The Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC) scandal in which as many as 127 TRTC employees were discovered to have "free-loaded" off their company and all law-abiding MRT passengers should not come as a surprise. What is surprising, however, is the Taipei City Government's mishandling of the incident from the outset.
The scandal is not surprising for several reasons. The first is a continuing lack of understanding of the concept of "rule of law" and respect for "law and order" in the local culture, especially with regard to petty crimes, with two distinguishing characteristics -- widespread prevalence and miniscule monetary losses to the victim or victims.
In terms of the former, the line of reasoning goes as follows: "Everyone is doing it, why can't I?" It is precisely because of this logic that at least 127 TRTC employees were involved in the scam, some of them supervisors, and that each of them felt his or her guilty conscience somewhat eased.
Another good case in point is copyright infringement on university campuses, where students freely photocopy expensive textbooks in foreign languages because everyone else is doing it.
The fact that every time the crime is perpetrated only a small amount of money is stolen from the person holding the copyright also blurs the criminal nature of the conduct. This is the case especially when the losses are spread among a large number of people, such as MRT passengers, or among big conglomerates, such as foreign publishing companies in copyright infringement cases.
Each time petty crimes of this nature are perpetrated, some people will come out and say things such as "These people are young, give them a second chance." That was what happens in the copyright infringement cases, and that is what is happening again in the TRTC scandal. But, there must be a reason that the law sets the age of 18 as the demarcation line to distinguish between adults and juveniles. Isn't it the intention of the law to say that once a person is 18, he or she must be fully and legally responsible for his or her conduct? Otherwise, why not just raise the age limit to 30?
These people may very well have committed crimes such as embezzlement, theft and forgery. These are legal issues that should be left to the prosecutors and courts to address. Yet, it was surprising to learn that, before the media reported on the scandal, the TRTC had intended to take care of the matter internally. Reportedly, it had asked the employees in question to sign a letter promising to decline from similar conduct in the future. Supposedly, that was going to end the matter once and for all. That is of course utterly shocking. Had this happened in any other private company, these people would have long ago received much more severe punishment, or even would have been sacked.
The TRTC is entirely owned by the Taipei City Government, and the chairman and president of the company are civil servants.
Under the circumstances, while it remains to be determined whether, technically speaking, TRTC employees should be considered civil servants (if they are, the 127 in question may face an additional criminal charge of corruption), their conduct should be measured against a higher standard.
However, that is precisely the problem with many civil servants in this country. While in other countries it is demanded of civil servants to adhere to high ethical standards, civil servants here have traditionally been considered a privileged class. While the situation has certainly improved over the past years, much remains to be done. The scandal at the TRTC serves as an opportunity to set a good example.