I wonder if you can remember an incident back in January 2010, when the head of a TV channel happened to mention on his personal blog that his mother had lost faith in President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
When Ma caught wind of this, he acted as if it were a matter of national importance and wasted no time in heading straight to the Hualien residence of the lady in question. There he chatted with her, listened to what constructive criticism she had to offer, had a photograph taken with her and gave her his autograph.
Fast forward to today, with the ongoing Sunflower movement and the recently concluded occupation of the legislative chamber by student activists.
Right from the very beginning, the students had asked Ma to appear in person at the Legislative Yuan to respond to what they had to say and listen to their constructive criticism.
When he failed to show up, they called on the president, on several occasions, to engage with them in direct dialogue. Ma, choosing instead to keep his distance — separated from the students by riot barriers and rows of police — refused to step inside the legislature and communicate with the protesters.
His excuse was that “according to the Constitution, [he] was not allowed to enter the Legislative Yuan unless invited to give the legislature his state of the union address.”
Naturally, he has a point. There is a legal rationale behind saying that the nation’s presidents cannot just arrive at or visit the legislature when they feel like it.
However, there was nothing stopping Ma from making a trip to the building and engaging with the hundreds of students encamped outside, asking them what it was they were so aggrieved about and listening to what they had to say. How would he have responded if asked why he felt he could not make this concession? What excuse would he give for declining to do so?
The questions do not stop there. How about this one: On March 30, approximately 500,000 people took to the streets of Taipei — including students, their mothers and families, their university professors and other public figures — expressing their objections to the non-transparent way in which the government has been running the nation and to the proposed cross-strait service trade agreement, and demanding the creation of new legislation governing oversight of cross-strait agreements before the review of the agreement continues. If this is not constructive criticism, then what is? Did we see the president emerge from the Presidential Office, or from his official residence, to face the public and listen to what they had to say?
What Ma seems to have failed to appreciate is that, as the chairman of a political party, it is perfectly legitimate to take note of what an individual person thinks of you, even when you choose to disregard the problems huge swathes of the general public have with your performance in office. This is just keeping the party political house in order.
However, as president of the nation, it is surely more incumbent upon you to listen to what half a million people have to say than it is to listen to the criticisms of a single person. Unless, perhaps, you would contend that the one is more important than the many, at a ratio of 1:500,000. Such a contention may make sense in an autocracy. It has no place in a democracy.
Chang Kuo-tsai is a former associate professor at National Hsinchu University of Education and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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