Global outlook beneficial
Taiwan’s experience proves what every hip-hop artist knows, or will soon hear from their manager: Being a good boy may yet be the right thing to do, but it doesn’t make you popular. Taiwanese don’t bomb other people’s countries, export dangerous drugs or pursue any WMD that we know of. No, their border-crossing vices hardly seem to exceed some illegal fishing and, ahem, a flexible approach to copyright laws. So how does the international community treat its model citizen? With indifference at best and gradual marginalization at worst.
Taiwan does not cause any international crises, so it is not needed to help solve them. While notorious troublemakers get their weapons delivered gift-wrapped on their doorstep, Taiwan has to plead and beg just so it can buy the Pentium PC of jet fighters for good money. Sort-of joining international organizations is a pain; that’s what being a peaceful and genuine democracy gets you in the real world.
Fortunately, the situation is like this only on an official level, while in trade, tourism and many other fields, Taiwan is doing well for itself. Still, Taiwan’s international situation requires the use of its own initiative and ingenuity just to stay part of the world. Often, it seems to understand this admirably, say, when hosting the flora expo or the World Games.
Sometimes, however, it doesn’t, such as in higher education and English proficiency. In my time here, I have several times come across the attitude that overseas students and post-docs “take the place” of local kids.
A priori a legitimate concern, but at least in my field of the physical sciences, the numbers for the coming years tell a different story — one of enrollment dropping to the point of a severe shortage of candidates, especially at the doctorate level. This slightly parochial outlook also misses the idea that a more international environment could benefit local students as well.
For example, seminars by and for (graduate) students are currently often being held in Chinese to make things easier for them. This might be true for that afternoon, but for the many students who want to go overseas, English skills will soon become part of the almighty Graduate Record Examinations score determining their chances for securing admission and scholarships.
In fact, the source of the language problem lies earlier. It should be — and no doubt is — debated elsewhere about what happens in high school English class, but the empirical outcome is that it’s not very effective. This is shortchanging Taiwan’s youth, for language education cannot really be postponed, as I experience in my own attempts to speak Chinese.
With some reforms, Taiwan could give more regional impact to its increasingly impressive science infrastructure. In my own and related fields, the activity in terms of workshops and graduate schools is nonstop; Taiwan is definitely punching above its weight here.
Yet when I speak to student-age compatriots at our annual national-day party in Taipei, most of them think of Taiwan only as a place to study the Chinese language (nothing wrong with that in itself of course).
An example of an activity to change this perception is the Taiwan International Graduate Program at my own employer, Academia Sinica, but much more could be done along these lines.