Plans announced last week by the Executive Yuan to slash the year-end bonuses for retired civil servants have caused consternation among both serving and retired military personnel, hurting morale and potentially undermining plans to create an all-volunteer force by 2015.
Following an expedited review of the annual year-end bonus for retired civil servants, military personnel and public school teachers, Premier Sean Chen announced a provisional plan to cut the budget for the bonus from NT$19.2 billion (US$656 million) under the current regime to about NT$1 billion.
Under the new regime, which could come into force starting in February next year, retired public servants in only two categories — those receiving a monthly pension of less than NT$20,000 and the families of military personnel who died or were injured in the line of duty — would be entitled to the bonus, or about 42,000 people, from 432,000 at present.
Although most people agree that the current system is unsustainable given the treasury’s financial difficulties, divisions remain on the breadth and scope of the proposed cuts.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has expressed support for the plan, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintains that it does not go far enough and has called for even steeper cuts to be implemented immediately.
Both DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) have called for an end to the program.
The reactions among those who risk seeing their year-end bonus become a thing of the past have understandably been negative, but nowhere has it sparked as much anger as within the armed forces.
The sense of resignation has been especially felt among low- to medium-ranking officers, with several expressing their discontent at the Ma government on various Internet platforms. Others seem to be gearing up for street protests.
Describing Chen’s announcement as “a tragic day for families,” one retired navy officer expressed his angst in an online post.
“I was born into a military family. As a father of four children, I have been raising them with my pensions ever since my retirement from the navy,” the retired officer said.
“However, on this ‘memorable day’ [of the announcement] all I could say to my eldest daughter, who is still a second-grade senior-high-school student, was that our family’s rightfully deserved pension bonuses have been confiscated by the government and that her father could no longer afford to hand out red envelopes or buy them new clothes on Lunar New Year,” he said.
The officer said that while most military officers had sacrificed most of their youth serving the country, they have now been cast aside by unworthy politicians like “used diapers or sanitary napkins” after their retirement.
“Worst of all, President Ma even lauded the benefits of such reforms,” he wrote. “My apologies to Chinese Nationalist party (KMT) city and county councilors, who may find themselves losing at least two to three votes [from my family members] and perhaps getting a few more invalid ballots in the next elections.”
Dozens of similar messages have been posted on the Web since the announcement was made.
Fueling the consternation is the unfair manner in which the military have been lumped together with other public servants. Unlike government workers or teachers, military personnel spend a great part of their career serving away from home.
As a consequence their spouses can rarely find work, which reduces the total family income. Members of the armed forces also do not receive overtime pay, while the risks of injury or death are much higher than in other sectors.
In addition, active and retired generals receive a much greater share of the total salaries and year-end bonuses than do lower-ranking personnel, a situation that some observers say is unfair to mid-career officers who struggle to raise their families, pay their mortgage and put their children through school, and for whom the year-end red envelope was a welcome addition.
Beyond the immediate anger among recently retired officers, the planned cuts risk having serious repercussions on morale among active troops and the ability of the armed forces to attract recruits for an all-volunteer force amid a program to end military conscription by 2015.
Anger at low salaries and perceived disregard for the welfare of military officers also creates opportunities for recruitment by foreign intelligence agents, thus undermining national security.
Contacted for comment, Ministry of National Defense spokesman David Lo (羅紹和) said that plans to cut the year-end bonuses should be carried out in a reasonable and objective fashion.
“We should not let emotional and irrational attacks demoralize the people serving in our military, civil, and educational system and sow discord within society,” Lo said.
In light of the soon-to-be implemented volunteer military system, both ruling and opposition parties, as well as society as a whole, must make the long term benefits of the nation the top priority.
“We have to seriously consider what wages are within reason while making sure they are alluring enough for men to voluntarily sign up for the military,” Lo said.
Meanwhile, discontent within the ranks over the planned cuts, added to Ma’s failure to provide any words of comfort to the military, have created what a former National Security Council official called a “golden opportunity” for the DPP, which has long had tenuous relations with the brass, to “win friends” in the military. Whether the party will seize that opportunity remains to be seen.
Contacted yesterday, the office of DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, would not comment on the projected cuts because the plan is still under review in the legislature.
Additional reporting by Stacy Hsu and Jake Chung