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Democratic system no excuse for inaction

Publication Date : 09-10-2012


When former Taiwan Vice President Vincent Siew said last week that he has seldom found Taiwanese society so powerless and lost, he cut his old boss some slack by highlighting the challenge of democratic governance. Gone is the autocratic era when decisions were made by a few people and could be quickly implemented; the president now has to build consensus, Siew later pointed out.

Democratic inefficiency has been much talked about after the Great Recession. People were shocked by the ineptitude of the politicians and regulators in the US to prevent the financial meltdown in 2008.

They were disheartened by partisan brinkmanship when politicians used the nuclear option of not raising the US debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. At the same time, many economic pundits and business leaders admired mainland China's no-nonsense, rapidly implemented stimulus policies. While the US is still arguing over the validity of climate change science, China is taking the global lead in green technologies. Many believe the mainland has taken the can-do spirit from the Americans in part because of its centralised autocratic system.

Western businesspeople mindful of their democratic roots might use the corporation analogy and describe how the Chinese government is run like a business. The idea that governance should be more like result-oriented business is having an impact in the US While China-bashing has been a favourite political pastime in the US election season, one of the major arguments of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is essentially that he is better suited to run the US because he has experience running a business.

Siew's argument follows similar logic that the government's economic policies take time to work because of Taiwan's democratic system. Such an argument, however, is only half right.

From the look of it, the frustration of Tsai Yung-yuh, head of the world's biggest bolt-and-screw maker Jinn Her Enterprise, seems to exemplify the challenge of democracies. Tsai, one of 20 mainland-based Taiwanese business owners who signed a NT$37.8 billion (US$1.29 billion) local investment pact with the Ministry of Economic Affairs, pointed out late last month that his NT$10 billion, 100,000 jobs-creating plan to build a logistic centre in Kaohsiung has been stuck in an environmental impact assessment for a year.

Unlike the era of the Ten Major Construction Projects in the 1970s, the president's wish alone cannot push through major projects. Environmental assessments, consensus with local residents and other necessary steps are needed to protect the people's rights and safety. The loss of time, in this sense, is a necessary evil.

Or is it?

What Taiwan is facing now is not a problem of democratic insufficiency but one of democratic deficiency, which means the government has failed to meaningfully fulfill or even understand the people's needs.

People who believe that democracies are innately incapable of dramatic decisions and measures should take a look at South Korea. There, the government helps build local businesses into international conglomerates, and its policies to support the entertainment industry is one of the major reasons K-Pop is now catching on globally. While its model is not without problems, and many in South Korea are now calling for control of the excessively powerful chaebols, the nation does provide a good example of what a determined democratic government can do.

Taiwan is not experiencing the same problem as the US; it is not facing a disabling political divide. The ruling Kuomintang still controls both the executive and legislative branches of government. What is weighing Taiwan down is not consensus-building but bureaucracy.

Major construction plans like that of Jinn Her should be subjected to robust checks and environmental evaluations to protect people's rights, but that does not mean the process cannot be expedited. The central government could establish special task forces comprising independent experts and headed by ministers without portfolio to handle these cases. The goal is not to provide special favours to big businesses, but to cut through the red tape that is stalling much-needed investment at this critical time for the Taiwanese economy.

The Ten Major Construction Projects should not be an authoritarian-era relic. It may take a democratic government more hard work to build consensus and to implement big plans but democratic inefficiency is not an excuse of inaction.

*US$1=29.2 Taiwan dollar


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