Lack of interest holds back Taiwan's military recruitments
All-volunteer scheme for island's military vowed by president fails to win over many young people, put off by low pay and other disincentives
In a quiet military recruitment centre in Taipei an officer tried his best to persuade a young man to enlist, saying how brave it would be to join up and defend his homeland.
After more than half an hour, the young man, appearing uninterested, said thank you and hurried away.
"He said he would think about it," said the officer, a member of a small team at the centre trying to sign up volunteers for Taiwan's military.
The officer, who asked not be named, said he and his colleagues were under pressure to recruit as many volunteers as possible. "But not many young people are interested," he said.
The officer's words highlight the frustrations Taiwan's military faces as it is tries to implement a promise made by President Ma Ying-jeou during his successful election campaign in 2008.
Ma vowed to transform the island's military by scrapping conscription and manning the army with professionals who had all chosen to serve. The reality has proved difficult and put the whole project in doubt.
Under the original plan, the conscription system would be replaced by an all-volunteer force composed of 215,000 personnel by 2015, reducing the size of the armed forces by 60,000.
Some 176,000 volunteers were to be recruited to join the existing 39,000 who had already chosen to serve in the army.
But in September, Defence Minister Yen Ming announced that the plan would be postponed to 2017, mainly because of sluggish recruitment.
According to the Defence Ministry, in the first 11 months of this year, the four big regional recruitment centres in Taiwan were only able to enlist 8,603 volunteers, far short of the 28,531 targeted for 2013.
Only 11,000 volunteers were recruited last year of the 15,000 sought. About 6,500 enlisted in 2011, about half the number wanted.
Yen admitted recruitment had not been successful, given the lacklustre incentives, including relatively low pay, long hours and the amount of time spent in the confines of military barracks.
An entry-level soldier in the military is paid about NT$30,000 (HK$7,700) a month. Though this amount is slightly higher than an entry-level monthly salary for a university graduate, most young people prefer to find an easier civilian job.
"Except for the eight hours for sleep, a soldier has to be in the barracks for the rest of the day," said college student Yang Yi-ming. "He is only paid NT$69 an hour, far less than the hourly rate he can get at a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store."
The death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu in July was another factor discouraging people from enlisting, the recruitment officer said.
Hung died of multiple organ failure after being forced by his superiors - claiming he had violated military rules by bringing in a camera-equipped mobile phone - to undergo solitary confinement and consecutive days of drill exercises at a military detention centre.
The incident prompted a protest outside the Presidential Office attended by tens of thousands of people, mainly parents concerned about their children in the military.
Lin Yu-fang, a legislator for the governing Kuomintang, questioned why the military was pushing ahead with the recruitment plan when it was obviously failing to meet targets and most of those joining up were high-school students and not university graduates.
"The army's armoured units had planned to recruit 1,077 soldiers, but only achieved four per cent of its target this year, or 41 soldiers, just enough to operate 10 cars," Lin said.
"I suggest President Ma propose holding a national referendum to let the public decide whether to have a conscription or an all-volunteer system."
The government's watchdog body, the Control Yuan, said in a report published last Tuesday that the Ma government must carefully review whether the recruitment plan still works.
While the military has called for the government to approve an additional budget of NT$50 billion a year to raise pay to attract more volunteers, the report warned that it would serve only to increase the government's financial problems.
"That amount is likely to increase rather than decrease over time, and where shall we get that kind of money?" the report said.
Su Chin-chiang, a former National Security Council adviser, said creating an all-volunteer military usually took place in times of peace.
He said Taiwan was still technically under military threat from the mainland, which has yet to renounce the use of force against the island, despite warming cross-strait relations.
Taiwan and the mainland have been rivals since the end of a civil war in 1949, but relations have improved since Ma became president and adopted a policy of engaging with Beijing.