President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) acted with lightning speed in issuing several “reform measures” following his re-election — fuel and electricity prices were adjusted upward and a capital gains tax on securities transactions is back on the cards. Rapidly increasing consumer prices and a storm of public protests have accompanied Ma’s return to power, and his approval rate has dropped to record lows.
If we ignore for a moment how just and legitimate these decisions are, and instead look at the timing and implementation of Ma’s reforms, it is obvious that he has acted too hastily and that in doing so, he has run counter to the wisdom of the expression: “Undue haste breaks the bowl.”
There is another saying: “A new broom sweeps clean.” This normally implies that someone taking up a new job, a new official trying to establish their authority, or someone following a certain ideal works hard at first to implement new policies and to initiate reform. To a certain extent, commitment to innovation is of course a good thing. The problem is that what the ruler thinks is the right thing is not necessarily in step with what the public wants, or in the public interest.
If the government does not first gain an in-depth understanding of public opinion to be able to plan a reasonable and forceful reform process and instead chooses sudden and unexpected implementation, failure is almost certain.
Let’s look at fuel and electricity prices. In addition to the issue of whether the increases are appropriate, the government should also consider how and when the increases should be implemented and how to minimize the impact on the public if it wants to avoid a backlash that could affect policy implementation. The same reasoning also applies to the securities transaction tax.
If the government only cares about the superficial issue of fair taxation and ignores the complexities and sensitivities of the stock market culture as well as its complicated connection with the grassroots economy and instead decides to rashly roll out the new tax, what will happen is precisely what we see today: A tense standoff between the public and government officials, between the government and the legislature.
Ma has made the mistake of thinking that just because he is no longer under any electoral pressure, he can engage in far-reaching and drastic reforms. He has therefore been in a hurry to “set” several “fires,” but never expected that he could go too far and instead burn himself and lose the public’s trust.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (老子) says: “Governing a great state is like cooking small fish.”
This means that when running a country, the ruler should be as careful and patient as when frying small fish and not be too eager or use too much force lest they mess things up. During China’s Song Dynasty, statesman Wang Anshi (王安石) introduced new laws and many new measures that seemed both reasonable and beneficial to the state, yet it all ended in failure. There were many reasons for this, but the crucial mistakes were certainly that he rushed ahead and failed to gain an understanding of public sentiment, which created widespread resistance.
Today, fuel and electricity prices and the securities transaction tax may seem like minor issues, but the fact is that they affect people’s living conditions and therefore have a big impact on society at large. These are not issues that can be carelessly dealt with or rashly pushed through.