In a perfect world, we would judge politicians by the yardsticks of honesty and whether they promote good policies and can deliver on them. Every other consideration — whether he or she is charismatic, dresses well or can run marathons — would be secondary.
In the real world, however, we often tend to turn things on their heads and prioritize image over substance. Hence the buzz over Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) before the presidential election — especially among women — not only in Taiwan but also in Hong Kong, where support for him has a long history, and overseas. Rare were reports that did not include “charismatic” or “good-looking,” descriptions that often preceded, if there were any, discussions on whether he had any good ideas.
Endorsing the Canon “Rebel” camera in the 1990s, former professional tennis player Andre Agassi had a point about the forces that influence our judgment: “Image is everything.”
As the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) should be aware of this reality as it seeks to reconstitute itself and regenerate its appeal after crushing back-to-back defeats in the legislative and presidential elections. Without a proper image, it makes little difference whether its more “socialist” platform appeals to the masses or not, or whether its pro-independence motto has traction with a large swath of the population.
The contrast with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) could not be more striking. Like them or not, agree or disagree with their policies, the KMT’s politicians know how to play the image game and look professional, even when that image is skin deep. For their part, DPP members often cannot be bothered to dress for the occasion, holding press conferences or hosting major events in jeans and T-shirts.
Sad to say, for politicians to be taken seriously, they need to dress the part, suit and tie and all. This does not mean that their policies will be any better, but it’s part of the game, just as a valet at a five-star hotel must wear the proper attire. Failing to do this, the DPP gives credence to those who dismiss it as a band of ruffians, troublemakers or the Taiwanese equivalent of “rednecks,” which the image-conscious KMT can exploit to its advantage.
Image transcends Taiwan, especially nowadays as the world begins to pay attention to developments involving human rights violations and cross-strait talks. If the DPP and other opposition parties want to be taken seriously by foreign media and audiences — who know even less about the idiosyncrasies of Taiwanese politics and are therefore bound to let first impressions cloud judgment — they will need to dress for the occasion.
With cross-strait rapprochement, Beijing’s policy has been to de-internationalize the Taiwan question by internalizing debate. In its struggle to protect the sovereignty of Taiwan, the opposition must do everything it can to keep the matter internationalized and use whatever means it can to tell Taiwan’s story to the world. The fact that DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) speaks excellent English is already an improvement on the past — one that will help the party reach out to its friends abroad. But if the party and its ideas are to be taken seriously, they will need to dress up.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. But in this world, the cowl does make the monk.
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