Prosecutor Huang Chao-kuei (黃朝貴) posted a message on his Facebook page on Sunday, saying that tens of thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia, had inconvenienced passengers and visitors at Taipei Railway Station, where they gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Huang’s posting was immediately blasted by commentators and netizens, but he denied any racist intent. However, his posting was just another example of the numerous little things — be they a look, a gesture or a careless comment — that take place every day in Taiwan and expose the divisions that lie beneath the veneer of Taiwanese society.
Our society is mature enough to understand that racism and discrimination are intolerable.
The image of a harmonious society is a myth. That is because, while Taiwanese are proud of their diverse culture — and have promoted it as one of the country’s appeals — the nation has never been as friendly to foreigners or the island’s indigenous people as it thinks. If it had, there would not be comments like Huang’s, which was not unusual and only aroused so much comment because the man was bold or stupid enough to post it on the Web. Nor would Filipino workers have been harassed after the death of a Taiwanese fisherman in May triggered diplomatic tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines. There would also not be the whispers in many neighborhoods that the increasing number of children from cross-cultural families, especially where the mother is from Southeast Asia, might hurt educational competitiveness.
Taiwanese have traditionally been less hostile to people from Western countries than to those from Asia, but that has not stopped them from making Western foreigners feel uncomfortable as well.
Taiwan is not the only nation that is having to rethink itself because of immigration. A recent article in Time magazine outlined the changing demographics in Australia and the efforts to reshape identity in a nation where 26 percent of its population was born overseas and five Asian countries — China, India, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — ranked among the top 10 countries of birth.
The Australian government has recognized the urgency to change, with the ruling Labor Party saying in a white paper (Australia in the Asian Century) that the country is entering a transformative period in history as its identity gradually shifts from a European one to an Asian one. The percentage of the immigrant population born in Europe has dropped from 52 percent in 2001 to 40 percent in 2011.
Similar changes have also been taking place in Taiwan, where about one of seven newborns and at least one in 10 elementary-school students are from cross-cultural marriages. This trend has been apparent for more than a decade. However, our government has chosen to ignore the demographic change and, as a result, it has never seriously addressed its immigration policy.
One might ask whether there is a need for a strict immigration policy, given that Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and has trouble filling job vacancies in the manufacturing and long-term care industry. However, if the nation was to adopt a friendly immigration policy, it would have a lot of work to do first. There are many issues that would have to be addressed, such as the differing needs of migrant workers, expatriate white-collar workers and foreign spouses, along with policies for language, social welfare and education.
Politicians have rarely addressed racial issues except for policies involving Aborigines. With changing demographics, racial politics is almost guaranteed an important role in the future.
Taiwan should learn from the experiences of Western democracies in promoting multiculturalism, because this is one task in which the nation cannot afford to fail.