What you need to know
As a Singaporean, Taiwan's democratic values and effective independence are something to hold dear.
I left Singapore for Taiwan more than two years ago, and it has been my home ever since.
I still remember that before I came to Taiwan, I asked a Singaporean friend, Leong Sze Hian, what he thinks about Taiwan advocating for independence.
He told me: "Taiwan is already independent!"
After I came to Taiwan, I saw for myself that it is indeed an independent nation, with people who speak up for themselves, fight for themselves, and call themselves Taiwanese, going about their lives as the Taiwanese do, very distinctly from the Chinese from China.
In a way, Taiwan is already an independent nation which does not always know it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be in Taiwan. Taiwan has provided me the safety and security to be who I am in a way that I have never been able to feel in Singapore. To talk about my opinions with other people in public spaces. To be gay and hold hands in public and not feel judged for it.
Which is why I am sometimes perplexed that some of the Taiwanese are vexed by the predicament that they are in – that they feel that Taiwan is not independent.
As a foreigner looking in, Taiwan is, in every sense of the word, independent. It also has one of the strongest economies in Asia and possibly one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia, if not the most vibrant.
Taiwanese can speak up about their country's politics, mostly without fear that they will be persecuted by their government. We cannot do that in Singapore. Over the last few months, several independent media, bloggers and human rights defenders in Singapore have been persecuted by the Singapore government. They include The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu and contributor Daniel De Costa, who were charged for criminal defamation of the government; The Independent Singapore which was threatened with legal action from state-controlled labor union NTUC Foodfare for civil defamation; websites like the States Times Review, Singapore Herald and The Coverage which have been blocked from local access.
I was sued by the Singapore prime minister in 2014 for civil defamation for a blog post I wrote. Last month, a second blogger, my friend Leong Sze Hian, was also sued by him.
As a foreigner, I have taken part in the Taiwan LGBT Pride Parade and attended talks in Taiwan discussing political issues – and this is all part of the norm in Taiwan. Meanwhile, in Singapore, the government banned foreigners from attending our Pride equivalent, PinkDot. Foreign organizations are also barred from supporting the event. The PinkDot organizers face a jail term of up to six months or a fine or up to S$10,000 (NT$227,000) if they are found to violate the regulations.
Just a few days ago, Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham was found guilty for organizing an indoor forum involving Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong via Skype. He will be sentenced later this month.
When I meet with Taiwanese people and tell them about these political persecutions in Singapore, including my own, I am always met with disbelief that such archaic practices exist in Singapore.
The common response I always receive is: “This will not happen in Taiwan. We are a democracy. We have free speech here. It is our right to speak up.”
Therefore, I have deep and immense respect for the democracy that Taiwan has been able to achieve, and great respect for Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for trying her very best to uphold her country's democracy and its values.
After Xi Jinping threatened Taiwan's independence last week, there is every reason for President Tsai to fan nationalism and use it to bolster support for herself. But she did not. Instead, she was measured but firm, and laid out her terms clearly: “China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and not deny the democratic system that the people of Taiwan have established together; [and that it] must respect the commitment of the 23 million people of Taiwan to freedom and democracy, and not foster divisions and offer inducements to interfere with the choices made by the people of Taiwan.”
And that China “must handle cross-strait differences peacefully, on the basis of equality, instead of using suppression and intimidation to get Taiwanese to submit; [and that] it must be governments or government-authorized agencies that engage in negotiations. Any political consultations that are not authorized and monitored by the people cannot be called ‘democratic consultations.’”
“This is Taiwan's position, a democratic position,” President Tsai said.
Her response endeared her to many Taiwanese as she showed such strength, and most importantly, such tenacity in her response to Xi’s threat.
Some Taiwanese might feel that she had previously not taken a firm stance on cross-Strait relations. But perhaps she was waiting for the right time to make her stance clear, and the right time was this New Year, when Xi finally went overboard and showed his true colors.
