Over the past few days, many Taiwanese have picked up their English dictionaries to check the meaning of the word “bumbler,” a word the English weekly The Economist used to describe President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in its latest edition. In an article titled “Ma the bumbler,” the magazine called Ma a former heartthrob who has lost his shine. Describing how Ma has failed to resuscitate Taiwan’s floundering economy, the article said Ma has fallen from grace and become “an ineffectual bumbler.”
The Economist’s commentary is embarrassing for Ma. The international media calling him a bumbler dealt a severe blow to the president, who has always placed importance on his international image. Ma has often responded to criticism by local media by demanding corrections. Accordingly, the Presidential Office promptly requested Taiwan’s representative office in the UK to give The Economist an explanation after the article was published. Whenever Ma is in trouble, Premier Sean Chen (陳冲), the Presidential Office and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) spokespeople and legislators immediately come to his defense.
The claims made in the article are all backed by facts and figures. There is nothing that is not in line with what the Taiwanese public thinks and the conclusions drawn are unsurprising. Domestic media outlets also frequently discuss the shortcomings of Ma’s policies, the only difference being that they — out of respect for the head of state — often give Ma a fig leaf to hide behind, whereas The Economist has put his deficiencies on full display.
Always outspoken, Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien (王建煊) published an article in September saying that Ma was looking for a historic legacy and although he still has three years left of his presidency, that legacy was already carved in stone: incompetence. Still, after The Economist article, Wang felt he had to speak up for Ma, saying: “A fool [the translation used for “bumbler” in the Chinese-language media] would never get a doctorate in law from Harvard. He’s just completely devoid of the slightest courage or decisiveness.”
Even if nobody will actually call the president a fool, neither would they describe his leadership style as being shrewd or competent. Ma may have felt embarrassed by the article and the Taiwanese public were probably none too pleased either, but what is the sense in demanding a correction? Even if The Economist agreed to publish a correction, this would do nothing to help Taiwan’s economy, nor improve the lives of its citizens.
Ma should not be demanding corrections in an article published in an overseas magazine; he should instead be reflecting on why such a piece was written, and have the courage and humility to give up his timidity so he can set goals and work hard to achieve them.
The president has claimed that he could improve the economy within three months, but this was just to give the public heart. In reality, the government will not change interest rates or exchange rates, nor does it have the option of increasing public spending. The Cabinet’s economic stimulus package is not going to make much of a difference, as it is little more than an ineffective ruse to lure Taiwanese businesspeople back to the country. Since the government’s power to attract investment is almost negligible, it has no choice but to cut expenditure. Unless the global economy improves dramatically and lifts the Taiwanese economy along with it, there is no way that Ma can fulfil; this promise.
If Ma can concentrate the nation’s resources and push through reforms on the pensions for retired government employees and public sector workers so he can address the perilous situation government finances are in, he will at least be able to improve his performance over the rest of his term and be judged favorably by history. If not, he will be known as a bumbler forever.