Marriage of Ma's eldest daughter stirs security and privacy uproar

Wedding of president's US-born daughter to a Taiwanese American drives media frenzy, while lawmakers question his identity and her loyalty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 5:33am

The low-key marriage of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's eldest daughter has caused a big stir on the island and sparked a heated debate over whether the children and close relatives of public figures have the right to protect their privacy.

The marriage of 33-year-old Lesley Ma became the centre of attention this month following media reports that she had held a wedding banquet in a plush hotel in Taipei on March 9.

Ma's office did not confirm the reports until the night of March 11, when his spokeswoman said that Lesley Ma had married former Harvard University classmate Allen Tsai Pei-jan - who was born in Taiwan but raised in the United States - in New York last year. She said the so-called wedding banquet was merely a "private gathering" of mutual friends and Harvard classmates.

The spokeswoman said Tsai worked for a financial institution in Hong Kong and that the couple lived there.

"The president is very grateful for the public concern about the marriage, but hopes that the privacy of the newly-weds can be respected," she said.

The confirmation only came after frenzied media speculation about the wedding and demands by opposition lawmakers, citing national security concerns, that the identity of Ma's son-in-law be revealed.

Indeed, Taiwan's media have done all they could to dig up details about Ma's 1.88-metre-tall son-in-law - including that Tsai is a former fashion model who now works as an assistant manager on the real estate desk of an investment bank in Hong Kong.

A photo of Tsai in his modelling days, with long hair and taut abdominal muscles, featured prominently in print and television reports.

"Who is he [Tsai] and why such secrecy?" became the biggest topic during the legislature's recent sessions, even overshadowing the heated debate over whether Taiwan should halt the construction of a nearly completed fourth nuclear power plant.

Who is he [Tsai] and why such secrecy. This whole thing is incredible and is very serious too because we have no idea at all who this man is and what nationality he holds

"This whole thing is incredible and is very serious too because we have no idea at all who this man is and what nationality he holds," Lin Shih-chia, a lawmaker from the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, said on March 11.

Party colleague Huang Wen-ling asked what the Ma government would do if "Lesley Ma was kidnapped in Hong Kong and held hostage by China to demand political talks with Taiwan leading to the submission of Taiwan's sovereignty to the mainland".

Tsai's dual nationalities - he holds US and Taiwanese passports, as well as a Hong Kong identity card - were called into question on security grounds.

Opposition legislators even questioned the military authorities for their failure to draft Tsai for mandatory military service "since he is also a Taiwan national". In response, Ma's office said Tsai had no military obligation because he was an overseas Taiwanese expatriate and lived abroad, rather than in Taiwan.

Lesley Ma was not spared either, with opposition legislators questioning her loyalty to Taiwan. Chiu Yi-ying, a legislator of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, demanded that the immigration authorities clarify whether she had used a US passport to enter and leave Taiwan.

Immigration director Hsieh Li-kung made a verbal slip-up in responding to Chiu, answering in the affirmative after mistakenly believing the question relates to Tsai and not Lesley Ma - adding to the drama.

Hsieh then had to provide proof that Ma had been using her Taiwanese passport to enter and leave the island since her father became president in 2008.

Lesley Ma was born in the US when her parents were studying and working there. She was raised in Taiwan and went to Harvard after graduating from a top high school in Taiwan in 1998. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Harvard, she studied for a master's degree in museum studies at New York University and then stayed in the US.

While there are some who urge the media to spare the young couple and respect their privacy, others say the public has the right to know every movement of any members of the first family because what they say and do could affect Taiwan's image.

When opposition legislators cried foul over the first family's attempt to keep the marriage a secret, they did have a point or two - whether the marriage would pose a security threat to Taiwan or whether there was any conflict of interests.

The marriages of former president Chen Shui-bian's children were big news at the time. Chen's son, daughter and their spouses were given a rough time by the media, especially after Chen and his wife, Wu Shu-chen, were implicated in corruption scandals.

That meant that Lesley Ma's secret wedding was bound to attract a great deal of speculation, especially when the couple chose to settle in Hong Kong, which is under the mainland's control.

They can expect further invasions of their privacy in the next three years, until Ma's term in office ends. There have already been reports of paparazzi stalking them in Hong Kong.