After being on the receiving end of criticism in Taiwan and in the international press for more than a week, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) called press conferences for domestic and international media on Tuesday. But they were a disappointment.
Ma said that the process of relocating victims of Typhoon Morakot and rebuilding communities would be long but that he would not shirk his responsibilities. He also said he would show the public that he could do the job, and asked that the public wait before passing judgment.
Reading between the lines, what Ma said was that he would be the judge of what constitutes good performance — disregarding criticism from across political lines and a CNN Internet poll that suggested a commanding majority of voters want him to step down.
Soon after he took office, Ma’s three-pronged election promise of 6 percent economic growth, 3 percent unemployment and US$30,000 per capita income collapsed. He then tried to extend its date of delivery until the end of a second term. It is easy to imagine that he will take the same approach if post-disaster relocation and reconstruction falter.
Ma seems to follow a line of thinking different from that of most people: When he fails, he doesn’t seek to understand where the fault lies; instead, he demands that voters give him another term and “wait to pass judgment at that time.” Keeping the public in suspense in redeeming promises doesn’t make for clever politics. If, “at that time” — the end of a second term — he still hasn’t delivered, what can voters do? He will have completed his constitutionally permitted time in office and can step down with a fat pension and no accountability.
Ma’s most substantive contribution at Tuesday’s press conferences was the announcement of the creation of a national disaster prevention and rescue agency to replace the National Fire Agency and the establishment of disaster prevention and rescue bureaus at the local level. Disregarding the legislative work that this will involve, the creation of this agency is speculative and does nothing to alleviate the present situation.
Even if such an agency were established, it would still fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, as does the current National Fire Agency, and so the question remains whether the efficiency of disaster work would be improved by boosting the bureaucracy and spending a bigger chunk of the budget.
Much of this is therefore a distraction. Ma and his government — after missing a golden opportunity to handle the disaster relief effort with competence and gain the confidence of the electorate — seem to have no idea how to deal with dilemmas here and now.
Ma’s obstinate approach to problems in the real world, his refusal to issue an emergency decree and his almost superstitious belief that no command system exists to support disaster prevention and rescue meant that the military has been effectively reduced to cleaning up after the fact.
Would the death toll have been as high if Ma had announced a state of emergency and personally directed the rescue effort in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces?
The answer to this question may be contentious, but what is certain is that Ma spent an inordinate amount of time blaming the death and destruction on the volume of rain, meteorologists, blocked roads, tardy residents who did not evacuate in time and local governments in general. His self-declared approach of listening to the public and helping to solve their problems turned into ignoring the public and complaining about his own problems.
One foreign reporter asked Ma at the international press conference if his leadership was strong enough. With the nation’s future in his hands, and with a possible economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China on the horizon — which Ma says must be implemented, the sooner the better — there is every reason to be nervous about Taiwan’s future.
Ma’s insensitivity to the general public is a good reflection of what the first lady once said when describing him: “He is never very considerate toward the people around him or family members, and he never shows much concern or care for others.”
Not offending China and advancing unification is, however, always on his mind. When asked by a foreign reporter on Tuesday if China had influenced his decision to refuse foreign aid, Ma didn’t immediately reply.
Moreover, the UN General Assembly meets on Sept. 15, but the government has not asked its allies to submit an application for Taiwan’s admission to the organization and the deadline for this has passed.
Taiwan has struggled for more than 10 years to gain admission to the UN, but now Ma has abandoned the effort. What words can politely describe how the international community will interpret this symbolically poignant act of omission?
It is worth noting that Ma’s decision to abandon the UN bid would have been made prior to Typhoon Morakot, a decision very different in character to that which suspended National Day celebrations in light of the relief effort.
Some in the disaster area might still have had hopes and good expectations of Ma, but his pieces of hollow political theater on Tuesday are certain to turn disappointment into despair. Judging from the press conferences, Ma and his government are at their wit’s end, although the government remains the most important factor in post-disaster reconstruction, a process that will require huge commitments of manpower and resources.
The public must mobilize to monitor government reconstruction efforts to help relieve the suffering of residents in the disaster zone and to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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