The recent uproar over offensive comments posted online by former official Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英) has sparked a lot of discussion about ethnic prejudice, with many people suggesting that Taiwan needs an ethnic equality law. However, it is doubtful whether the ideal of ethnic equality could be effectively brought about through such legislation.
The notion of ethnic equality touches upon almost every aspect of life. While it is an ideal worth striving for, it is hard to define in legal terms. For example, the concept of ethnic equality ought to include economic equality. Should we then take wealth from better-off ethnic groups to subsidize those that are, on average, not so well off?
I think the ideal of ethnic equality would be more effectively put into practice through other laws that are more concrete and easier to implement, although long-term education is also necessary. The most important feature of such a body of legislation would be a language equality law.
Generally speaking, language is the most important basis for an ethnic group’s existence and for its cultural and social survival. Communities identify themselves by their languages and take pride in them.
These days, elementary schools provide mother-tongue classes. Multilingual announcements can be heard on public transportation. There are radio and television programs and Web sites in languages other than Mandarin and these other languages are spoken in councils and the legislature.
These may lead some people to ask if this means that Taiwan now has freedom of expression for other languages. Of course not. All the examples mentioned above only show that the government has stopped enforcing Mandarin and suppressing other tongues.
We are still a long way from seeing equal respect accorded to Taiwan’s languages. The most important point of a language equality law would be to give all the nation’s tongues equal official status — in the Constitution, at all levels of government and at all official occasions.
From the perspective of users of the different languages, the advantage would be that someone who is most at home speaking Rukai, for example, would, in Rukai-speaking areas, be able to make official inquiries in Rukai, and the government department in question would be obliged to find someone who understands Rukai to deal with the matter.
This would make knowledge of Rukai an advantage in the workplace, so more people would want to learn it. Then the Rukai language and Rukai culture would be enriched and passed on to younger generations.
When all community languages are respected by the state and can be used on all kinds of formal and important occasions, then speakers of all languages will be able to speak out in their own tongues with dignity and assurance.
Only then will linguistic prejudice between different communities gradually disappear — and that means non-Aborigines’ prejudice against Aborigines as well as the tendency for fluent Mandarin speakers to look down on those who are not.
Chi Chun-chieh is an associate professor at the Institute of Ethnic Relations at National Dong Hwa University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG