In his State of the Union address last week, US President Barack Obama called for a “Sputnik moment” to keep the US globally competitive through investment in education and science. He called on Republicans and Democrats to work together to create new jobs and share the responsibility of governing. If the parties can work together, he said, the 21st century will be remembered as another American century.
As rallying cries go, Obama’s “Sputnik moment” has many virtues. Chief among them is that it invokes a time in US history in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union’s success in putting a satellite into space before them spurred Americans to rise above divided domestic politics to address an outside threat that was not just military, but economic, technological and political. The military threat has waned but the others have grown, challenging US prosperity, and these, Obama suggested, can only be vanquished through the same unity and determination prompted by the Sputnik launch.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is also fond of inspirational slogans, although his are very different. In his debate with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) last year, Ma used the term “Golden Decade” to refer to Taiwan’s prospects for the near future. At the heart of Ma’s dream are plans to make Taiwan a global innovation center, regional trade hub, operational headquarters for Taiwanese trade and regional headquarters for foreign companies. No mere pipedream, the “Golden Decade” was given to the Council for Economic Planning and Development to realize, with details due by the end of last year and a launch scheduled for the start of this year. So far neither has materialized.
Clearly, Ma faces none of the immediate problems Obama does in the US: budget deficits, high unemployment, unpopular wars, widening social inequity and government institutions that seem increasingly unable to address the problems before them.
Who can blame Ma for emphasizing the positive, notably his administration’s success in managing the global economic downturn and in improving relations with China?
As worrying as Ma’s inflated, and some might say unrealistic, promises is the want of urgency in his metaphor. Compared with Obama’s call to arms, charging Americans to do again what they have always done best — build, innovate and compete — a “Golden Decade” is meaningless to Taiwanese whose jobs have moved abroad and who, like many Americans, see little “gold” in their futures.
It may be that nonsense like a “Golden Decade” is intended to be just that, meaningless, and along with the glitter of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in June, a distraction from problems that are urgent, but for which Ma has no stomach at the moment.
What are the political implications of the ECFA? What is the current deterrent capability of the armed forces? What is causing the widening gap between rich and poor? Why are fewer Taiwanese choosing to marry and have children?
To deal with such problems, Taiwan needs the unity and determination of a “Sputnik moment.” Where will one come from? Surely not from the self-serving promises of a “Golden Decade.” Nor, sadly, will it come from the political establishment, opposition or a press obsessed with Chinese philanthropists splashing their cash or the latest US beef scandal.
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