What you need to know
Tsai Ing-wen says she wants to listen to the young voices of Taiwan. Here's what they are saying.
Most people I have spoken to, as well as most news analysis I have read, agree that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost the local elections last Saturday mainly because they did not match up to expectations. It was not that the Kuomintang (KMT) did better. In fact, in none of the conversations that I have had has anyone praised the KMT for any policy proposals or suggestions.
On the other hand, many of the progressive-leaning youths I have spoken to are more concerned that, with the swing in votes to the KMT, Taiwan might be aligning too closely with China.
“If KMT wins at the next presidential election, that’s it. Taiwan will lose its sovereignty,” a young woman – let’s call her Macy – told me. “Can you imagine living under the social credit system that China has come up with? I wouldn’t be able to speak up! My score will keep going down!”
“Why do the Taiwanese vote for the KMT? Don’t they realize that if Taiwan becomes part of China, that we will rank quite lowly under the credit system?” she railed.
Macy then asked about her options.
“Are you serious about moving overseas,” I asked her. She nodded her head.
“Where should I move to? Should I migrate to Singapore?
“But then, Singapore is just as bad,” she replied to her own question.
Macy is well-versed in the human rights situation in Singapore. Also, she is aware of the political persecution I had faced in Singapore.
“But I don’t understand, don’t the Taiwanese understand that by voting for the KMT, that they are putting Taiwan’s sovereignty at risk,” another friend asked. I will call him Mark.
But Macy ventured: “Maybe many of the youths do not understand what the situation will be like under an authoritarian regime.
“In fact, among my friends, some of them do not believe that China will invade Taiwan. They believe that as long as Taiwan does not do anything to provoke China, things will be fine,” she added.
“Are they crazy,” Mark asked? “China is the one which is threatening Taiwan’s sovereignty!”
“But you are right,” I told Macy.
When I first came to Taiwan, some of the youths I spoke to told me that they would prefer Taiwan to be ruled by an authoritarian regime. They told me, look at China and Singapore, they are doing so well economically because they are authoritarian.
I have been in Taiwan for more than two years now.
“Look at Taiwan’s democracy. It is so messy. This is why Taiwan has been stagnant,” the youth had then told me.
It was perplexing, coming from an authoritarian regime in Singapore, that youths in Taiwan would want to revert back to the era of White Terror. But it is a trend in some countries where, due to worrisome social factors like increasing economic inequality, some youths are beginning to believe that democracy might not be the best form of governance.
“But this is because they have not lived through the White Terror period,” Macy said. “They have forgotten how it feels like.”
When I spoke to the youths I met when I first came to Taiwan, I had tried to enlighten them on the situation in Singapore.
“I was sued by the prime minister,” I cried out. “Is this what you want for Taiwan?”
But some Taiwanese youths have become quite disillusioned by Taiwan’s economic situation that they are willing to ignore such persecutions.
“Do you know that there are still Singaporeans who earn less than NT$22,000?” I had asked them. “In fact, it has been estimated that as many as 35 percent of Singaporeans are living in poverty.”
It always shocks them when they hear that there are still Singaporeans who earn less than the country’s minimum wage. In Taiwan, the current minimum wage is NT$22,000 (US$713) – set to rise to NT$23,100 (US$748) on Jan. 1, 2019.
The thing with having an authoritarian leader is that, if there is a leader who is good, it might work for a while. But more often than not, you get a leader who is not, and you won’t have a democratic system in place to prevent them from running the country in an adverse way.
It is a trend in some countries where, due to worrisome social factors like increasing economic inequality, some youths are beginning to believe that democracy might not be the best form of governance.
Because authoritarian regimes have a very low freedom of press, you won’t know what’s going on in the country (because it is not reported) until things start breaking down. But by then, it will be too late, I would tell the youths.
Like the MRT trains in Singapore which started breaking down regularly since 2011 due to a lack of funds spent in maintenance.
“Exactly,” Macy remarked!
“But tell me, what are your thoughts of why the Taiwanese voted the way they did, from your perspective as a foreigner,” she asked.
Well, I think that wages are too low in Taiwan, so many youths do not have the patience to understand that Taiwan is going through a democratic transition, and it would take time to change things, I said.
Jenny agreed with me. This was in a conversation with another group of friends over lunch yesterday.
“It’s true,” she said. “Many of the youths are disillusioned.”
“But on the other hand,” Jenny said, “compared to many other Asian countries, wages in Taiwan are actually not that low. In fact, most of the youths have enough to use.
