The real danger for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is not its persistently poor governance and falling credibility, but its leaders’ perception that they can run the country by putting on public relations exercises and manipulating the media.
The voices of the 23 million Taiwanese are strong, yet sometimes too noisy for the administration, which nevertheless pledged to listen to the people at all times.
People have tended to oppose everything the government proposed in the past five years. However, the Ma administration has not considered this too much of a headache because, as a local proverb says, politics is a performing art, and Ma’s administration has truly believed in the power of the media to sway public opinion from Day 1.
One does not need to look further to understand Ma’s mentality than his recent visit to fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants across the country, including the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), and his much-criticized appearance at a military drill.
With a huge entourage of more than 100 members of the media, the trip was more public relations exercise than official government inspection. Everyone was aware it was an opportunity for the administration to endorse nuclear power and the construction of the Gongliao plant, despite Ma saying that he “was not trying to persuade anyone” to buy into the government’s position on nuclear power.
Ma, his usual camera-loving self, posed in front of a nuclear power plant for the print and television cameras. Meanwhile, every Taiwan Power Co employee who spoke at a symposium said nuclear power was the best option for Taiwan, as it were begging the president to keep developing nuclear power.
Just days before his “energy tour,” Ma was seen stepping out of the Presidential Office, formally dressed, without body armor, smiling to the cameras, before boarding an armored vehicle in a drill meant to simulate an evacuation from the Presidential Office under attack.
While the two examples might be funny, unbelievable and pathetic to some, such practices have been the norm during Ma’s presidency and might even date back to his days as Taipei mayor. Ma rose to political stardom because of his ability to play to the cameras and his advisers’ success in manipulating the media.
The “Ma Ying-jeou phenomenon,” arguably one of the primary reasons Ma won the presidential elections in 2008 and again last year, was such a success that his spin doctors never tire of playing the same tricks, neutralizing press coverage of a crisis with yet another agenda, time and again.
However, Ma and his advisers need to be reminded that politics is more than a performing art and it is not just a game of spinning the media. This administration must deliver on its pledges by carefully listening to the public.
Notable, too, have been Ma’s poor choice of words and arrogance when he has tried to communicate directly with people. It shows how detached he is from the public, reflecting how his administration and regular Taiwanese seem to be living in different worlds.
Regardless of how Ma and his team have mastered the art of spinning and performing, the show is — and it has to be — over, since he is not likely personally to participate in another major election.
If Ma is serious about the legacy of his eight years in office, he will need to forget the cameras, newspapers and TV news, because a president who looks good on TV is not guaranteed to look good in history.