The Economist article on “Ma the bumbler” certainly got plenty of reactions in Taiwan and provided Taiwanese with a new buzzword. Intentional or not, there was more.
The ironic result of this article has been that it did more than suggest President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is a bumbler: It has exposed and pointed out what really lay at the heart of the current ineptness and incompetency of the Ma administration.
It is not so much what the article suggested, namely, “If it looks like a bumbler, talks like a bumbler and acts like a bumbler, then it is a bumbler.” Nor was it that, “A bumbler by any other name is still a bumbler.” No, what the article revealed was something worse and more deeply rooted.
The article pointed out how the Ma administration continues to operate under placating and image-saving focal constraints. These constraints remain basic elements of its core philosophy, and unfortunately for Taiwan, that philosophy is the antithesis of progress.
At the start of his administration five years ago, Ma gave a seemingly wise yet placating promise. Indicating that his general aim would be to please all sides, Ma gave the first of his three noes. With this benchmark decision, his administration stated it would henceforth guide itself by being defined by negatives.
Thus, it would not seek unification, nor would it seek independence and it would also not use military force to attack the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the third no was probably put in just for balance, it proved to be humorous and even ludicrous in its attempt to be serious. One finds it hard to imagine that the leaders of the far superior PRC military forces would be quaking in their boots and saying to themselves, “Thank heavens, Ma has declared that he will not attack us.”
For the simple minded as well as those happy to see Ma reveal such a placating nature so openly, these first three “noes” were welcome words.
In effect, Ma was going to please everyone; certainly he could be counted on as someone who would not rock the boat, regardless of any sacrifice for Taiwan’s progress. Instead he would maintain a facade of stability in the realistic, ever-changing world of the imaginary status quo. Ma would do this by “doing nothing.” Even Taiwanese were buffaloed into believing this would bring them progress.
Of course, Ma’s words did not advance the nation. Nevertheless, now one year into his second term and with his approval rating at a dismal all time low, we still find him relying on placating negative mantras.
In working with his strongest ally, the US, Ma, instead of stating how he will build the strength of Taiwan’s half of the alliance, he has resorted to more negatives. In effect, Ma promises that his subordinates will, like him, present the image of “good little boys.”
In dealing with the US, there will be “no surprises, no time lags and no errors.” Those are pleasant but impossible words in the demanding give and take of diplomacy and they certainly do not spell progress by a man who should have Taiwan’s interests and not his image as its top priority. Nonetheless they again show that Ma’s administration has chosen to define itself by negatives.
The wisdom of defining any form of leadership by negatives or even defining the role of any government by negatives can be open to debate.
For Taiwan it is far more important to examine the effect this has on the selection of personnel. People that serve in the Ma administration do not necessarily have to have the best accomplishments in their particular area or field. Instead they will be known by their ability to avoid mistakes in “doing nothing.” In addition to this, of course, will be their loyalty to Ma and his image.
Thus, when the article in the Economist came out, the first evident thing that Ma’s people did was to focus on image control.
All sorts of excuses came out. It was the magazine’s fault for not putting “bumbler” in quotation marks; the media were at fault for misrepresentation and we even had the explanation that bumbler can translate into Mandarin in more ways than one.
No one focused on the o.bvious: that progress was lacking. No, this time image control proved more difficult than Ma’s yes-men anticipated.
Whether Ma is a bumbler is open to question, but more important is the fact that given the method of how his subordinates are chosen, there is a good chance that they will be bumblers in policy development and performance. This is something that even Ma’s own party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) admits to.
With ample talent in the party, they question why Ma sets such loyalty as well as “do nothing” constraints on those beneath him, especially when he must realize that sooner or later platitudes and promises will not do the trick.
At this point some will object that Ma has made positive, albeit pie-in-the-sky, projections and efforts such as 6-3-3 or the Golden Decade, but as for defining his administration these do not seem to be a place where any want to go.
There is one final factor that becomes clear. Surrounded by image-protecting subordinates who can define performance by “doing nothing,” neither Ma nor his administration know how to work democratically with others, including the Democratic Progressive Party.
Ma lives in a world where he expects compliance and belief in platitudes and promises. If there is failure, his subordinates must fall on their swords.
All well and good for Ma’s image, but as for progress on the national level and a resolution of the many problems facing this fledgling democracy, this is not enough.
So what can Taiwan expect for the next three years? If it continues to define itself by negatives, and the protection of Ma’s image, the future is not that bright.
At best it will bumble along; at worst, those that benefit most from Ma’s placating negativity will seize their opportunity
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.