Fortunately, Xi miscalculated that the Kuomintang (KMT)’s win at the local elections in November last year was a stamp of approval for “unification.”
Tiunn Hok-chu (張復聚), the former president of the Southern Taiwan Society, wrote that in his conversations with young people, “most of them simply wanted to ‘vote for someone different and see what happens.’ They hardly had any political considerations.”
He further said: “When I asked them whether it would be worth it if it led to Taiwan losing its sovereignty, freedom and democracy, their reply was: ‘No way.’”
Indeed, Taiwan’s democracy is very precious and the Taiwanese have to treat it with utmost care. It was only about 30 years ago when Taiwan was still under martial law, an environment where speaking up was dangerous.
Coming from Singapore, where citizens are still persecuted for speaking up, what happened 30 long years ago in Taiwan is still very fresh to me. Therefore, every time I hear the Taiwanese hazard the opinion that Taiwan should go back to being authoritarian, I am always taken aback.
Going back to being authoritarian means not having the transparency to know what your government is doing to the country’s finances. It means that the voice you have now to speak up against the wrongdoings of your government is robbed from you. If you dare speak up, you can be sued, charged and lose your job, and no one would dare to hire you.
All of this happened to me. But this is what happened in Taiwan too. Two uncles of my friend’s mother were killed in the 228 Incident.
The question with Taiwan is not whether Taiwan should go back to being authoritarian. The question is how the Taiwanese should learn to use their democracy more effectively to advocate for their rights, for higher wages and better livelihoods. Don’t forget, the Taiwanese are today able to enjoy a high-quality and free healthcare system because of their democracy – the government has to respond to their demands. In Singapore, we have to pay eight to 10.5 percent of our wages into a healthcare scheme, but Singaporeans continue to pay out of own pockets for some of the most expensive healthcare in the world.
Perhaps some Taiwanese are impatient. Maybe they want a definitive answer to Taiwan's nationhood status. For some who find the situation uncertain, they might want to hear Taiwan acknowledge the so-called “1992 Consensus” so that they feel they can move on and perhaps benefit financially from closer relations with China. For some, they might want Taiwan to declare once and for all its independence so that they can feel assured.
But Xi has shown that the “1992 Consensus” is indeed an illusion that the Kuomintang (KMT) dreamed up. The 1992 Consensus is only “one China,” without room for any interpretation by both sides of the Taiwan Strait. It is only Xi's interpretation. Xi has also declared that he wants to take Taiwan, even if it is by force.
Moreover, President Tsai and Premier William Lai (賴清德) have on several occasions acknowledged publicly Taiwan’s status as an independent and sovereign nation. There was thus never any need for Taiwan to make the first move because all it needed to do was to wait for Xi to fire the first salvo, and Taiwan would emerge for the stronger and better, just as Xi has shown with his words over the New Year.
Perhaps some might have previously felt that Taiwan needed to assert itself, but what the past few days has shown is that because President Tsai has been patient, she has now managed to galvanize Taiwan’s status in the international community. Lawmakers from two of the world’s largest economy blocs, the United States and the European Union, have come out in support of Taiwan’s democracy after Xi’s speech.
A spokesperson from the European Union said: “We are committed to continuing to develop our relations with Taiwan and to supporting the shared values underpinning its system of governance.”
U.S. Representative Ted Yoho also said: “Xi Jinping’s threatening rhetoric on Taiwan is an escalation of Communist Party campaign to marginalize Taiwan's democracy.”
And U.S. Senator John Kennedy said: “China's provocative approach toward Taiwan risks the stability of the region and displays China's disrespect of democracies in the world.”
We might have needed to wait three years since Tsai ascended to Taiwan’s highest office to see this, but she has finally achieved what many had hoped the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government would do. A Taiwanese friend told me how he is impressed by how President Tsai must have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to obtain the support of so many governments. Previously, under the KMT, Taiwan had mainly staked its bet on China. This clearly backfired, with Xi throwing the KMT under the bus with his definition of the “1992 Consensus.”
