Fri, Jan 18, 2019 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Diplomats should be hired on merit

Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu’s (吳釗燮) appointment of his aide Vincent Chao (趙怡翔) as head of the political division at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington is probably the single piece of news that, oddly enough, received a similar amount of — if not more — public attention and media coverage than the responses to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Jan. 2 speech about Taiwan.

Most of the debate about Chao’s new post revolves around whether it is appropriate for a political appointee to occupy a seat normally held by a seasoned, career diplomat, and if Chao deserves the post and its handsome paycheck, given his relatively young age and inexperience.

Putting aside discussions about Chao’s competency, which is a relative concept and could suffer from subjectivity, the fact that his appointment stirred up such widespread and prolonged controversy underscored several cultural and systemic problems.

The first is age discrimination among Taiwanese. Part of the reason the issue attracted so much criticism is because the public found it hard to accept that a 31-year-old would be earning a monthly salary of more than NT$200,000, even if that included a rental subsidy. If Chao were in his 40s or 50s, the public would most likely be less critical of his appointment.

It also underlined conflicting views about appropriate ages for government officials and party leaders, considering that many have been calling for a generational takeover in the nation’s two major parties, because the parties’ old guard is seen as representing the opposite of hope and change.

Anti-rich sentiment goes hand-in-hand with the age discrimination in this case. As Chao received higher-education training in Canada and the UK, and used to have Canadian citizenship, he has been branded as part of the privileged elite. That background makes him more susceptible to being targeted as the public vents its frustration over low wages and an unaffordable housing market.

Another major problem highlighted by the issue is the lack of flexible and strategic personnel management by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite the dire diplomatic challenges that the nation faces, diplomats are required to ascend the career ladder one step at a time; they are rarely allowed to jump a few levels, regardless of their competence and job performance.

That means that most diplomats have to wait years, if not more than a decade, to climb to the level that qualifies them for what they are aiming for. Imagine their frustration and anger when such a position is handed to someone like Chao, who did not even spend years preparing for the foreign service exam, as most in his profession did.

However, the answer is not to avoid political appointees that might draw criticism. Instead, the ministry should reform its hierarchical corporate culture to allow more talent mobility. It should evaluate whether a career diplomat deserves a promotion not based on their seniority or age, but on whether they are capable of fulfilling the duties of the role.

Such changes would incentivize younger diplomats to lift their performance. They could also alter the innovation-averse mindset among public servants, who have a tendency to stay in their comfort zone and stiffly follow the rules, because trying a new approach increases their chances of making a mistake and tainting their career prospects.

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