After coming under considerable criticism, the Ministry of Education on Tuesday decided to cut NT$240 million (US$7.3 million) from its NT$1.2 billion “Taiwan Has Taste” campaign that aims to cultivate good moral character and an appreciation of art.
The Ministry of Education may have good intentions but the question is: Can morals and taste be cultivated by spending money?
Judging by the NT$800,000 in taxpayer dollars spent by the ministry on the campaign’s launch alone, odds are that the campaign will turn out to be nothing more than a slogan, an image-builder for the government among conservatives and an open-ended stage for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to lecture on virtue.
Ma promised that “the campaign will become a new life movement ... that prizes moral values, quality of work and fine taste.”
Ma told the audience at the campaign launch that his guiding principle since childhood had been to “engage people with sincerity, and work with devotion and diligence (誠以待人，敬以治事).”
He said the motto embodied the goals of the “Taiwan Has Taste” campaign and expressed the hope that everyone would incorporate the spirit of the saying in all aspects of their daily lives.
It is ironic to hear the president preach on sincerity given that he hasn’t exactly been leading by example.
Back in 1998, Ma said numerous times that he would not run for Taipei mayor, only to backtrack and run — not once, but twice — as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate.
This month, Ma — true to form — announced his bid to run for the KMT chairmanship, despite a pledge made last year that he would not run for the position if he were elected president.
Thus, a president with a rather unimpressive record of commitment to public pronouncements is now asking the public to buy into the government’s virtue-packed “Taiwan Has Taste” campaign.
If Ma, as head of state, were to start leading his government officials by example by exercising honesty, genuineness and compassion, their daily conduct might exert a much greater influence on members of the public through earning their respect and trust, and best of all, not a dime would need to be spent.
That way, the planned NT$960 million to be allocated by the Ministry of the Education could be better spent elsewhere, for example, on students who can’t afford the lunch meal program; on people who are unable to pay their health insurance; or on creating programs that better serve the needs of the nation’s growing number of unemployed.
What a shame that the president doesn’t seem to understand that Taiwanese know full well what “good character” means, both literally (in real life) and in the cynical sense employed in this campaign — and do not need to be told how to behave.
A good number of Taiwanese will also conclude that Ma’s campaign is inspired by the New Life Movement launched by the Nationalist government in pre-World War II China, whose chief advocate was Soong Mayling (宋美齡) herself (presumably husband Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) was too busy exterminating foes to be bothered with a war against spitting).
In “virtue” and “character,” as in so many other things, Ma is living in a world long gone, oblivious to the patronizing tone of his language and nostalgia.