When Minister of Transportation and Communications Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) — also known as “Teacher Mao” (毛老師) — had a year-end banquet with reporters on Tuesday last week, he was asked whether he would still be at the ministry after the Lunar New Year holiday, following reports that he might be drafted to serve in the Executive Yuan.
“You are definitely going to see me around after the Lunar New Year holiday,” Mao assured the reporters, adding that he would not comment on a possible Cabinet reshuffle.
While some were shocked by last week’s announcement that Vice Premier Jiang Yi-hua (江宜樺) had been promoted to premier and Mao vice premier, people familiar with the ministry believed it was only a matter of time before Mao was appointed to a more senior position.
The decision is less surprising considering that the ministry has been fulfilling President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) campaign promises. Many might criticize policies like the capital gains tax scheme, but the number of international tourists to Taiwan rose to 7.3 million last year and direct flights from Taipei International Airport (Songshan airport) now go to Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, which took place on Mao’s watch.
Soon-to-be Minister-without-Portfolio Chen Wei-jen (陳威仁) and newly appointed Minister of Economic Affairs Chang Chia-juch (張家祝) are former Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) deputy ministers.
Mao, Chang and Chen have also other things in common: all are civil engineers and experienced problem solvers.
As MOTC minister, Mao had helped ease Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp’s financial problems by putting together a debt restructuring plan and turning the company from a private firm into one controlled by the government.
He also persuaded Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co, the contractor for the freeway electronic toll collection (ETC) system, to provide free eTags to car owners. This helped raise the ETC usage rate from approximately 42 percent to 71 percent and paved the way for a “pay-as-you-go” freeway toll fee policy, which is scheduled to be launched this year.
Mao was credited with several other accomplishments, including launching the Taiwan Lantern Festival and the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition.
Chang was MOTC deputy minister before working in the private sector and holding his current position as chairman of China Airlines.
During his time at the ministry, he facilitated the opening up of taxi, tour bus and travel agency businesses. He also helped illegal tour bus operators form Ubus Co, now a legal firm regulated by the ministry. Kuokuang Motor Transport became private under his watch too.
Chen helped execute Mao’s Suhua Highway Improvement Project by discussing the plan with environmental groups and helping it pass its environmental impact assessment (EIA) review, bringing to a close a thorny issue that had plagued Ma’s administration since 2008.
Media reports said that Mao and Chang gained their Cabinet posts thanks to recommendations by former premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄), both having served as MOTC deputy ministers during Liu’s time as MOTC minister.
However, the question many have is whether they are can meet the requirements of their new jobs at the Executive Yuan, as their experience appears to be restricted to the transportation industry.
In response, the new premier said that the appointments were made after a discussion between Ma, Mao and himself, adding that expertise was not the only factor that they valued.
“[The person] must have the ability to think from a macro-structure and compose government policies,” Jiang said. “He must also be able to communicate and defend the government’s policies. These are factors we have used to choose the Cabinet members. It does not matter who thought about them or recommended them in the first place. What matters is that they can work efficiently in their new positions.”
Transportation experts lauded the appointments of three former transportation officials saying that they have the ability to thrive.
“Transportation is the foundation for industrial development,” said Jason Chang (張學孔), civil engineering professor at National Taiwan University. “Apart from construction, transportation studies also involve economic effects and financial planning. Mao has expertise in transportation, construction and business management through his previous experience ranging from MOTC minister to Chunghwa Telecom chairman. He was also heavily involved the creation of the Act for Promotion of Private Participation in Infrastructure Projects (促進民間參與公共建設法).”
Jason Chang said that the three officials are known for their integrity and idealism, adding their backgrounds may enable them to think differently to typical technocrats.
Feng Chia University professor Lee Ke-tsung (李克聰) said that both Mao and Chang Chia-juch were chairmen of state-run firms, and not completely ignorant of economic and financial affairs.
“The late premier Sun Yun-suan (孫運璿) was also an engineer. He was president of Taiwan Power Co and eventually became a capable and popular premier,” Lee said, citing Sun as an example of how people with engineering backgrounds can excel at the Executive Yuan.