“So sometimes I don’t understand why they are complaining,” she added.
Perhaps it is because when the youths graduate, they would be weighing their options – they could either work in Taiwan, or they might realize that they can earn higher paying jobs in China, I ventured. They might wonder why it is not Taiwan that pays them higher wages.
“Then they have to stop comparing!” Jenny said, exasperated.
Jenny is also a volunteer in an activist group.
But other than that, it was not too long ago when Taiwan was considered to be on par with the other Asian Tigers: Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. The Taiwanese still compare themselves with the other Tigers, especially South Korea, nostalgically today.
But I told a colleague once: “You know, Taiwan needs to face up to reality. Taiwan has fallen away from the other Asian Tigers.”
“But then, who should we compare with?” my colleague asked.
“Well, you would need to compare Taiwan with other countries with a similar level of GDP per capita, like Slovenia, Portugal, etc,” I told her.
My colleague looked at me, flabbergasted.
“But we want to compare ourselves with South Korea!” she exclaimed.
There was another colleague who agreed with me.
“Taiwan hasn’t moved up the value chain like South Korea or Japan,” she said. “Taiwan continues to be in the low-value manufacturing chain. Our companies continue to use low costs to drive their profits.”
And Taiwan is slowly becoming irrelevant, she said.
“We are not catching up,” she added.
This was what my colleagues at the lunch group said too.
One of them, “Julie,” said, “My parents set up a business many years ago. But it is very difficult to set up a business now.
“I have many friends who try to run businesses, but it’s difficult. Many of them close shop very soon.”
Jenny nodded her head as Julie spoke. “I know of people in the same situation too,” she said.
“The problem is that in Taiwan, the big businesses have monopolized the market. It is very difficult for new startups to breakthrough,” Julie said.
There was unison on this issue. Taiwan cannot keep being a low-cost manufacturing site. We need to upscale.
So what do you think needs to be done, I asked them.
“The government needs to provide incentives to allow small and medium-sized businesses to grow,” Julie said.
“Also, too much of the government’s funds to assist businesses are currently concentrated in the big businesses,” Jenny said.
“Exactly,” Julie added. “The government keeps throwing funds at the big businesses, so they keep growing, but the small and medium-sized businesses cannot grow!”
“The big businesses don’t need so much funds from the government,” Jenny added. They are already big enough.”
But it is true, I told them. In the research that I have been looking at, businesses which obtain government funds usually obtain it through their networks, which result in funds being concentrated in a few businesses. The funds seldom flow out of these networks, so you end up relying on a few businesses to grow, resulting in a lack of innovation.
Moreover, for businesses which decide to move to China to invest, because they are tapping cheap labor in the manufacturing sector, this has resulted in wages in Taiwan being depressed as well. And because of their investments in China, there is no incentive for them to upgrade the technical expertise of their workers since there is an abundance of cheap labor, which also reduces investments in workers and prevents Taiwan’s manufacturing companies from moving upstream.
Taiwan’s wages do have to grow, but I asked my friends: “What do you think of the saying that if wages were to increase, this might result in higher costs and unemployment?”
“But what we want in Taiwan is to move up the value-chain, we want to become knowledge-intensive, not continue to be labor-intensive,” Jenny said.
“And we need to enhance our technical skills to move upstream,” Mark added. “If businesses cannot adapt, then they have to ship out.”
There was unison on this issue. Taiwan cannot keep being a low-cost manufacturing site. We need to upscale.
Do you think this is something the DPP government can do?
“No, they have been too pro-big business,” Jenny said.
What can you do, she asked, when the major political parties rely on big businesses to fund their political campaigns?
“But is it possible for the political parties not to rely on the big businesses?” Mark asked.
Sure, look at Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), Jenny said. He managed to raise NT$37.4 million (US$1.21 million) on the first day he started fund raising for his campaign for the local elections that just passed.
Personally, I hope that the DPP would heed the feedback of these youths and change their direction.
To be honest, if the DPP keeps on its current path of being overly pro-big business, then it is certain that the DPP will lose at the next presidential elections anyway. There is no loss for voters to go back to the KMT, since the KMT is also pro-business.
The only way for the DPP to redeem itself is to refocus to work for the workers – for the Taiwanese.
As we got up and left, I told my friends: “When I first came to Taiwan, I got into an argument with someone I met. I told the person that the government should increase minimum wage, but he insisted that we should not rely on the government.
He said that the youths should fight for themselves. “We should join labor unions and fight for higher wages,” he said.
