President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) constantly compares himself with his predecessor and there’s nothing he likes to do more than spout figures. In an attempt to demonstrate just how frugal he is, he has said before that since he resolved to save money in four areas — fuel usage, electricity, water and paper — four years ago, the Presidential Office has made annual savings of more than NT$7 million (US$233,600). It is not about how much it is, he says, it is about the message it gives out. “I am cutting down on spending public money,” he says.
Of course, frugality is a virtue and is certainly commendable. It is, though, the duty of government officials of all ranks to keep a rein on spending public money. And this is how it should be. It is just that, while Ma blathers on about how much he is saving on utility bills here and how many millions of NT dollars he is saving there, and how hugely significant all this is, somebody needs to remind him not to measure the office of Republic of China (ROC) president by Ma the man.
Someone of his stature should not be dwelling on mundane issues such as minor savings in the Presidential Office or Chunghsing Apartment (中興寓所), his official residence. As president of the nation, he should be focusing on major national policy and what is good for the country.
He seems more concerned, however, with comparing himself with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on who was more thrifty with the public purse. Let us make that comparison, then.
First, Ma had been harping on about having the same bed for the past 30 years, wearing suits until they fall apart, getting his sports and formal shoes repaired time after time and never throwing out a perfectly good pair of swimming trunks.
Hold on, what does all that have to do with public funds?
Those are personal items that he should be paying out for anyway.
They should not come under the special allowance fund for government chiefs or the state affairs fund. The amount of public funds being saved from all this is precisely zero.
Second, it is true that Ma spends tens of thousands of dollars less than Chen did on utility bills at the Chunghsing Apartment residence every year. However, Ma uses the special presidential swimming pool every day and that amasses a substantial water and electricity bill.
Do we know how much more public funds he spends on this every year compared with Chen?
Third, is it not true that the presidential salary comes under public expenditure?
When Chen took office he had his own salary reduced by half. Ma said that he would cut his own salary if he failed to achieve his “6-3-3” goals of 6 percent annual economic growth, an annual per capita income of US$30,000 and unemployment of less than 3 percent in his first term.
He did not do that. It was another bounced check that he refused to honor. He did, however, help himself to a pay raise of NT$13,869 a month in July last year, which actually increased the relative spending of public finances on the presidential salary from NT$2.77 million a year under Chen to NT$2.94 million.
Is the State Affairs Fund not also paid for by the taxpayer? Ma has virtually spent the NT$40 million it sets aside each year. On this count, Chen spent NT$10 million less of public money every year than Ma. On health and medical expenses, Chen spent NT$14,000 a year; Ma has spent more than NT$500,000 a year. Again, Chen saved more public money than Ma, to the tune of NT$486,000.