The passing of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) has drawn a flow of eulogies and tributes from at home and abroad. Regarded as “Mr. Democracy,” Lee was the nation’s only true political leader of the past 100 years.
Lee loved Taiwan profoundly, and he was a political reformer as well as a philosopher and an intellectual.
During the “silent revolution,” he led Taiwan toward democracy, initiated constitutional reform, abolished the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion (動員勘亂時期臨時條款) and terminated the National Assembly, never re-elected after 1947 and dubbed the “10,000-year congress.”
Lee realized Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, treated Taiwan as an entity in its own right, proposed a national policy treating relations with China as “special state-to-state” relations, and implemented the “no haste, be patient” policy, urging Taiwanese businesses to exercise caution and self-restraint when investing in China in a bid to safeguard Taiwan’s economic lifeline.
Thanks to Lee’s outstanding leadership, Taiwan toughed it out against China’s verbal intimidation and saber rattling, weathered the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis and safely made it through the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.
International media commemorating Lee offered concise and succinct descriptions of him. The New York Times’ obituary referred to him as “Taiwan’s first democratically elected president,” who led Taiwan’s “transformation from an island in the grip of authoritarian rule to one of Asia’s most vibrant and prosperous democracies.”
It also said that Lee “dismantled the dictatorship and ... pushed the concept of ‘New Taiwanese,’” while his “insistence that Taiwan be treated as a sovereign state angered the Chinese government in Beijing.”
The White House statement praised Lee as the “architect of Taiwan’s modern democratic system, which today serves as a shining example of citizen-centric governance for the region and the world,” adding that Lee “led Taiwan through its transition from authoritarian military rule to a prosperous, free and open society. He will always be remembered for his strong commitment to democratic principles and human dignity.”
The condolences from global leaders were deeply touching, especially from many Japanese politicians who had met Lee. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike stressed that their personal interactions taught her what leadership and politics should be, a pithy point because leadership is the crucial factor behind Lee’s legacy and accomplishments.
Lee’s Prerequisites for Becoming a Top Leader (最高領導者的條件) — written in Japanese and translated into Mandarin in 2009 — presents the quintessence of leadership based on critical thinking and his experience of administering a country.
In the book, Lee emphasizes that a nation’s fate is closely connected to its leaders’ personal qualities and competence: A nation’s leaders should have a firm belief in and a determination to implement democratic reform, but outstanding leadership is also a necessity. A leader must possess extraordinary mettle and strong self-confidence to lead a nation into the future.
Mettle and self-confidence do not come out of thin air. Lee stressed that a leader must be equipped with philosophical thinking, requiring deep, broad reading.
He belonged to the elite class of the so-called Doosan (多桑) generation, people who grew up during the Japanese colonial era. They are generally known to have read the classics of world literature, history and philosophy during their formative high-school years.
Apart from reading Japanese translations, they often read classics in their original language. Two prominent examples are Lee’s reading of British thinker Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus and former Presidential Office adviser Peng Ming-min’s (彭明敏) reading of French philosopher Ernest Renan’s books on civic nationalism and French literature. Lee’s passion for reading continued after he became president.
Having a large private library, Lee constantly pursued new knowledge and never stopped reading. People who met him were overwhelmed by his formidable knowledge and self-cultivation.
Through philosophical thinking and self-reflection, leaders construct a respectable personality and cultivate a wider vision, making them humble and honest. The knowledge that representing supreme power is not an entitlement helps them shun corruption.
A leader is responsible for decisionmaking, so they need to be able to mobilize and improve an organization. They need talented people on their staff and in think tanks to help formulate policies, map out plans and judge situations.
Most importantly, a leader must have strong determination, perseverance and willpower, and remain calm in times of crisis and desperate circumstances.
These qualities equipped Lee to inform the public that the government had prepared 18 counteractions during the 1995-1996 missile crisis. In fact, the government had developed at least 30 scenarios.
Since 1990, Lee’s administration had established channels for gaining intelligence and information. The government knew that China’s missile launches and military exercises were part of a campaign of psychological warfare, and that Beijing did not plan to mount an offensive against Taiwan.
Lee and his Cabinet sat still, calmly watching as the other side put on a performance.
A leader must have a code of conduct, with sincerity being the foremost quality. Lee was forthright and easygoing, ensuring that his speech could be understood by people, regardless of their education level.
He avoided bureaucratic language. During the 1995-1996 crisis, he told Taiwanese: “Don’t be afraid, the missiles were all dummies,” meaning that they carried unarmed warheads.
During his visit to Paraguay the following year, he told reporters: “Don’t be afraid of China, as it cannot possibly be more powerful than my old man.”
He also criticized China’s leaders, saying that “their brains are filled with concrete.” These remarks all show his down-to-earth and straightforward personality.
A leader’s code of conduct should also include taking a commonsense view of a situation.
For example, Lee’s “no haste, be patient” policy was formulated following careful commonsense deliberation. Lee concluded that large economic and trade investments in China, an enemy state, was putting all their eggs in one basket, and endangering Taiwan’s economy and businesses.
In 2013, Lee said that huge differences in the economic and social systems across the Taiwan Strait showed that Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen’s theory of negative economic integration was correct and had brought imbalances, placing Taiwan in a difficult situation.
Lee believed that strong willpower and executive ability are indispensable to a leader, and especially needed when pushing for reform or facing a challenge.
This idea, formulated in Chapter 22 of his Prerequisites for Becoming a Top Leader, is reminiscent of well-known management theorist Peter Drucker’s statement, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Following the 921 Earthquake, during the night of Sept. 21, 1999, Lee went to Nantou County, the most affected region, to listen to the victims and lead the rescue effort, demonstrating his decisiveness and ability to act quickly.
Lee emphasized visionary leadership. By proposing a conceptual vision around which a public consensus can form, a leader acquires powerful support for the vision’s realization.
Lee’s proposals of a “community of life,” “building up a greater Taiwan and establishing a new central plain,” and the “New Taiwanese” identity, are prominent examples of his vision.
Taiwan faces internal and external challenges. Elusive external circumstances show China’s growing ambition to seize Taiwan, while internal circumstances call for a deepening of the nation’s democracy, as Taiwan has not yet reached the goal of becoming a normalized nation and society.
As the public pay their respects to the former president, they are also hoping for another leader to emerge who possesses Lee’s outstanding leadership ability.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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