Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Tale of Two 'Ma's

Ma Ying-Jeou, who would later become one of the KMT party's most influential leaders, catapulted into Taiwan’s political scene in 1981, as the personal English translator for then-President Chiang Ching-kuo after receiving his S.J.D. from Harvard. He defeated the seemingly unbeatable incumbent Chen Shui-bian at 1998’s Taipei City mayoral election, and set a record for the highest number of votes at 2008’s presidential elections. Today, with 14 months still left in his second term, his approval rating has already plummeted down to under 10%, making him almost a premature "lame duck". This is a story of two “Ma”s.

After President Chiang’s death, Ma started to garner public attention due to his status as a strong advocate for exercise and an ardent blood donor. His image became that of a persevering runner steadily jogging on the streets. In 1997, he’d resigned from the position of Minister without Portfolio because he felt ashamed that he was a part of a government that had let down the citizens for failing to save the victim of a high-profile kidnapping case. This furthered his reputation, as it was such an  unprecedented move among career politicians.

The 228 Massacre, which began on February 28, 1947, was an incident in which the KMT murdered or imprisoned many Taiwanese, including many of the elite, while occupying Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. This, of course, caused a huge chasm between the two ethnic groups: the refugees and government powers from China, and those who had already settled in Taiwan. However, every year there was always a commemoration, which Ma attended annually, showing his sincerity even before he had become an important politician. This was an action that no KMT members had previously taken, due to their reluctance to admit such an event had even taken place. Truly, this was taken as a great step towards mending the gap that had plagued Taiwan's politics for years.

As Mayor of Taipei City, Ma brought about many changes, most notably one of the world’s foremost Pay-as-You-Throw waste management systems. In this pioneering program, residents of Taipei City are only allowed to dispose of trash contained in special bags purchased from the government, while recycling can be disposed of free of charge. This scheme has reduced Taipei’s trash by more than 35% to date since 1999, and has increased the recycle output by approximately 260%.

As President, Ma worked tirelessly to make peace between Taiwan and China, successfully repairing connections and instituting a diplomatic truce between Beijing and Taipei. This allowed Taiwan to maintain diplomatic relations with 22 countries, no small feat when most countries would prefer to seek China’s recognition in exchange for Taiwan’s. A notable breakthrough in regards to cross-strait relations with China was the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, abbreviated as ECFA, which sought to reduce commercial taxes between the two sides and promote economical interaction. This had great consequences, drastically increasing the trade between Taiwan and China.

In addition, under Ma’s leadership, Taiwan became the 37th country to gain admittance to the United States’ Visa Waiver program, allowing Taiwanese citizens to enter the U.S. without a visa. Meanwhile, 86 more countries started to accept Taiwanese travelers with digital visas, visas on arrival, or without visas at all, bringing the total count from 54 to 140. On another note regarding international travel, Ma opened Taiwan's doors to Chinese tourists, giving the tourist trade a huge boost.

He did things that no other politician would dream of doing because it would influence their approval rating. For example, he drafted a law to start implementing more taxes for civil servants, teachers, and soldiers, an idea that infuriated the general public, yet was necessary for a nearly bankrupt government to keep operating. Was the country’s general wellbeing worth losing a large share of his supporters? It was a complicated decision. In the end, Ma chose the righteous and less “politically correct” way.

Unfortunately, he seemed to become less and less popular with the people. In truth, Ma himself did not seem to change much, but his weaknesses and limitations become more evident in his second term as President. In general, Ma was indecisive and unable to stick to his convictions when subject to the opposition's pressures, and tended to change positions abruptly and to not provide strong and continued backing for government policies advocated by his own cabinet. For example, he vetoed the construction and operation of the fourth nuclear plant in Taiwan, but only when pressured to do so. As a result, the general public had the impression that he terminated the plant without a genuine belief in the vision of “nuclear-free homeland” and without a concrete plan to address the economic development issues brought about by the termination.
During Ma's second term as President, food safety controversies began to be revealed at a far too alarming rate. The general public was tired of being kept in the dark as to which foods were actually safe to eat. The major food-safety incident occurred right before midterm elections. The Ting Hsin International Group was discovered to have been mixing imported animal feed oil with regular lard and selling it to a huge lard corporation, affecting millions of consumers. Though a national -- and global, too, as the oil was also exported -- concern, Ma refused to make any decisions on this matter, preferring instead that the Judicial System be in charge, like it should. However, this led to the Taiwanese people's distrust of him and his government, due to the frustrating opaqueness and  hardly comforting resolutions of major issues. According to the BBC, this distrust, combined with low salaries and increasing economic inequality, caused the KMT to fail miserably at the 2014 midterm elections.

The public was also upset at some high-profile scandals, such as the death of a mistreated conscripted soldier. The soldier was forced to do strenuous physical drills as a punishment for having a camera phone with him; this offense should only have warranted administrative punishments. As a result, he suffered from heatstroke and fell into a coma before dying of organ failure at a military hospital, a mere two days before he would have been relieved of conscription duty. The incident caused widespread protests, particularly the "White Shirt Army" protests, and Ma personally apologized. The Minister of National Defense also publicly resigned. Although this episode occurred in mid-2013, it culminated with various other mishandlings on the government's behalf, lowering Ma's approval rate radically.

Various parts of the private sector also grew to resent Ma due to his "Teflon pan" status: that is, he never made exceptions to any laws or allowed anyone to slip through the cracks. Ma even sued a member of his own party, Wang Jin-ping, who was bribed. While this is "Teflon pan"-ness is an admirable aspect, as so many politicians fall prey to bribery and embezzlement, many people started to doubt his loyalty to his own party, and supporters of Wang Jin-ping. But this was no fault on Ma's part; he had done his job; he had made a righteous decision.

As Taipei Mayor and subsequently as Taiwan's President, Ma is a classic case of a President who had started out strong and then lost people’s trust and support. Because he wasn't able to balance the interests of the government with that of the citizens, his presidency ultimately went downhill. Now, with only 9.2% of the public backing him, it is evident that the same sense of righteousness that had won him the public's overwhelming support has eventually worked against his favor.


  1. Replies
    1. Hello! Nope, it was actually for a journalism competition, haha. I've checked your blog, it seems awesome! Thanks for stopping by! ^^


    3. Ha ha thanks! You're from Kaohsiung too? By the way, your blog theme is SO lovely. Just saying ;)

    4. No, well, I'm actually in Hsinchu... I was just excited because it was someone from Taiwan, although in retrospect, with this topic, it's probably to be expected XD And thank you!! *u*


Thanks for visiting cats + cantaloupe! I'm so glad you came <3 Please take the time to leave a message-- your comments and thoughts are always appreciated! <3 I'll always reply :D