OPINION: Taiwan’s Traditional Thinking Hinders Its Plans for Economic Innovation

OPINION: Taiwan’s Traditional Thinking Hinders Its Plans for Economic Innovation
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What you need to know

Taiwan wants to leap into the future of global tech innovation. It must start by addressing questions over the legacy of its authoritarian past.

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As the concept of Industry 4.0 increasingly comes in play, Taiwan’s government has pointed to several objectives it intends to achieve in following this race to integrate newer technologies and adapt to the changing global economic condition. Though the National Development Council has laid out an ambitious strategy to make Taiwan’s economy one based on innovation and entrepreneurship, in the model of the Silicon Valley, the progress is a slow one that would require time and effort.

But is the environment in Taiwan really conducive in cultivating talents and new ideas?

At the forefront of all issues is Taiwan’s low wages. For the past 10 years after the 2008-9 global recession, Taiwan’s wages have remained stagnant despite rising costs of living. The infamous “22K,” reflective of a wage level of NT$22,000 (less than US$750) per month, was seared into the minds of college graduates at this time. (Taiwan’s monthly minimum wage was raised to NT$23,100 on Jan. 1, 2019.)

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Taiwanese professionals often leave the country to ascend the career ladder.

The direct result of this is “brain drain.” With opportunities abroad, there is no reason for the best and brightest of Taiwan – and those who could afford to afford a foreign degree – to return to the island looking for a job. They could simply remain competitive in a job market outside of Taiwan and earn several times the wage of what they would earn in Taiwan. Thus the innovation generated by Taiwanese, developed by those at the forefront of industries, simply did not happen at home most of the time.

But if we are to merely consider economic disincentives without considering Taiwan’s culture and its experience with free thinking, we’d have missed the elephant in the room.

Up until 1996, Taiwan was run by an authoritarian regime not unlike today’s China. Martial law was imposed until 1987, before which the oppressive rule of dictator Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo under the White Terror (白色恐怖) ruthlessly purged dissidents.

Authoritarianism seeped into all aspects of life. With only 31 years of experience with a free press after the lifting of a press ban in 1988, Taiwan’s media environment remains poor and ridden with questionable funding from Chinese businesses. Domestic violence remains a common practice, and corporal violence remains normalized as a way to discipline children. Those running the education system, previously controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT) regime, still remain dominated by officials with ties to the party. Critical thinking, dangerous to the singular narrative authoritarian regime portrayed, is essentially still suppressed as a remnant of authoritarianism.

To borrow from a Japanese phrase, “the tallest nail gets hammered down” would summarize the values instilled in Taiwanese. Indeed, Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. Many older Taiwanese still reminisce of those times when the KMT regime, seen as more repressive than Japanese colonizers, was not in power yet. But this era was not unlike authoritarian rule composed of disenfranchisement of the Taiwanese later. The Taiwanese are shaped to believe that one does not succeed by thinking freely, but rather by deferring to a framework of repression, as portrayed by the film adaptation of “The Doctor’s Mother,” where a doctor’s success under Japanese colonial rule came at the death of Taiwanese identity and language. This reality continued even after Japanese colonial rule. YC Wang (王永慶), the founder of Formosa Plastics Group, notably held a philosophy of staying away from politics under the KMT years.

Closed-mindedness is, through many aspects, directly or indirectly taught to the young. And this is reflected in the contemporary era. If one is to ask a local, “don’t touch politics” is a phrase commonly told to the youngsters.

Due to the rule of a regime that identified itself as the rightful representative of “true” Chinese culture, rigid Confucian values are to this day deeply embedded into the minds of the Taiwanese due to generations of Sinocentric education. There exists a heavy emphasis on a patriarchal family structure. Obedience and subordination to elderly people are a requirement and questioning the decisions or words of a parent is a major taboo. Talking back is not allowed, especially if one is to question a parent’s demand. The need to save face – or to not go back on one’s claim lest losing personal honor – makes admitting one’s mistakes even harder.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office / Flickr
Taiwanese classrooms are not yet havens for free thought.

