Centers for Disease Control Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yi (施文儀) has landed in hot water over comments he posted on his Facebook page, in which he questioned whether the US has really decided to allow visa-free entry for Taiwanese. He also posted regarding his opposition to giving National Health Insurance (NHI) coverage to Chinese students studying in Taiwan. Shih’s posts have sparked controversy over issues such as freedom of expression and administrative discipline.
Examination Yuan President John Kuan (關中) has said that the expression of civil servants’ opinions should be restricted by relevant laws, including the Public Functionary Service Act (公務人員服務法) and the Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials (公務人員行政中立法), which state they should not criticize government policy.
Premier Sean Chen has instructed the Cabinet’s Directorate-General of Personnel Administration to investigate whether Shih’s posts contravened the Public Functionary Service Act, and said that the case may be handed over to the Department of Health to decide whether disciplinary measures are required.
Many Internet users have posted messages in support of Shih, praising him for being bold enough to speak his mind and for being courageous and insightful. A petition in his support was signed by 1,300 people in just four days.
The Shih incident offers some indications as to where the nation’s democracy is headed.
In his comments, Shih expressed concern about the government’s proposal to extend NHI coverage to Chinese students.
He presented his arguments in a rational way and said that he hoped the policy would be formulated in a more thorough fashion.
In another of his posts, he said that the government’s claim that the US had included Taiwanese in its Visa-Waiver Program was false. Only following clarification by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did the public realize that the “visa-free” treatment offered to Taiwanese might be a bit different to that given to citizens of other countries. Thus, Shih’s comments allowed the public to exercise their right to information.
Ensuring that the public is well informed, so that it can monitor the government, is important for preventing erroneous policies and monitoring those officials who use their powers for their own profit.
Open access to government information helps prevent government waste and corruption and forms the basis of trust between government and public, so is an essential and fundamental element of democratic politics.
Sweden is among the world’s most cleanly governed countries. The Swedes willingness to pay high taxes to support the country’s welfare system is a result of the country’s high degree of government transparency.
Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act, which was promulgated in 1776, stipulates that government documents must be completely accessible to the public, so that people can see how policies are decided, how budgets are implemented and who gets appointed and promoted and keep track of government tendering and procurement. Only when people have open access to information can they monitor their government effectively.
A “whistle-blower clause” was written into Swedish law to guarantee the right of civil servants and experts who take part in decision-making processes to speak out. To prevent unfair policies and corruption that would harm the public interest, civil servants and other policy participants are allowed to express their opinions and expose wrongdoings to the media even in the case of “classified” matters, as long as they do not actually hand over secret documents. The law serves to protect whistle-blowers and even encourages them to speak out.
From the 1970s onward, other advanced democracies started enacting laws to ensure the transparency of government information. However, not until 2005 did Taiwan adopt its Freedom of Government Information Act (政府資訊公開法). Unfortunately, this law exists on paper only, because up until today there is no agency responsible for enforcing it.
No law or rules have been enacted to ensure that the terms of the act are carried out and consequently, any government agency can refuse to make documents public. Bureaucrats can turn down applications to view such documents on various grounds, such as that they are classified or involve operational secrets, or that making them public would be an invasion of privacy.
Up until now, more than 90 percent of data concerning public officials’ personal asset declarations are not open to public scrutiny. Information about the president’s state affairs fund and about discretionary funds available to the premier and other leading officials is still not open and accessible.
When it comes to government procurement and tendering, only tender announcements and contracts are made public. Specifications related to tenders and procurements, the examination procedure and the reasons for granting or denying contracts to various applicants are all hidden from public view. One cannot help but suspect that so much data are kept hidden away to allow those in authority to get up to no good.
If Shih is punished according to the terms of the Public Functionary Service Act or the Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials for using Facebook to voice his views on the US visa exemption issue and the question of giving NHI coverage to Chinese students — even if he is only given a written admonishment — it will be a big reversal that runs contrary to the way in which modern democracies are developing.
Chien Hsi-chieh is executive director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan and convener of the Anti-Poverty Alliance.
Translated by Julian Clegg