“A head of state being heckled is not a big deal in a democratic society; there is no need to regard it as losing face.”
These were the words of then-Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in October 2006, spoken at the time of a campaign by red-clad protesters to oust then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party.
Fast-forward to Monday this week and Ma’s stance has changed noticeably now that he is the president and on the receiving end of people’s anger and discontent. Seeing his speech marking Human Rights Day at the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park disturbed by protesters — one of whom also threw a shoe at Ma — Ma appeared annoyed and raised his voice as he lectured all those present, in his message on human rights, that “it is the attitude of tolerance and mutual respect that serves as the fundamental value in Taiwan’s human rights development.”
The shoe-throwing episode reminded many people of a similar incident involving then-US president George W. Bush in December 2008 at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq. Many recalled how Bush took it in his stride, saying that the shoe thrown at him was “a size 10.”
Even Chen, in comparison with Ma, appeared to be more mature and demonstrated a level of graciousness and class befitting a president when he, in the face of people protesting and heckling him, stated that the ruckus was a sign of a healthy democracy in Taiwan that people should cherish and be proud of.
As the president whose ill-conceived policies and poor performance fueled recent public demonstrations of grievances and dissatisfaction, Ma should be more receptive to people’s criticism, rather than fighting the protesters’ decibels with more decibels, as was the case on Monday.
In his speech, Ma called for respect from the protesters. However, does he practice what he preaches and treat his people with the respect they are due? Recalling the numerous demonstrations held by members of the public these past months on issues such as fuel and electricity price increases, forced land seizures and deteriorating social insurance systems, to name just a few, how many were the times that all that the people got in response from Ma were the words “thank you”? Ma’s lecture about respect was anything but convincing, as the public has on many occasions witnessed how he fails to respect his people by treating their complaints in a perfunctory manner.
Ma also likes to pat himself on the back for having ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, how can he say that his administration remains determined to protect human rights and to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy when many issues remain unresolved, such as the much-criticized judiciary system that lacks independence.
In case Ma needs a reminder, he said in his victory speech on March 22, 2008, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regained the key to the Presidential Office: “The KMT will be appreciative and humble. We’ll listen hard, care for people’s plights, and engage in policy reviews and introspection.”
Unless he keeps the meaning of “human rights” close to his heart, takes people’s plights seriously and takes concrete action to push reforms that would change people’s lives for the better, Ma remains unqualified to give a lecture on respect, let alone on human rights.