Urinal row shows decisive leadership is no piddling matter

Case of a neglected public toilet carries lessons for repairing reputation of Ma administration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 4:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 4:03am

There's been talk much in Taipei lately about whether Ma Ying-jeou presidency is circling the drain. Perhaps it's fitting, then, to use the saga of a broken urinal as a guide for how to get his administration back on track.

The urinal in question was no ordinary receptacle, but one attached to a toilet wall at one of Taiwan's most popular and politically symbolic tourist attractions: the National Dr Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. The monument to the founder of modern China is visited by nearly eight million people each year, including tens of thousands of mainland tourists.

For more than six months, the urinal had sat idle. That is, until a tourist who used the toilet in July was apparently annoyed to find the urinal still broken when he visited the memorial again this month.

On January 3, the tourist posted online a photograph of the urinal and its out-of-order sign. The tourist said the hall's failure to handle such a small matter was emblematic of its mismanagement. The newspapers naturally picked up the story.

That is how it landed on the desk of the island's premier, Jiang Yi-huah, a Kuomintang ally of Ma's. The premier was reportedly furious. Cabinet spokeswoman Cheng Li-wen described him as "indignant".

The premier called Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai to express his displeasure and immediately demanded the urinal repaired. Jiang believed such a case illustrated inefficiency in the administration and was unacceptable, Cheng said.

Some people mocked Jiang's attention to such trivial matters, saying a man of his position should be focused on the big picture. But Jiang's spirited personal response demonstrated exactly the kind of leadership Ma has been lacking.

Ma, who replaced pro-independence Chen Shui-bian in May 2008, has been widely credited overseas for his policy of engagement towards Taipei's longtime rivals in Beijing. He has not only eased tensions stoked by his pro-independence predecessor, but greatly expanded cross-strait ties.

At home, however, his popularity has been on a steady decline, thanks to a sluggish economy, a failed attempt to remove his rival as legislative speaker and a host of other setbacks.

Many have cited Ma's perceived lack of concern with general quality of life issues as a reason why his approval rating had recently slipped to a low of 9 per cent.

"Failing to feel what the public really feels", "insensitive to what the public really needs" and other such phrases have been mentioned as potential footnotes to Ma's legacy after his second and final term ends in May 2016.

Ma is aware of the problem and has been working to change public perceptions. In light of that, Jiang's response to the broken urinal was not over-the-top. It showed how an efficient and effective administration should work.

If the urinal was left unfixed it would likely only increase the feeling Ma's government is inefficient and insensitive. Instead, the urinal was fixed.

Shortly after Jiang's phone call, the ministry said that repairs were conducted and that several officials who should have addressed the matter sooner had been disciplined.

Moreover, the ministry also said that cultural attractions, such the memorial hall, would undergo systematic maintenance beginning next year. That's how Ma's government should work, from the highest public office down to the lowest public toilets.