Ma Ying-jeou, Lost in Tradition

Shortly before the beginning of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou‘s second term in office, his support and satisfaction rates are at new historical lows, between 15 to 22 per cent. More than 60 per cent of the public have no confidence in Ma’s coming four years of administration, reports Singapore’s Morning News (Lianhe Zaobao).

“These opinion polls aren’t like anything during the past four years”, Zaobao quotes the head of Taiwan National University’s Department of Political Science, Wang Yeh-lih (王業立). “Ma Ying-jeou’s biggest problem is that the decision-making circles are too small, that communication between the government and the [KMT] party is poor, and that the relapse in public opinion was underestimated.”

During the past three months since his re-election, efforts to resolve an ongoing beef-imports dispute with the U.S., oil and electricity price hikes and stock exchange taxes, hadn’t been able to please either farmers, nor workers, nor business people, and had left people boiling with resentment (民怨沸腾), writes Zaobao. Hikes in oil and electricity prices had added to living costs, in terms of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and all kinds of basic necessities, and stealth price increases in all kinds of products.

Ma Ying-jeou’s traditionally wooden communication skills haven’t been helpful during the recent wave of resentment. The Taipei Times people, of course, loves his exchanges with normal people, but not for the reasons Ma thinks they should:

On May 4, during a visit by the president to National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, a student told Ma in reference to a recent increase in retail prices that he does not feel full now after eating one biandang, or lunchbox. The student said typical lunchboxes these days tend to contain less vegetables even though their prices have remained the same. In response, Ma asked: “You don’t feel full? So now you need to eat one more biandang? Or do you endure being hungry?”

To make things worse, the discussion became distorted in that Ma was later quoted as saying that “Just eat another biandang and you’ll be full” (再吃一个便当就饱了), writes Zaobao.

Ma’s idea of a presidency is traditional – he certainly wants to be seen as a leader who understands what is going on in peoples’ daily lives, but his benchmark – former president Chiang Ching-kuo, who certainly was progressive at his times – when compared to his father Chiang Kai-shek -, is outdated. And each of Ma’s attempts to look like a leader of historic scale is happily ridiculed, whenever opportunites arise. They seem to arise often.

From the early 1980s on, Ma had worked for Chiang Ching-kuo, in several functions. In an interview which was part of a Chiang Ching-kuo documentary, Ma remembered one of Chiang’s last public appearances. Chiang was wheelchair-bound by then, he attended a Constitution Commemorative Conference in 1987, and as he was scurried off the stage, probably to spare him the spectacle that accompanied his exit, civil-rights advocates and democracy activists were standing – but not out of respect. They shouted, and waved posters with their demands. It appeared to be an unpleasant scene indeed – and next in the documentary’s picture was modern-day Ma, worry lines and disgust in his face, telling how ungrateful the activists had been:

It was as if [Chiang] was saying, “I have made all these efforts to promote Taiwan’s democratic reforms. How can they do this to me?”*)

But to compare Chiang Ching-kuo and Ma would be unjustified for a number of reasons. On the one hand, Ma has never been something like a secret-police director. But on the other, he doesn’t have Chiang’s merits either. What are Ma’s achievements? What should people reciprocate for? Or, in the words in which he reportedly complained to his sister, after getting a lot of stick for his administration’s management after the Morakot typhoon: “good people weren’t rewarded” (好人沒好報).

Nanfang Shuo (南方朔), a moderate critic of Ma Ying-jeou, believes that much of the public’s unease stems from an awareness that Ma is free from pressure as he faces no further elections. Reforms and decisions could therefore be taken arbitrarily (or autocratically – 独断独行).

In fact, even if one only follows Ma Ying-jeou’s presidential fortunes loosely (as JR does), it is easy to see that Ma is rarely in tune with the public in general, or even in individual chats. During the presidential election campaign, his opponent Tsai Ing-wen (herself not necessarily a folksy type of politician either), came across as fairly presidential (an observation by Nanfang Shuo in October last year), and to beat Ma in terms of communication skills was hardly a daunting challenge either.

All the same, Ma was re-elected – and the public now seems to complain that they got exactly the president they had gotten to know during his first term.

It’s not all the president’s fault. Certainly not in a democracy, where people have choices.



*) I can’t find the documentary online, but I seem to remember that Ma basically used the same words to describe his impressions there, as in this quote.


» The Lame leading the Blind, June 3, 2011
» No Shanzhai Chiang, May 20, 2009

3 Responses to “Ma Ying-jeou, Lost in Tradition”

  1. They must’ve really been scared of Tsai Ing-wen then, which I have to admit I don’t really understand.



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