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Taiwan must regain past glory

Publication Date : 28-06-2012


There is no denying that Taiwan has hit the skits and is in a bind. You don't have to look any further than the “Occupy Legislative Yuan” pandemonium at the nation's highest legislature, where the commando-like opposition lawmakers seized the podium and camped there with sleeping bags for five days and four nights to block the deliberation and passage of a bill that would allow the importation of US beef containing a growth-enhancing drug called ractopamine.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has vowed to fight against the invading “poisonous beef” with their lives, and they won.

But not without a price. The taxpayers and the nation at large are losers, because what is at stake is an important issue concerning Taiwan's economic survival — the resumption of negotiations with the United States on a trade and investment framework accord known as TIFA. Trade and investment, after all, is Taiwan's lifeline.

The US beef issue is in fact a non-issue as anyone with a bit of horse sense can see. If President Obama and his people have the audacity to swallow “poison” everyday, it may not be that dangerous. It is all but politics, and it is a macrocosm of the woes that have plagued Taiwan and depleted its energy and vitality for two decades. The ideological confrontation and internecine fight between the two major political parties — the ruling pro-status-quo Kuomintang (KMT) and pro-independence DPP — have always been fierce and unrelenting as evidenced in last week's “Occupy Legislative Yuan” spectacle.

But the collateral damage of the battle is the nation's economy, which had stagnated while the island's neighbors were taking off.

South Korea, the poorest of Asia's “four tigers” of emerging economies two decades ago, overtook Taiwan in 2005 in terms of per capita GDP and never looked back. It took Taiwan, which was preoccupied with political infighting, a full 20 years to double its GDP per capita to the current level of US$20,000. In comparison, it took South Korea five years. As for the other two Asian tigers — Hong Kong and Singapore — they have long soared into the ranks of developed economies.

Singapore's hefty $49,270 in 2011 was one notch higher than America's $48,000, which ranked 14th worldwide. Where does Taiwan stand? It trailed South Korea by five spots to cling to a 39th berth. That speaks volumes: Taiwan is a laggard and is likely to remain so for a long time if not for good.

If that sounds unsettling and shocking, it would be more so if you compare Taiwan's economy with China's. In Taiwan's good old days back in 1985, it was the world's 11th largest exporter, compared to China's 17th. In 2009, China dethroned Germany as the world's largest exporter. The following year it replaced Japan to become the world's second largest economy. The Economist weekly predicts that China would leapfrog America as the world's largest economy as early as 2016, and the world's largest importer two years from now.

How come countries like South Korea and mainland China seemed to have emerged from nowhere to become major players on world arena, elbowing Taiwan to the sidelines? Why it took Taiwan 20 years to double its small GDP from $10,000 in 1992 to $20,000 in 2011, while it took China only four years to do so (from 21 trillion yuan in 2006 to 40 trillion yuan, or $6 trillion, in 2010)? It's not short of a miracle to double an economic output so huge in size. The answer, I think, is the difference in policy priorities. In China, it is “economy taking command” while in Taiwan it is “politics first”.

It has never failed to impress me during my first visit to China in 2002 after a hiatus of 54 years that everyone I met, ordinary citizens anywhere, seemed interested only in one topic: GDP. It became an obsession, if not a religion. I was confused, but later I got an epiphany that you've got to be obsessed with anything if you wanted to accomplish something extraordinary. Think about Taiwan's fixation with little league baseball in times of yore, or Steve Jobs love affair with iPhone.

Taiwan's unfolding economic crisis is not lost on President Ma Ying-jeou, who began his second and last term last month. Free from the pressure of reelection, he wanted to leave a footprint in history. In his inaugural address he recited his favourite mantra of creating a “Golden Decade” — a wish list of lofty and high-sounding goals including one to “remake Taiwan” by boosting its international competitiveness with “five major pillars” of policy initiatives. But you can't take presidential inaugural addresses too seriously.

Remember President Ma's much vaunted “6-3-3” pledge four years ago, and Chen Shui-bian's “four nos, one have-not” in 2000? They all fell flat like Humpty Dumpty off the wall.

But Ma Ying-jeou is a man with a mission and he stands at a juncture where great history is in the making. By seizing the moment, he can determine his place in history. He could be a great president, a mediocre president, a feckless president or a goody-two-shoe president depending on his choice and accomplishments. He even has an opportunity, however remote, to win a Nobel Prize if he could secure lasting peace for a quarter of humanity. But that sounds too farfetched given the meek and narcissistic character of our president.

Although having been roundly criticised, often unfairly, by political foes and disenchanted supporters for his cluelessness and wishy-washiness, President Ma has accomplished much more than his two predecessors combined — Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian — for reviving Taiwan's slumping economy to bring peace and prosperity by engaging mainland China with his ambitious “Golden Decade” agenda.

He has four solid years before him to build his legacy and his place in history. He must not squander the historic opportunity before him: to regain Taiwan's past glory as the top dog of Asia's four tigers and to make Taiwan competitive again. But he needs to show leadership — strong leadership with a real “LP” (a slur and metaphor for male potency in Taiwanese, which Lee Teng-hui said Ma lacks ) at the helm of the ship of the state. Don't ever let a mutinous crew “occupy” the steering room again.


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