I am a foreigner and this is my 15th visit to Taiwan since 1996. Since my first visit I have witnessed a number of developments -- everything from a booming economy during the 1990s to a growing state of malaise and insecurity in recent years. As I reflect on what I have seen and what I hear from locals, I offer these insights.
The first is that there is both huge and growing hostility towards the current government because of its preoccupation with the China question and with silly backroom politics. There is an underlying assumption that things will return to the way they were without acknowledging that the bulk of Taiwan's financial elite is supporting the economy through their manufacturing-based business operations in China and through various forms of triangular trade with that country.
Second, while there is grandiose talk by the government that the future of Taiwan hinges on the development of information technology, everything that it is doing in the field of education runs counter to this objective.
Taiwan's previous success was based, for the most part, on replicating and refining technological innovations that originated from places like Silicon Valley. A rote-based education system, augmented by rote-based cram schools, produced graduates who were good at imitating and made for employees who could readily populate a manufacturing-based economy.
However, most of Taiwan's manufacturing base has moved to China, and if the government really expects to develop an economy that is information-based, class sizes need to be reduced in elementary and high schools. Proper English programs which focus on writing, reading and speaking need to be developed, and a focus away from rote-based leaning towards critical and lateral thinking must become the priority.
Students are still micro-managed by an oppressive education system that stifles their willingness and ability to take risks and to create -- fundamental prerequisites for engendering an information-based economy. The focus should not be on filling pails, but lighting fires.
Third, Taiwan seems to think that the future must depend on some sort of relationship with China, and yet there are aspects to Taiwan's infrastructure that lend themselves to developing a unique economy.
For example, Taiwan has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. At the same time, there is a worldwide boom in elective and cosmetic surgery, as evidenced by the numbers who flock to places like Mexico and Thailand. The difference, however, is that Taiwan could offer these services within a more regulated environment. The corresponding spin-off in tourism would also provide an injection of new types of products and services that would stimulate the economy independent of what is happening in China.
Finally, Taiwan must invest more resources promoting itself to the English-speaking market. The use of grammatically correct English in government publications sends the message that Taiwan is professional and capable of being a world player.
However, as I scan through the Traveling and Business Guide of Taiwan, a major business and tourism directory distributed to hotels islandwide, I can't help but notice poorly edited letters of welcome from the Taiwan Visitors Association and China Trust Hotels, as well as advertisements plagued with grammatical errors and mumbo jumbo.