At newsstands nationwide yesterday, passersby would have been shocked by the front-page headlines: A family of four in New Taipei City (新北市) committed suicide over their debts and inability to pay their utility bills.
Some may wonder what has become of Taiwan, while many more worry about the future of the country. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has yet to start his second term and already this is what the country is coming to.
Some may be quick to defend Ma’s administration, dismissing the family’s suicide as an isolated case and attributing the cause of the tragedy to the victims’ own failure to make a living. However, this does not mean that the government is fully innocent.
After all, isn’t it the responsibility of the government to look after the welfare of its people? What is the point of having a government when it can’t perform this duty, particularly for the underprivileged, as was the case for this New Taipei City family? Instead, the government is spearheading price hikes — a move that adds to the woes of people who are already struggling to make ends meet.
Following the government’s announcement on April 1 of an increase of between 7 and 11 percent in domestic unleaded gasoline prices — the biggest one-time increase in fuel prices since May 2008 — state-run Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) is also mulling hikes to household, commercial and industrial electricity rates in the immediate future.
According to a proposal by Taipower yesterday, the government is planning a nearly 26 percent percent price hike in household electricity fees.
The utility cites the accumulated losses of NT$117.9 billion (US$3.99 billion) it incurred from 2006 to the end of last year as the reason it is increasing electricity rates, and that if the price were not raised, pretax losses would reach as high as NT$100 billion this year. It also said that despite the increases, the nation’s fuel prices and electricity fees are still considered the lowest in Asia.
It is regrettable that the Ma administration only sees — and seemingly cares about — the numbers and not the impact of its utility price hikes on the public, especially the underprivileged.
The increase in electricity prices will affect all sectors, from the increase in every household and company’s monthly electricity bill to increased costs for virtually all goods and spending, such as food items and daily commutes.
That is not to say the government should not increase electricity prices; the point is whether the government has presented a reasonable explanation for its new policy. Just like with state-run CPC Corp, Taiwan’s oft-criticized fuel price increases, it appears that the government, rather than first thinking about what is wrong with Taipower’s management, has instead set its sights directly on people’s pockets to pay for the company’s losses.
Such is certainly not the act of a caring and responsible government.
A responsible government would not look just at the numbers, but would draw up supplementary measures that could best counter the impact of its utility price hikes on the public, especially the underprivileged. And a caring president would think about how the price hikes would make the lives of the poor even more difficult rather than openly criticizing his own people as Ma did in Burkina Faso on Tuesday, saying he felt ashamed about Taiwanese’s wasteful use of electricity.