Taiwan's Dilemma in Governance
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
August 31, 2011
Summary: Seoul, South Korea, recently held a public referendum. The issue was whether to provide free lunches to all elementary, junior high, and senior high students. But the voter turnout was too low. The numbers were below the required legal threshold. Therefore the referendum was declared null and void. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wanted to exclude students from wealthy families from the free lunch programs. He swore that if the referendum failed to pass, he would resign as mayor. The failed referendum was tantamount to a vote of no confidence in his administration. Will he carry out his threat by actually resigning? The question has provoked considerable concern and debate In South Korea.
Full Text below:
Seoul, South Korea, recently held a public referendum. The issue was whether to provide free lunches to all elementary, junior high, and senior high students. But the voter turnout was too low. The numbers were below the required legal threshold. Therefore the referendum was declared null and void. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wanted to exclude students from wealthy families from the free lunch programs. He swore that if the referendum failed to pass, he would resign as mayor. The failed referendum was tantamount to a vote of no confidence in his administration. Will he carry out his threat by actually resigning? The question has provoked considerable concern and debate In South Korea.
According to the foreign press, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon's political achievements are remarkable. He is highly popular. He was seen as a possible contender in next year's presidential election. He was seen as a successor to the highly popular Lee Myung Bak. According to reports, he demanded a public referendum to exclude students from wealthy families from the free lunch programs. The public however, was unmoved. As a result, he found himself in a dilemma.
Imagine this happening on Taiwan. Matters would have been completely different. Initially the Seoul City Council wanted to include students from wealthy families in the free lunch programs. Had the same situation occurred on Taiwan, the ruling administration would have considered the matter briefly, then increased spending. It would have ignored fairness and justice. At most it would have issued a few talking points, weighing some of the pros and cons. But as soon as the City Council reached a decision, the mayor would most likely go along to get along. The mayor would be unlikely to demand a public referendum. In the event a referendum was held, he would be unlikely to bet his future on the outcome. He would avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Officials on Taiwan are afraid to take responsible for their policies. They refuse to do so. Suppose opposition city council members advocated making students from wealthy families eligible for the free lunch programs? The ruling administration would immediately jump on the populist bandwagon. It would try to prevent the opposition from claiming all the credit. It might even engage in a bidding war with the opposition. Every time a general election rolls around, the ruling and opposition parties on Taiwan try to outbid each other. Subsidies for elderly farmers are a perfect example. Ruling and opposition politicians on Taiwan watched as Oh Se-hoon openly advocated excluding students from wealthy families from the free lunch programs. He even demanded a public referendum, and put his political future on the line. They must have assumed he was foolish beyond belief, or harbored suicidal tendencies.
Consider another political entity -- Singapore. Singapore recently held its first presidential election in 18 years, Political veteran Tony Tan Keng Yam ran on the ruling People's Action Party ticket. He was widely considered a shoo-in, Who knew a recount would be required? In the end he won, but only by a narrow 0.34% margin. Ever since Singapore's founding and independence, the People's Action Party's political record has been outstanding. During past general elections, it invariably won a clear majority in parliament. Singapore has yet to undergo a ruling party change. By virtue of its brilliant record of accomplishments, the ruling PAP has maintained a firm grip on power. But during this May's parliamentary elections, the People's Action Party's share of the vote fell below 60%. Singaporean citizens are experiencing a change of heart. The president may be merely a figurehead. But Tony Tan was the ruling party's candidate. He held important government positions. He is a former Deputy Prime Minister. Yet he nearly met his Waterloo. Singaporean citizens want change. The pressure for change has been building for some time.
Over the years, Singapore has weathered all manner of international crises. It has survived. It has flourished. It has won international acclaim. It has even become a model emulated by both sides of the Taiwan Strait. But look closer. Behind Singapore's brilliant record, Singaporean citizens feel like sacrificial martyrs. The cost of living and the cost of housing are sky high. In recent years, Singapore has vigorously recruited high-end international talent. This has created a brain drain from Taiwan. Taiwan has been dwarfed, unable to compete. But these immigrants from Taiwan have taken jobs from Singaporeans. The resentment was palpable during the recent election.
Singapore's manner of governance is highly patriarchal. Its policies and its governance are closely scrutinized. Japanese-American scholar Frances Fukuyama is the author of "The End of History." Recently he delivered a speech on Taiwan. He said that democratic development in East Asia lacks the rule of law and societal constraints on governmental power. Nevertheless policies have been implemented with rapidity. By contrast, societal constraints on governmental power in Europe and the United States are excessive. This is detrimental to the implementation of policy, and undermines government efficiency.
Fukuyama considers both the Chinese mainland and Singapore performance-oriented governments. But they lack societal constraints on governmental power. Governmental complacency on the Chinese mainland has led to deep rooted problems. These problems, such as problems with the high-speed rail system, have surfaced one by one. Societal constraints on governmental power have gradually surfaced in Singapore. Two general elections have revealed grievances underlying the government's brilliant record. What about on Taiwan? The government on Taiwan is not as efficient as the government on the Chinese mainland or the government on Singapore. Political appointees on Taiwan take less political responsibility for their policies than their counterparts in South Korea. In his speech, Professor Fukuyama said some democratic nations hold free and democratic elections. But their elected officials ignore the interests of the people. Instead, they cause problems. Was he talking about the government on Taiwan? Is Taiwan so wanting that all we can take pride in is our free elections?