in history as Taiwan's Lost Decade on the heels of the Lost Generation presided over by his two predecessors. In a month or so, the shining political star known as “Mr. Clean” for his admirable integrity, has become public enemy No. 1, looking like “a rat scurrying across the street,” as described by a Chinese metaphor.
Last Saturday, 250,000 protesters, all wearing white shirts, staged a silent sit-in in front of the Presidential Office to demand “truth” about the death of Army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, who the military say died of “heat stroke” in early July while under detention for misconduct.
But Hong's family members refused to accept the official allegation, demanding a “third party” investigation to find out the true cause of Hung's death, which they suspected of foul play.
The massive rally in Taipei on the eve of Hung's funeral turned several city blocks into a sea of white shirts. It evoked the images of Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011 and the red-shirt protesters' rally in Taipei in 2006. Such large-scale protests were a shot across the bow to the rulers who had failed their people. Massive protests often result in regime change.
You need look no further than Hosni Mubarak and Chen Shui-bian to see the power of disgruntled people. You may wonder how the death of an army sergeant could have sent 250,000 people to the streets?
Trayvon Martin's tragic death and the not-guilty verdict of his killer George Zimmerman didn't trigger a political storm in the United States. President Obama didn't bow and apologise to the Martin's parents, like Ma Ying-jeou did, except saying on television “it could have been me 35 years ago.”
These words touched the hearts of the victim's family and millions of Americans. That's leadership, decent and dignified. That's something President Ma Ying-jeou lacks. Our president did tell Hung's father that “the dead shall not have died in vain” in a sentence that channelled Lincoln but sounded hollow.
Last week's protesters took the streets to vent their pent-up anger over Ma's lack of leadership over the years, not prompted by a single incident. Starting from the Morakot typhoon disaster in 2009, President Ma has rarely done anything right when confronted with crises, many of which were self-made. We can still remember that during the 2008 presidential election, then ruling party candidate Frank Hsieh “praised” his rival Ma Ying-jeou for his uncanny ability to “create crises” for himself when there was none. Hsieh's observation was both prescient and incisive.
Hung Chung-chiu's death is a case in point. It is crisis of Ma's own making. As commander-in-chief of the ROC armed forces, he seemed not in command at all. He is out of touch with the commanders. He complained that the army conferred a “Loyalty Citation” on Hung, without his knowledge, as a posthumous honour appease the bereft family, which spurned the honour as garbage. When Hung's uncle Hu Shi-ho, a familiar face and spokesman for the Hung family, made grievances to the President on national television, Ma asked: “who are you?” The question left many flabbergasted.
Yet President Ma has made history by replacing two defence ministers in six days, with an efficiency that defies the unflattering label of “incompetence”.
This kind of uncanny efficiency is also manifest in his effort to revise the Military Trial Law in deference to Hung family's demand so that the case could be retried in a civilian court. Such hasty and slapdash decisions have dismayed many conscientious military veterans including General Hau Po-tsun, former defence minister and premier, who worries about the demoralisation of the military as a result of Ma's spur-of-the-moment damage control measures. But a gnawing question remains: Is the crisis over? Perhaps not if the president does not change his leadership style. He once wondered aloud why his approval rating was so low, even lower than that of his predecessor behind bars.
He felt sad that people did not appreciate his achievements in improving cross-strait relations. In fact, however, the people have been fair to him by rewarding him with a second term. His plunging popularity was caused by his inability to lead and inspire.
Ma can rest assured that future historians will not forget the achievements he made in cross-strait detente, including the historic santong (direct transport links) and the milestone ECFA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement).
On the other hand, his missteps in governance that have cheapened the Office of the President as evidenced in the Hung episode won't escape the historians' critical judgement, either.
There is no denying that the president is a nice guy, a hard-worker, and an eminent scholar to boot.
Unfortunately, these qualities are barely enough to be a good president. The outspoken Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shiuan has said bluntly that President Ma is “incompetent” and his presidency will be remembered by future generations for its “incompetence”.
Unfair? Perhaps. But not if you look at the 250,000 protesters who gathered at Ma's doorstep last Saturday to demand truth. They had an implicit but glaring message: Enough is enough. You have messed up the government.
President Ma had better to heed. He can't take his supporters for granted.