On Wednesday, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) indicated that before any ministry or department issued any major decision in response to the current SARS epidemic, thorough discussions and considerations must be made. Bluntly put -- think before you talk.
Unfortunately, way too little thinking is being done these days before announcements are often impulsively made, creating the need to hastily modify or retract altogether the announcement just made.
The most glaring example is the controversy surrounding the Ministry of Education's (MOE) decision to change the test format of the upcoming joint college-entrance examination. The process through which the ministry finally made up its mind is like a winding uphill road with many twists and turns.
On May 22, Minister of Education Huang Jong-tsun (黃榮村) abruptly announced that, to prevent the further spread of SARS, all the test questions would be in multiple-choice format. Just the next day, Huang changed his mind and declared that the essay format would still be used for two test subjects -- Chinese, and English. Reportedly, the change came after a phone call from Premier Yu Shyi-kun. Even as of Wednesday morning, Huang was still saying that if there was going to be further changes, the Joint College-Examination Center would make the announcement before 5pm today.
It isn't that the MOE cannot or should not make the change. But it has to think over carefully and weigh all the upsides and downsides first. If indeed there was a need for the change, then it must stand by its decision, rather than caving in to public pressure. The ministry usually announces the scope of the test in the previous fall, so by May and June students will have already intensively prepared and studied for the examination -- in the format announced -- for at least six months. Any change in the test format is therefore likely to impact their performance. Under the circumstances, protests were entirely foreseeable.
Moreover, as the public watches the drama of the on-again and off-again change to the test format, they must wonder by whom and how is any decision reached regarding the examination? Was it the MOE? If so, then how was it possible for the premier to overturn the decision with a single phone call? Huang claimed the Joint College Enrollment Committee was the one calling the shots. But how believable is that claim? No one person should be able to call the shots with any government decisions. There should be a legally established decision-making mechanism participated in by individuals or government bodies with legally delegated authority to do so. While the operation of the mechanism should by all means be transparent, so as to enable media and public supervision and monitoring, once a decision is thereby made, it should also be final. Any public feedback or opinion should only be considered within the framework of the mechanism.
Finally, it is also very frustrating to see measures announced in such a piecemeal fashion. On Wednesday, the MOE also indicated that if, by June 1, more than 1 percent of the test-takers were under quarantine, then the examination would be postponed. The new test date will be announced by June 20. This adds an even greater element of uncertainty to this year's college-entrance examination. Had the MOE announced all the various measures together in a coherent fashion, the public panic and resentment could have been significantly reduced.