We argued because I thought at that time that it has to be a two-pronged approach: the labor unions should negotiate for higher wages in tandem with the government increasing minimum wage.
Then, he told me that I had given too much credit to the government to be willing to do so. But I am beginning to see his point now.
When I first came, I had thought that since Taiwan is a democratic country, it would be very easy for Taiwan to achieve a consensus on issues and develop policies to protect the workers, and to protect Taiwanese citizens. Surely, everyone would be well-informed and critically thinking to make informed decisions about policies, I thought.
I understand now that even though Taiwan is a democracy, it is a young democracy. It will thus need to go through several pitfalls as it matures into a full democracy, if you could call it that.
“Taiwan might need to take another 50 years or so in its transition,” I suggested to my friends.
Right now, as the Taiwanese learn to grapple with democracy, they want to make use of it to fight for their own personal rights and needs. But as they learn to use democracy better, they will be able to organize more effectively to advocate for change.
“In other democracies, it is perhaps not an issue to take 50 years for people to come to their own understandings of how they can better manage their democracy,” I told my friends.
But in Taiwan, you have China. And once Taiwan falters in this process mid-way, China can intervene if it sees an opportunity, and this is where the danger lies. And they have already done so, via a “fake news” campaign during the local elections.
“But why don’t the Taiwanese understand how precarious Taiwan’s situation is?” Mark asked. “Why do they still vote for the KMT?”
“But you know, wages are low and work hours are long, and when you work such long hours on low wages, you simply don’t have the time to critically appraise the situation,” I said.
They agree. This is what they think too.
In order for people to understand the issues at hand, the education system also needs to be reformed so that people would be able to critically think through the issues.
“Which is why I don’t understand why President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) did not make reforming the education system one of her top priorities. I don’t understand why she did not move on that,” I said.
Also, I understand the importance of transitional justice. I think it needs to be done too. But more importantly, Tsai should have first strengthened the labor unions to allow workers to have more power to negotiate for higher wages, no? I don’t know if she prioritized correctly.
To be honest, if the DPP keeps on its current path of being overly pro-big business, then it is certain that the DPP will lose at the next presidential elections anyway.
“So, you think that, moving forward, she should empower the unions and strengthen their expertise to perform collective bargaining?” Mark asked.
“Exactly”, I said.
“But won’t the businesses know what she’s doing and then not support her?” he asked.
“Well, she has nothing to lose now. If she doesn’t respond to the workers and the Taiwanese, she will lose anyway, so why not?” I said.
And you know what, I asked, I wished that she would set a target to increase wages. South Korea’s president was bold. He decided to set a target to increase minimum wage to 10,000 won (US$8.87) an hour by 2020 as an election promise. He was willing to take leadership on the issue, even though there is the pressure of big businesses. And I think Tsai should do it too.
Of course, Taiwan shouldn’t increase wages by 16 percent – this was what South Korea did, but it led to high unemployment and Moon faced a backlash when he moderated his objective in July.
“But Taiwan can easily do 8 percent, or 10 percent,” I said. Moreover, minimum wage has been increasing by about 5 percent over the last two years. So, it’s not that difficult.
As such, one reason why I think the DPP failed was because it was not progressive enough. It didn’t stick to its guns.
“But what is being progressive,” Mark asked. “Actually, I don’t know what being progressive means.”
“We just want higher wages, we want the government to speak up and protect our rights,” he added. “Human rights should not even be put to the referendum.”
“Yes, I don’t understand why the government allowed same-sex marriage to be put to a referendum. The Central Election Commission shouldn’t even have allowed the referendum through,” Jenny said.
“Even my 92-year-old grandma told me that we should support same-sex marriage,” she added.
As long as two people are in love and can take care of one another for the rest of their lives, this is all that matters, her grandmother said.
I suppose this is progressivism.
But in the end, Mark opined, the Taiwanese need to be able to think long-term on issues.
“We are too short-term thinking, we do not think about the long-term consequences of our decisions,” Mark said.
The others agreed.
But I reiterated: “In order for people to be able and willing to think long-term, wages need to increase, work hours need to be shortened, the education system needs to be reformed.
“So that they would have the spare capacity to think about issues,” I added.
The others said they know.
Mark added: “And the Taiwanese need to also be willing to come out and fight for change. We cannot simply wait for change to happen.”
“But in order for that to happen, work hours need to be shortened, so that they would have more time to do come out and advocate for change,” I added.
