Our neighbor Japan is currently dealing with the biggest national catastrophe it has had to face since World War II — the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis.
Taiwan has much in common with Japan. An island located in an earthquake zone, it has several nuclear plants, relies on imported energy sources and has the majority of the population living on a small proportion of the land, in low-lying areas flanking a central mountain chain, with high concentrations in major urban areas — Tokyo for Japan, Taipei for Taiwan. However, this seems to have been lost on the government here, which apparently refuses to learn from Japan’s experience.
The Ministry of Education recently announced the second phase of its “Five Year, 50 Billion” program, aimed at making Taiwanese universities among the top 50, or even top 10, in Asia. It seems that the public servants in the ministry, who boast the highest number of doctoral degrees of any government department, are no better or worse than those in other departments: They are just as archaic and resistant to change.
Taiwan’s very existence, both physical and political, is pretty precarious. It is forever treading the very thin line between survival and destruction, and cannot afford to put a single foot wrong. If everyone in this country, both the governing and opposition parties and government officials together with the general public, works together to find solutions for these pressing issues, we may have a chance to divest ourselves of these archaic elements once and for all, replacing dinosaur policies and dinosaur public servants with a new system.
A full half, perhaps more, of Taiwan’s 23 million people live and work in the Greater Taipei Area of Taipei, New Taipei City (新北市), Keelung and Taoyuan city and county. The majority have moved there from south and central Taiwan, something that becomes apparent during national holidays such as Lunar New Year or the Tomb Sweeping Festival, when people go back to their family homes en masse and leave the capital feeling like a ghost town.
Forget for a moment the sense of spending NT$50 billion (US1.7 billion) over five years, or NT$1000 billion over 10, trying to shoehorn Taiwanese universities into the world’s top 100, or whether the idea is perhaps a little naive. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in power now, but five or six years ago it was the Democratic Progressive Party. Both drew up the budget for the five-year program, both passed it, both are happy to implement it. The handover of political power did little to change the government’s mindset of trying to buy prestigious universities through heavy investment.
Following the earthquake and tsunami, the scale of which Japan has not seen in living memory, and the subsequent — and, for Japan, unprecedented — nuclear crisis unfolding there, the ability of Tokyo to function as a capital has been put in jeopardy. The folly and danger of having so much concentrated in the capital is recognized, if not actually admitted.
We have consistently followed this policy in Taiwan, where we have concentrated the majority of our financial, technological, human and cultural capital, as well as our political and economic power, in the Greater Taipei region (and, to be honest, pretty much Taipei itself), which relies on food, water and energy supplies to be brought in from outside. This is an obsolescent idea.
Of course, development often entails the selection of certain locations and the concentration of resources therein. -Nevertheless, running a country without understanding the importance of the diversification of risk leaves one vulnerable to the prospect of complete annihilation.
This is what we refer to as “local rationality,” the idea that some policies are rational when seen from a local or short-term perspective, but not from a more global — in the sense of inclusive — or long-term perspective, from which they may even be seen to be completely irrational. The nuclear crisis in Japan is a perfect example of this.
It makes no sense whatsoever in these days of natural disasters and social change for so much of Taiwan’s economic resources, or even the funds made available to universities, to be concentrated in the Taipei region.
A more comprehensive policy is needed, including on education, culture and the arts, that involves the whole country. This is something that we can now consider given Japan’s experience. This is the duty of our leaders and public servants. If they refuse to change, they will find it difficult to shake off the label of “dinosaur government.”
Chen Yung-feng is the executive director of Tunghai University’s Center for Japan Area Studies.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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