President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) embarked on the gimmicky “home-stay” part of his re-election bid with great fanfare over the weekend by spending one night at a farmer’s house and another at a college dormitory — experiences he said would give him a better understanding of local issues.
The first two stops of the home-stay program, an extension of Ma’s “long stay” visits during the 2008 presidential campaign, marked his 99th and 100th home-stays since 2007. They also ensured he reached the numerically pleasing total of staying at 100 homes during the Republic of China’s centennial year.
It is not surprising that Ma wants to replicate his successful presidential campaign of 2007 to 2008. Back then he was portrayed as a leader who lived among the people and understood their concerns. However, it is concerning that after three years as president, Ma still needs home-stays to get in touch with the public’s concerns and its pain.
Recent government policies, from an increase in the monthly pension for elderly farmers and the Ministry of Education’s proposed ban on certain preschool classes for children under six-years-old, to the Council of Agriculture’s decision to cut the supply of free milk to children from low-income families, have shown that Ma and his administration have little understanding of the public’s concerns and are unable to empathize with the pain of others.
Take the increase in pension for older farmers as an example. The government’s decision to increase the NT$6,000 (US$200) subsidy by just NT$316 stunned the public. Despite calls for an increase of at least NT$1,000, even from many Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, Ma insisted that the increase had been carefully calculated to ensure fairness and went on to quote various statistics to defend the policy.
The ministry’s decision this month to revise the Supplementary and Continuing Education Law (補習及進修教育法草案) to ban cram schools from recruiting children under the age of six for classes such as English was widely derided by the schools and parents.
In the face of widespread opposition, the ministry withdrew the draft it had been preparing to send to the Executive Yuan, despite insisting that classes such as English, speed reading or mental arithmetic were inappropriate for children under the age of six.
Although its intent was to reduce the burden on children in a highly competitive environment, the ministry failed to grasp the fact that cram schools and the classes they offer provide an alternative learning environment that also functions as a daycare center for working parents who struggle to balance the work and parenthood.
Another recent example of a sudden shift in policy was the council’s plan to cancel free milk for elementary students from low-income families, limiting it to just children in orphanages because of the recent increase in milk prices.
The announcement of the plan drew waves of criticism, with some saying the government was trampling on the rights of children, which prompted the council to change its position and promise to find NT$9 million to fund the free-milk program this year.
These controversial policies and the resulting U-turns reflect the problematic way in which government agencies make policy and their complete lack of understanding of public opinion.