“Indeed,” Mark said. “Moreover, look at the Western European countries, work hours are short, yet they continue to be [among] the most innovative countries in the world.”
“And productive,” I added.
Macy told me: 'If DPP fails again at the next election, then Taiwan might be no more.'
Moreover, because the Nordic countries have strong labor unions to collectively bargain wages upwards, their low-income workers earn the highest wages in the world – about NT$100,000 (US$3,240) in Denmark and Norway.
“But do they still earn higher wages after tax? Isn’t tax high?” Mark asked.
“Yes. But tax is about an average of only 39 percent in Norway. And it is even lower for the low-income groups, so there is still at least about NT$60,000 (US$1,943) left.
“Plus, they have free healthcare and free education to boot. And pension is adequate for retirement,” I added.
But I think the question really is this – what do the Taiwanese really want eventually? And what do the DPP and Tsai want for Taiwan?
It cannot possibly be the same old, where the government hopes to maintain a level of GDP growth, where the goal is to keep unemployment low, and where the government invests predominantly in big businesses to grow the GDP.
As I had discussed with my friends, the Taiwanese have faced stagnant wages for the past two decades, and they are not in the mood to wait any longer. This is why they did not even wait for one term of Tsai’s presidency to be over to vent their frustrations.
“The government reported that average wages have been increasing over the last few months, I would really like to know where these increases are coming from,” Jenny asked.
“It must be from the civil servants,” Julie said.
The government has increased the minimum wage for government workers to NT$30,000 (US$972) this year.
“But do you know, there are still government workers who only earn above NT$30,000,” Mark added.
To him, NT$30,000 is still too low. But Taiwan’s minimum wage will still only be increased to NT$23,100 next year, and a third of the Taiwanese still earn less than NT$30,000.
Simply put, the Taiwanese are tired. They feel that they are losing out to the other Asian Tigers and even to China. Why do they have to go to China to work when Taiwan should provide them the opportunities?
The consensus is clear – the Taiwanese do not want the same old. They want change to be delivered.
To be fair, there are other reasons that the DPP lost and the KMT won big at this local election. For example, the suggestion was that voters in some cities like Taichung felt that DPP incumbent Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) did not take care of local issues well enough. Some thought that the KMT’s strategy of having female candidates run against the DPP worked. But undoubtedly, national issues do matter, and they show in the conversations I have had with the Taiwanese.
Of course, hardcore KMT supporters would believe that the KMT had ran a good campaign, what with the misconceptions being spread to scared voters into voting against same-sex marriage.
I did not have the chance to speak to a KMT supporter directly, so I asked a colleague if he knew what they think. He said: “Simple! They just want things to be reversed to the way things were when the KMT was in power!”
As much as I do admire Tsai for the calm stability that she has brought to her leadership, Tsai has to transcend beyond being an administrator. She has to inspire in the Taiwanese, especially the youths, hope and a willingness to change, she has to gather all their aspirations into a vision and guide them with that strength and belief. She has to let them believe that there is something to hope for in Taiwan and that the DPP can build that hope for them.
But to do so, the DPP has to be clear as well. If the DPP continues to play the old political game that has become a drag on the two-party system, I don’t see a future for the DPP at the next presidential election. And this goes for the Third Force parties as well.
Macy told me: “If DPP fails again at the next election, then Taiwan might be no more.”
It is not that all the youths support the DPP. They know that the DPP is their last line of defense against further integration with China and even being consumed by China. The DPP is the last chance for the Taiwanese to protect their sovereignty.
But the DPP needs to give the Taiwanese something to hope for, and something to trust in.
And time is running short. The DPP has only 14 months left. If they take too long to decide on their direction, and too long to start implementing the reforms that they should have started doing two years ago, then when 2020 comes, things are going to be very uncertain.
To Tsai’s credit, she has been able to consolidate Taiwan’s position on the world stage and has managed to even convince like-minded democratic countries to start coming onto Taiwan’s side to support Taiwan. But for these other countries to be convinced that their bet in Tsai is worth it, then Tsai has to make sure that the Taiwanese will have the stomach to work alongside on her planned reforms. To do so, she has to convince them that she is willing to work alongside them. It has to be a two-way street.
Perhaps the DPP just needs to keep its ear to the ground.
As I told my friends: “Actually, the Taiwanese already knows what needs to be done. They are just waiting for the government to do it.”
I suppose it is a good start then, that Tsai has acknowledged that “I’m the one that needs to change.” Honesty is a mark of character, and I do hope she won’t let the Taiwanese down again, for the sake of Taiwan.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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