In Taiwan, Confucian values in family remain prevalent to this day and reflects upon the memory of authoritarianism and power. With patriarchy integrated into Confucian thinking, the head of the household wields supreme authority in family matters. Almost as if to project the political oppression (even so subtly felt or ignored), violence is a socially acceptable – and common – way to discipline one’s children or resolve issues between conflicting parties. With the Confucian saying “one’s body down to hairs and skins are born of parents, and must not be harmed,” drawn from the Classic of Filial Piety (孝經), one’s control over his/her own body is even ceded to the mercy of parents.

With the whole package of deference, obedience, and avoidance all together as shaped by history and values, the concept of individualism and individualistic capability is almost nonexistent. Even today, Taiwan is a highly collectivist culture. This can be seen in details as subtle as writing conventions, where it is common for one to refer to the self using the third person rather than using “I.”

Having underwent some primary education in Taiwan myself, I remember this education as composing mostly of recitations of ancient poems, Confucian writing, and the recitation of history. The authority of a teacher, assumed to know more than the student in all aspects, is not to be questioned. This is much different from Western education where values such as critical thinking, responsibility, honesty, and asking questions are taught and realized. While an American education spent substantial time on the consequences and implications of the Holocaust, the 228 Massacre is only briefly mentioned in Taiwanese classrooms. While American classrooms often operate under the adage that no question are “dumb questions,” a Taiwanese crowd would not be afraid to chuckle, stare down, or boo one they perceive as one.

Taiwan’s education system does precious little to teach children to discover new facts or prove existing ones wrong. Good children should be happy with what they have and should not think too much about what they truly dream for. It is an admirable trait to stay subservient to those in power and not question what they define as right or wrong. Ambition, free thinking, and responsibility? Only available for the firstborn male member who is at the front of the line of succession.

Taiwan is attempting to push on an economy dependent on a high level of individual capability and free thinking to generate new ideas and values. However, it is working with a population that has have been submerged in an environment not conducive to free thinking for most of its memory. Generations of Taiwanese have never been taught what it means to question the reality that they have no choice but to take, but now as the ones who gets to define reality for future generations, there is little incentive for them to remove themselves from the supreme authority they receive as “the elders.” Why would anyone in power want to encourage those below them to question the structure?

Just as religion has often conflated facts with fiction at the cost of innovation, this religion of subservience to sources of power now conflates deliberate erasure of the independent mind with social harmony.

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Is Taiwan ready to make the jump from production to innovation?

But all is not lost. Taiwan is now a democracy, complete with free speech and liberties, and we must take the opportunity to ask ourselves some more questions. We can start with a few:

  • How has Taiwan’s collective memory of having its native languages deliberately erased by outsider governments during Japanese and KMT rule now play an obstacle in efforts to transform Taiwan into a bilingual nation?
  • How can Taiwan stop talents from going abroad when a sense of unity and allegiance to Taiwan (as opposed to the Republic of China, perceived by many as a symbol of past repression) has never been taught?
  • How can Taiwan foster generations of free-thinking, innovative youths when traditional family values encourage dependence, obedience, and closed-mindedness?
  • Should Taiwan continue to invest and support the traditional tech industry, which is focused on the replication of designs at the lower ends of the supply chain rather than creation of them?

These questions are not intended to discredit currently proposed policies but should instead be conversation starters to see how these seemingly conflicting interests and values can be integrated. And an alternative model – to abandon this pursuit for innovation and integrate with the massive Chinese market instead – would do little to help those in Taiwan think for themselves. Taiwan has successfully shown how Sinocentric values can be compatible with democracy, but it still as a long way to go in embracing values that maximize human potential.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Read Next: How Rich Is Taiwan Anyway? Analyzing the Economy Under Tsai Ing-wen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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