This past week has been a bad one for Taiwan, its military and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Starting with Ma: For anyone who has followed his career and lackluster performances closely, he has been the perfect example of the Peter Principle writ large.
Aided by the general public’s short memory and excessive tolerance, Ma, in true Peter Principle fashion, has been able to advance, while avoiding any serious accountability and any strong, actual accomplishments.
He has managed this with a combination of smiles, public relations, platitudes and a strategy of replacing failed promises with new ones where he would definitely “look into the matter.”
Finally, of course, if all this fails, he can still fall back on passing the buck to others. However, this past week was different. Ma’s traditional methods failed and Taiwanese people indicated that they had finally had enough. Ironically, the tipping point came through a key area that Ma regularly depends on, but one that he fears trying to control, the military.
It was the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) on July 4 that began this unraveling. Hung died in questionable and suspicious circumstances with only two days left of his military service.
The changes to Hung’s death certificate from initially stating that the cause of death was accidental, to “homicide” and requiring investigation in less than a month only added to the suspicion. Nonetheless, after Hung’s death, in a traditional show of sympathy, Ma visited Hung’s family and promised to get to the bottom of things (note the word “promise”).
Unfortunately for Hung’s family, the days and weeks went by and nothing happened. The military even tried to suggest that the fault and cause might lie with Hung himself.
As the details surrounding Hung’s death began to leak out, his family not only countered this, but also suggested that a military cover-up was in progress.
On Saturday Aug. 3, a massive protest organized by private citizens took place in Taipei with over 200,000 in attendance.
Taiwanese, fed up with the lack of progress on this and other issues, were calling for justice, transparency and results.
The next day, a month after Hung’s death, when his family gathered for the funeral, a second surprise occurred.
Despite growing suspicions of a cover-up, and with seemingly nothing being done, Ma, in true public relations form, again showed up to give a second show of sympathy and a second set of promises “to get to the bottom of it.”
However, the Hung family and their neighbors would have none of it and refused Ma’s visit.
In effect they were saying: “We are done with this canned showmanship. We can’t fake it anymore; we can’t go through the motions that all is well, and that you, the president, care.”
The Peter Principle’s chickens had come home to roost and were being recorded on national TV.
A standoff ensued for some 20 minutes or more.
Here were Taiwanese denying entrance to their president because of his lack of action.
Local Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Yang Chiung-ying (楊瓊瓔) and other party members were there; their credibility, jobs and their loyalty to the president on the line, so they could of course still “fake it,” but the people could not accept the inaction.
Finally, the family did meet with Ma; their justified criticisms again recorded on national TV for future replay in unavoidable accountability.
New promises were made, but would they or could they be kept? Ma’s problem with the military became apparent.
On Ma’s side, former minister of defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) resigned and was replaced by Andrew Yang (楊念祖), a close and trusted friend of Ma’s.
However, Yang lasted only six days before also resigning over an unrelated scandal, leaving further uncertainty hanging in the air.
Was this another example of Ma’s poor choice of candidates or did the military not want Yang? Would the next candidate be any more effective at enabling justice to take its course?
The military was now also under close scrutiny.
On the one hand, the suspicious circumstances of Hung’s death raised questions about a culture of bullying in the military.
On the other, some wondered what was so serious about Hung’s “crime” of bringing a camera-equipped mobile phone onto his base, that would bring about his death, especially when he would be discharged from the service in two days. Why were reports that normally take a week to process rushed through to silence him?
Could he have been trying to expose other corruption?
There is no question that a culture of corruption and profiteering in the military’s private fiefdom has long been tolerated in Taiwan and extends back to the days of the KMT one-party state when the military courts were the KMT’s enforcer, used to silence political dissent.
In addition to links to several “assassinations,” looming large in this past is the still unsolved death of Navy captain Yin Ching-feng (尹清楓) and all the wheeling and dealing from the Lafayette frigate scandal with billions of dollars at stake and some six or seven other questionable deaths unsolved.
With such problems in the top echelons of the military, there could be no question that in such a culture similar issues of corruption would filter down through the ranks.
The question facing Taiwanese is whether someone who has risen to the top via the Peter Principle can solve such a mess? It is a case where strong executive leadership, and not posing, is needed.
Internationally, Ma’s competency and image took a serious hit with last year’s article in The Economist, when a continued lack of positive results earned him the title of “bumbler.”
Added to this is that cleaning up the entrenched military is not the least of Ma’s difficulties.
Problems with the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the recently signed cross-strait service trade agreement that was rushed through without the proper consultation, examination and approval from the Legislative Yuan, are mounting.
Similarly, Ma’s minions have been trying to push a referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮) through the legislature without proper discussion amid growing concern over the plant’s safety.
The vested interests of a few and not the interests of the nation appear to be the culprit in all cases. Taiwan’s Peter Principle president is a lame duck with low approval ratings.
Will he be up to the task?
Taiwan’s voters can only watch, hope, and learn for the future.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.