Can We Pull Taiwan Out of Its Identity Crisis?

Credit: Morley J Weston
Why you need to know

Taiwan aspires to be the global innovation hub of Asia while driving globally-minded talent away with low salaries and conservative work cultures. How can current globally-minded talent battle disillusionment?

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One week after the passage of the Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals, News Director at Ketagalan Media and Founder of Taipei Love Notes William Yang and I met at a cafe to huddle over the cynicism about Taiwan that had infected both of us.

As advocates for Taiwan, we weren’t supposed to feel this way.

Island Fever

At the time, I’d hit a foggy patch in my own work with Build Great Bridges Around Taiwan (BGBAT), a community of Taiwan-affiliated thinkers and doers whom I’d convened in hopes of sharing progress and addressing challenges together to build Taiwan’s future.

I’d started the group to look into why Taiwan was stagnating on the transition to a global innovation economy and why it can’t seem to attract and retain globally-minded talent that could drive this innovation. It was especially confounding because Taiwan was able to reverse the brain drain the first time, when it built the Science Parks with a wave of incentives — it’s what brought my father and our family back to Taiwan.

The issue also struck a personal chord because throughout the eight years I’ve lived in Taiwan, my own friends had often left or thought about leaving. I liked most aspects of living here, but my own “island fever” would trigger and I’d think about leaving too, when what was missing hit me — a connection to the global and innovative, a sense of the future and of course, the lack of upward mobility that Yang had pointed out.

After Trump’s election, going back to the U.S. seemed less attractive. So if I was going to stay in Taiwan, I wanted to get down to the bottom of what kind of future we could look forward to here. There is a web of people who care about Taiwan on the island and around the world, so wouldn’t hope lie in pooling our efforts across disciplines to highlight the progress and dig into the challenges together?

Looking back, you could say that I was driven by a belief in civic empowerment. After Trump’s election, it was my one recourse to combat powerlessness – to band together to fight for the kind of society we wanted to live in, because we now knew the consequences otherwise.

Yet as I considered this question of what kind of society we wanted to live in, it became clear that Taiwan was in the middle of an identity crisis — and so was the world.

Innovation Hub, Or Not?

As Taiwan transitions toward an innovation economy, the government of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has stated its aspiration that Taiwan becomes Asia’s Silicon Valley, and has invested heftily in a project by the same name.

Yet Taiwan’s salaries have remained dismally low and company work cultures are anachronistically conservative and hierarchical, both of which actively discourage innovation. Taiwan’s brain drain has become so infamous that it was highlighted in Time magazine.

What would it take to fix this issue and why hasn’t the government done so?

An article on why Taiwan’s salaries remained low made me question the effectiveness of civic empowerment and opened the doors to cynicism for the first time.

The main culprit, the article argued, was the Central Bank of the Republic of China’s foreign exchange controls from the manufacturing era, keeping exports low-priced and employment stable. This allows uncompetitive and barely profitable businesses in mature industries – which can't pay high salaries – to stay in business, and which prevents Taiwan’s industries from upgrading.

But why would the Central Bank do this while the rest of the government talked innovation? Could it be that the government was merely paying lip service to innovation, preferring instead to keep the status quo lest they not be elected into office again during the inevitable transition and higher unemployment rates?

Even worse – has democracy kept us squabbling for votes and without the foresight and will to make tough decisions that might be unpopular in the short term but ultimately good for the economy long term? Would our political dysfunction and consequent economic stagnation make us more vulnerable vis-a-vis China?

An Inconvenient Truth

It was right in the thick of my cynicism that the foreigners’ employment act was passed. While I was happy for my foreign friends for finally getting the recognition and benefits they deserve, I didn’t think the law did much to solve the real issues that held Taiwan back from becoming a global innovation hub. Salaries and work cultures were not addressed; were there any plans to?

Taiwan is already too far behind China and Southeast Asia to be able to pay the kind of salaries typical of a scale-oriented, “winner-takes-all” innovation hub, says Ping Chu, serial entrepreneur, renowned supporter of the arts and entrepreneurial endeavors in Taiwan, and leader of Forward Taiwan, the advocacy group that succeeded in passing the foreigners’ employment act.

Once Taiwan accepts the “inconvenient truth” that it’s too late for us to become Silicon Valley, we can focus on Taiwan’s strength as the best place to live in Asia, says Chu. Taiwan attracts those who prioritize quality of life and self-actualization over net worth, which conveniently keeps greed at bay.

Chu therefore advocates for Taiwan to be branded as “your home in Asia” and to focus on quality of life businesses that take advantage of the freedoms Taiwan offers: low cost of living, safety, friendly people, clean air (it’s all relative), and universal health insurance.

This is also why Chu champions the rights of those who are already here through Forward Taiwan, rather than try to attract talent from abroad: we must cherish talent that chooses Taiwan over the glamor and wealth of other innovation hubs; these talent share our values.

A refreshing perspective. Greed and inequality are plaguing Silicon Valley; it’s a race we can’t win, and may not want to win anyway. If Taiwan were to become Silicon Valley, could we maintain the very qualities that make Taiwan special? Like the turtle and the rabbit, could Taiwan’s slower-paced livability become a beacon when other hubs burn themselves out?

Let’s also not forget Taiwan’s strength as a strong manufacturing base, Chu points out – so why not set Germany’s Mittelstand as our role model instead? I have wondered the same – Germany’s model of small and medium-sized businesses, many of them manufacturing-based and family-owned, is the strong silent type, without the glamor but also without the extremities of risk and inequality characteristic of Silicon Valley. Sounds like a better fit to me.

So as it turns out, our very aspirations to become Asia’s Silicon Valley may have led Taiwan straight into a classic inferiority complex — like a young woman idolizing models in fashion magazines, seeing the glamor but not the reality, desiring only to be what she is not, and ultimately, blinding herself to her own strengths and who she is.

What if, instead, Taiwan embraced its humane, holistic values as its greatest strengths in a world that desperately needs moral leadership?

A Brave New World

Taiwan is not alone in these questions of identity; the wider world is in the grips of its own identity crisis, as climate change and exponential technologies drive us to question capitalistic paradigms and our very role as human beings in an artificial intelligence era.

After a summer of conferences on the future of work and social innovation — the result of asking questions about globally-minded talent and problems that need solving — I’ve come away with the sense that humanity is partying inside the Titanic as it’s headed toward an iceberg, and we have limited time to turn the ship. Those who see the iceberg — be it climate scientists, technology designers, or educators — are shouting at the top of their lungs. We need all hands on deck to focus on turning that ship, because we are all, yes, in the same boat.

This is the existential moment in which we are considering Taiwan’s future. There is a silver lining here, if we have the foresight to see it that way. The pendulum is swinging back to ethics, to the humanities, to the social, to civic trust, to the things that make us human — and these happen to be Taiwan’s strengths. If we are to seek role models, why not consider fellow smaller countries like the Netherlands and Finland who share these strengths and have made their marks in social innovations?

When even the Silicon Valley is looking beyond unicorns, Taiwan may yet find its place in this brave new world.

This Is How Idealists Roll

Back in that cafe, William Yang and I hatched a plan to combat our cynicism. If we felt this way, we figured there would be others who felt this way as well. All of us who care about Taiwan need to find the hope, the essence of Taiwan, her strengths, what she stands for, how she uniquely contributes to the world, and from there, forge a new path forward.

And if we are to look to role models, we must be careful about which role models we choose.

So this is how, on one Tuesday night in November, cynicism transmuted into hope. We are currently plotting a forum for 2018 that invites everyone to reimagine Taiwan with us. Let’s resolve this identity crisis together.

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