Thu, Aug 03, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Time for a `first family law'

The recent accusations of wrongdoing targeted at President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) family and all the associated media noise have generated calls for a series of laws designed to moderate the conduct of the first family.

First families attract media attention the world over. In Western countries and elsewhere, media interest is always high.

But only in Taiwan -- which has few legal guidelines for where the first family starts and stops, or even what constitutes the "home" of the president -- does discussion of the first family go beyond harmless gossip. Here it degenerates into political turmoil and casts doubt on the integrity of the highest office in the land.

The very notion of having a "first family" is quite new to Taiwan, which had its first real experience of democracy -- and with it, concern for the family and connection of the country's leaders -- in 1996 with the first direct presidential election.

Until then, there was no such thing as a first family, as we typically understand it in a democracy. Soong May-ling (宋美齡) -- also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) after her dictator husband -- was dubbed by the press the "forever first lady," and even when Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) came to power in 1976, his Russian wife Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良) had to tell others not to address her as the first lady.

Taiwan is a young democracy and is still in the process of developing the network of laws and customs that are typical of democratic governance.

One step in this direction might be to draft a "first family law" that gives some guidance on what the first family should or shouldn't do, and what can be expected of various members -- with the ultimate goal of protecting the integrity of the office of the president.

The latest issue in the anti-Chen campaign was the allegedly improper use of taxpayers' money to pay for domestic help for the family of Chen's daughter, Chen Hsing-yu (陳幸妤). The housekeeper was legally hired by the president and was included on the Presidential Office's payroll, though the location of her work was a house owned by Chen where his daughter and her husband, Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘), currently reside.

The housekeeper resigned late on Tuesday night, however, bowing to public criticism. Soon after, the Presidential Office said that in future, Chen would pay her out of his own pocket, and that his daughter would reimburse the Presidential Office for all money paid to the housekeeper since October 2001 when Chen Hsing-yu moved into the residence.

This entire matter could have been avoided if correct protocol had been spelled out in the first place.

Time and money would also have been saved if another gray area had been clarified. The Presidential Office's Department of Public Affairs expended considerable effort a while ago on behalf of the president's son-in-law over his alleged involvement in an insider trading scandal.

A law governing the first family could also do away with the number of people who claim to speak on behalf of the first family -- channeling all public statements through one person.

All events, good and bad, provide lessons that we can build on. The first family's recent troubles offer an opportunity to build a better legal framework governing their conduct.

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