An American friend with intimate knowledge of Taiwan’s political scene recently praised President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), calling her “the best legal mind in Taiwan.”
Tsai’s formative years, educational background and political experience are reasons she would never be a “Rottweiler politician,” nor would she spend all day picking fights as US President Donald Trump is fond of doing.
Aside from a penchant for peppering her speeches with overly humble language, Tsai generally refrains from engaging in vacuous sloganeering.
However, Tsai’s strengths turn into weaknesses when there is political turmoil. Her lawyer personality is not one that lends itself to the robust debating style of courtrooms. Instead, Tsai is disposed to employing complex sentences couched in legalese, which always contain caveats.
In an age where the loudest, most abrasive voices dominate the airwaves, Tsai’s nuanced arguments are failing to win the war of words in Taiwanese politics.
Former US president Harry Truman famously had a sign inscribed with the words “The buck stops here” on his desk in the White House. Although Taiwan does not have a purely presidential political system like the US, there is nevertheless a universal belief among the public that the president is the chief policymaker. Therefore, people expect the holder of the top office to not only make decisions, but also express their view, and provide leadership and direction, rather than simply explaining and justifying government policy.
For instance, on Dec. 25, the Ministry of Education abruptly dropped a news release announcing that it would allow the appointment of National Taiwan University professor Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔) as university president.
Kuan’s appointment has been dogged by controversy due to the university’s much-criticized chaotic handling of the election process and questions about Kuan’s integrity.
Tsai responded by saying that the ministry’s decision left her “astonished.”
She merely stated a feeling. The public expects its president to take a position on the matter.
Former minister of education Yeh Jiunn-rong (葉俊榮) told a news conference at the ministry that the election process had “flaws” and that legal procedures were ongoing.
Surely a president who is left feeling “astonished” by a decision of a member of her Cabinet should fire that minister, not let them resign.
Just as the military has used the excuse of “tradition” to justify its resistance to the removal of statues of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), Tsai has said that the issue “is not something that either myself or the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee can just click our fingers and make happen.”
Yet in a constitutional democracy, the military belongs to the state, not to its generals. When dealing with this problem, the president should take the position that the military is subservient to the state, rather than trying to explain why change would be difficult.
Politics in a democracy is different from a dictatorship: A president cannot force through edicts. Taiwan’s political situation also does not allow Tsai to shoot from the hip as Trump does. At the very least, her cautious approach should follow the practices of previous White House administrations, with statements issued by the president approved by a team of legal, political and public relations advisers.
Legal advisers are important when dealing with legal issues, while political advisers can help assess the ramifications of a decision or policy. Public relations advisers give counsel to presidents on the opportune moment and optimal medium to release a statement or deliver a speech. They should be responsible for ensuring that government policy is explained in a clear manner and — most crucially — ensure that messages do not become bogged down in mushy legalese.
James Wang is a media commentator.
Translated by Edward Jones
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