Everyone makes a slip of the tongue now and then. Usually it is not a big deal. However, if you are a nation’s president, your words carry extra weight, which is all the more reason to choose them carefully, especially if you are going to be selective about the facts you are presenting. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) landed in hot water on Thursday over a remark he made on Wednesday during the weekly meeting of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Central Standing Committee, alluding to several of Taipei’s MRT underground stations ending up as flood detention pools when Typhoon Nari pummeled the city on Sept. 16, 2001.
It was inappropriate of the minister of the interior to present a report on the government’s handling of a recent disaster — the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Trami — to an internal meeting of a political party, even if it is the ruling party. This kind of report should be heard solely in a Cabinet meeting. That it was not is another sign of the problems caused by Ma trying to return Taiwan to the old days of a party-state system.
Because of his remarks to a KMT committee meeting, both Ma and the KMT were in spin-doctor mode on Thursday, insisting that the president/party chairman’s remarks had been taken out of context and misinterpreted.
There is no misinterpreting the extent of the damage caused by Nari, which, in addition to the loss of about 100 lives mostly around Taipei, inundated hundreds of homes and underground parking lots in the capital, several thousand office buildings, as well as the Taipei Railway Station and the MRT system’s control center in the basement of the railway station.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses lost power, in some areas for up to a week or more, while water supplies to even more homes were cut off, along with telephone lines.
It took weeks — months in the case of the Tamsui-Xindian line — to restore service to the MRT system. Damage estimates ranged from NT$3 billion (US$100.3 million at current conversion rates) to as high as NT$10 billion.
Nari brought what the Central Weather Bureau called once-in-a-century-level rains, with some areas getting the equivalent of four months of rain in less than a day. That alone would have caused problems, but the breakdown of the Yucheng pumping station, which is supposed to prevent flooding along the Keelung River, compounded the damage.
It turned out the station workers, following protocol, turned off the pumps after they had been running for seven hours to prevent overheating, even though seven pumping stations ahead of Yucheng along the river had already flooded. The extent of the damage in Taipei led to a Control Yuan investigation into the city’s management of the disaster.
Ma, the mayor of Taipei at the time, repeatedly promised to “take full responsibility” for any shortcomings on the part of the city government. However, he defended his administration’s performance, saying that adequate precautions had been taken.
More than a decade on, Ma seems to see what was one of the biggest debacles of his mayoral administration as a source of inspiration for flood-threatened municipalities. For him to now say that the flooding in Xinyi District (信義) “was not as bad as we thought because MRT stations accidentally played a role as flood detention pools,” makes light of the losses suffered by those whose homes and businesses were hit by flooding, or whose cars were trapped in flooded underground parking lots.
Perhaps he should ask some of them if it makes them feel better to think that the damage was “not as bad as we thought.”
The trouble with selective memory is that no one remembers events exactly the same way. And the trouble with trying to whitewash history is that the paint rarely sticks for long.