Whether a political leader is able to accept criticism positively or scorns opposing views is critical to whether problems facing a country can be satisfactorily resolved.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is not characterized by such breadth of mind and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) on Thursday said that his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has failed to adopt an inclusive approach to governing.
Being opinionated and not receptive to other views, the government reacts to doubts about its policy in two ways — either accusing the news media of getting things wrong or using spin tactics to try to manipulate public opinion.
And the top echelon of the government fails to see why public discontent continues over various issues.
For example, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) said on Friday in the legislature that “certain media outlets” are to blame for the recent protests against the proposed changes to the high-school curriculum because they have “deliberately distorted the news.”
At a meeting on Thursday with a visiting US congressional delegation — including members who are concerned about Taiwan’s defense investments — Ma claimed that the government has quintupled soldiers’ salaries to boost recruitment.
This kind of spin tactic might have worked before bentuhua (本土化) — the localization movement — was sparked in the mid-1970s, which has been integral to the country’s democratization and has led people to question reinstalling a China-centric paradigm in textbooks and to readily discern truth from falsehood.
To some extent, the controversy over the curriculum guidelines reflects rifts in political ideology and national identity, but how much of a pay raise volunteer soldiers get is a simple factual issue.
Ma told the US members of Congress that the minimum monthly pay for a soldier had been raised from NT$7,000 to NT$35,000, but he forgot — deliberately or inadvertently — that comparisons cannot be made between apples and oranges.
A conscript gets a minimum salary of NT$7,000 under the compulsory military system, which is scheduled to be phased out by 2017, when the government plans to launch an all-volunteer military service. Actually, volunteer soldiers have seen their salaries increase by just NT$2,000 to NT$4,000 per month, depending upon their rank. Under the policy, effective Jan. 1, the maximum pay raise is NT$7,640 for soldiers on outlying islets.
This mindset shuts the door to dialogue, which is central to solving problems in a democracy, leaving the concerns haunting the country unaddressed — insufficient military spending, the struggle to recruit volunteers to maintain a professional military and divisions over national identity — which all concern national security and self-defense.
Taiwanese must be familiar with the Ma administration repeatedly “declaring [its] determination” to pursue a course.
The most recent case is securing Taiwan’s place in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with a committee led by former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) enlisting private-sector power to help push the bids. Ma is handling the cross-strait service trade pact the same way, with 13 out of the 20 seats on the steering panel of the committee taken by tycoons and entrepreneurs, in addition to academics.
The cross-strait service trade pact is controversial because benefits it might bring to major conglomerates would come at the expense of small and medium-sized enterprises, which were not consulted beforehand and had no chance to contribute their input during the negotiation process.
It takes more than rhetoric to forge unity to face national challenges. To begin with, government leaders should be less defensive and more open to communication.