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Forget the political mantras, plain speak is what we need

Publication Date : 21-08-2012


The latest forecast by the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics puts Taiwan's GDP growth in 2012 at a stagnant 1.6 per cent, as the impact of the global economic slump compounded by the euro crisis begins to show in Taiwan's export-oriented economy.

Addressing a group of small and medium business owners in Taichung on Saturday, President Ma Ying-jeou acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and called for the expedition of free trade agreement talks.

In a 16-Chinese-character mantra, Ma vowed to sweep away the obstacles toward entering the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (also known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP) within eight years. The TPP is a multilateral free trade area of nations around the Pacific region with major economies such as Australia and the US in talks to join.

Without tariff concessions and other preferential trade terms from deals such as the TPP, Taiwanese exporters will lose their competitive edge to South Korean and Singaporean businesses, Ma said.

The president was once again highlighting the importance of his signature modus vivendi diplomatic policy that focuses on flexibility in handling difficult political issues for maximising free trade opportunities. The government pushed through two controversial policies — the historic cross-strait detente and the easing of the US beef import ban — against substantial domestic objections, in order to enable trade talks with mainland China and the US Taipei signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with Beijing in 2010 and is expected to resume talks on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the US The government is also in free trade agreement talks with Japan and Singapore.

As Taiwan's economy slows down, however, doubts over the government's economic policies, specifically the benefits of the ECFA, are growing. Many are questioning the government's change of tone before and after the ECFA was signed.

The government seems to be in an infinite loop of stressing the dramatic effectiveness and utmost necessity of the one yet-to-be-signed trade agreement with the US Critics see it as the government's scheme to lure and scare the public into accepting the trade-offs of trade deals.

Ma's mantra of “attitude adjustment” apparently anticipated such sentiment. By outlining Taiwan's challenge in international trade, he urges the public to see the big picture and accept the compromises required.
In an apparent effort to address the recent slump, the president is actually using the dire GDP forecast to highlight the urgency of an important but controversial policy. The slowdown is mostly caused by global economic elements Taiwan cannot control and a trade agreement slated for eight years later will not help the economy now. Real governmental measures to cushion the current downturn were announced by Premier Sean Chen, who promised NT$1.8 billion (US$60 million) in infrastructure investment slated for later this year.

While the president has every reason to convey Taiwan's long-term needs to the public, he should communicate the issue in a straight-forward manner that takes the people seriously. Ma's frequent use of Chinese-idiom-like “mantras” to highlight policies may sound sleek to bureaucrats versed in slogan-speak but it is antiquated, alienating and confusing to most people.

The government has also been treating the people as if they are children unable to handle cruel truths, who need to be cajoled by sweet talks or pushed by fear. If a leader should ask his people to bear pain and compromises for the greater good, he should at least ask them with honesty.

Conventional political wisdom regards directness and honesty as amateur mistakes and career-killers, but conventional political wisdom does not true leaders make. In an extraordinary time of great global economic hardship, the people deserve leadership exemplifying extraordinary courage. Taiwan is still waiting for such leadership.


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