Riding the storm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am

Last year, after Taiwan was struck by one of the many typhoons that cross the island every year, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was criticised for being too slow to visit the disaster areas. In response, he said that it was the premier's job to fight typhoons, not the president's. Ma, a Harvard Law School graduate who has served as justice minister, said that, under the constitution, the president was responsible for such things as foreign affairs and defence; handling typhoons, he added, was the responsibility of the premier.

The president, it seemed, was using a legalistic argument to say he was not bound to act when his territory was threatened. This seemed odd, especially since he had been inaugurated as Taiwan's new leader only months earlier.

Last month, when Taiwan was hit by the devastating Typhoon Morakot, this time Taiwan's leader said he accepted full responsibility. He has apologised and bowed many times.

But it is not clear that he agrees either he or his government was at fault. CNN quoted him as making a carefully hedged statement during one of his apologies, saying: 'We will try our best to do a better job in the rescue work that has been criticised for being too slow.' That was not an admission that the work was slow.

The president repeatedly refused to declare a state of emergency, saying that there was no legal requirement to do so, since the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act already gave the government enough powers to deal with the disaster. Decreeing a state of emergency would be redundant, he explained, even though the situation was very serious.

It may be true that, from a technical viewpoint, there was no need to make such a declaration. But, from a political standpoint, such a declaration would have sent the message to the people that their government was taking the situation seriously and was taking urgent action. Not to do so reflected a narrow mindset that, unfortunately, was not what was needed.

Oddly, days after the typhoon struck, Taiwan's foreign ministry sent out a memorandum to all its representative offices around the world telling them to reject all offers of aid, except monetary ones.

When asked about this, Ma insisted there had been no rejection of international assistance. He was seemingly unaware of the foreign ministry's memorandum. But, since the president is constitutionally responsible for foreign affairs, one would have expected him to be aware of key decisions made by the ministry.

One problem is that Ma seems to be politically tone deaf. He is not expressive or emotional in public and, even when apologising, appears stiff and lacking empathy. For example, while meeting a two-year-old girl who had been revived after being buried in mud, the president, instead of comforting her, complimented her for being able to hold her breath for two minutes.

While the typhoon has sorely tested the Taiwan leader and has precipitated charges of incompetence, he is fortunate in that the next presidential election is 21/2 years away. By then, his support may have recovered: no one within the Kuomintang is in a position to challenge him, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party is in disarray.

And, despite Ma's failings in responding to the typhoon, the biggest success in his 15-month presidency is the improvement he has brought to cross-strait ties. After all, relations with the mainland are of the greatest importance to Taiwan and, in this area, Ma's achievements are evident.

Taipei has signed nine agreements with Beijing, managed to win observer status within the World Health Assembly and succeeded in holding on to the 23 countries that still recognise it - no mean feat at a time of mainland China's rising influence.

So, in the absence of new disasters, it appears that the president may be able to weather his present problems and, in 2012, win a second four-year term, as long as Beijing is willing to co-operate.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator whose book, Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family, has just been reissued in paperback