It is thus baffling to see the KMT continue to insist on interpreting the “1992 Consensus” to mean that “both sides adhere to the one China principle but agree that each side is free to interpret respectively the meaning of one China,” when Xi has already unleashed a smackdown upon that notion.
President Tsai said as much when she said: “Do not mention the ‘1992 consensus’ again since that phrase has been defined by China as the ‘one country, two systems’ mechanism, which has left no flexibility for interpretation.”
It is also impossible to be more tone deaf that the KMT when it claims “the ROC (Republic of China) is a sovereign, independent state,” yet also says it “firmly opposes Taiwan independence.” But, despite the ROC’s post-World War II territorial claims and its decades-long uneasy détente with past Chinese Communist leaders, the ROC and Taiwan effectively exist as one and the same nowadays. You either support the independence of Taiwan or you don’t.
There is no better time than now for the Taiwanese to finally know that they are an independent country, and that they have a leader who is wise. If she had been rash as some had wanted her to, international support would not have been so forthcoming. In some ways, we can finally understand now why she was willing to withstand criticism. She knew that the time would come when she would be able to allow Taiwan to lift its head up high. The time is today. And President Tsai has been vindicated.
Taiwan is an independent country. And I hope my Taiwanese friends can see it, if they haven’t already. There is no need for Taiwan to declare its independence, because the world knows it. What President Tsai wanted was for the world to acknowledge it.
Tsai has, over the last three years, built closer ties with South and Southeast Asian countries via her signature New Southbound Policy, along with Australia, Japan and the European Union, and has received various levels of support. It is taking time, but it is taking shape.
Perhaps President Tsai needs time to see her vision through. Perhaps she needs Taiwanese citizens to understand and have patience.
But perhaps Tsai needs to communicate this vision far more coherently so that the people of Taiwan can come onboard with her vision and stand shoulder to shoulder with her. A friend remarked how President Tsai is finally doing so this New Year, with the many statements she has posted on Facebook and the press conferences she has held regarding cross-Strait relations. With one year left before the next presidential election, it might be an opportune time for the Taiwanese to rally behind Tsai to work with her to realize her vision of a free and democratic Taiwan.
Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, wrote: “Xi Jinping, due to one policy failure after another, is losing support, and after accumulating almost unprecedented power – adversaries mock him as the ‘Chairman of Everything, Everywhere, and Everyone’ – he has no one else to blame.”
"With no one else to blame, there is no tactic as effective for him as nationalism. And there is no nationalist issue for the Communist Party quite like Taiwan,” Chang wrote.
Taiwan needs to bide its time and garner the support needed to allow itself to stand its ground, while pushing back against China with international backing, all the while enabling the maintenance of peace in the region. This seems to be what Tsai is doing.
Taiwan has gotten off to a good start in 2019, and Tsai has shown a calm strength to be reckoned with.
Giving up on Taiwan's freedom and democracy is not the way. Asking the Taiwanese to buy into an illusory “consensus” when none exists helps no one and will only create more confusion for Taiwan. It will not make a more confident Taiwan.
Tsai has provided a clear vision of Taiwan’s path forward: to affirm Taiwan's independence and to protect its freedom and democracy. This distinguishes Taiwan from China and makes Taiwan unique. This gives Taiwan a future.
It is time to build a Taiwan Consensus, to use the term coined by President Tsai. There is no longer any need for Taiwan to define itself vis-a-vis China. Taiwan is its own independent country and it is time Taiwan looks at itself in this way. It is time for Taiwan to chart its own path in the international waters as it always has and allow Taiwan to build a greater future with other like-minded democratic countries.
As a member of the international community, I support and stand with Taiwan and its democracy.
I hope that many more will stand up and speak up for Taiwan, for if our governments feel that they cannot do so for political reasons, as individuals of the world, we can unite and do so, free from the constraints of politics, and support the independence that Taiwan already enjoys.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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