'Mr Clean' is dealt one of the biggest setbacks of his career

Taiwan's Kuomintang chairman Ma Ying-jeou was dealt one of his biggest blows yesterday when prosecutors indicted him for corruption.

Dubbed 'Mr Clean', the once highly popular opposition leader was charged by prosecutors yesterday with embezzling some NT$11 million from a special government allowance during his eight years as Taipei mayor from 1998.

'He was found to have diverted half of the monthly special allowance, which was for public affairs spending, to his personal bank account in the past seven years,' Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office spokesman Chang Wen-cheng said.

The charge was viewed as particularly humiliating for the 55-year-old, who has long been known for his integrity. When the Hong Kong-born Harvard law school graduate became justice minister in 1993, his efforts to crack down on corruption and crime earned him public praise as well as political enemies. Ma has explained that his present predicament is the result of a 'problematic' system dating back to the 1950s, which allows heads of government departments to use special monthly fund allocations as a kind of subsidy for public relations outlays, including funerals and wedding parties thrown by voters and prominent citizens.

'If I am indicted, some 6,500 department heads could also be indicted because of such an unclear system,' Ma has said.

A grim-faced Ma attacked the indictment yesterday, saying that although he respected the decision of the prosecutors, he was unable to accept the charge, which 'hurts me very much especially when I am so proud of my integrity'. Until this nadir, Ma had enjoyed a relatively smooth political career, starting in the 1980s as the English secretary for then president Chiang Ching-kuo. With movie-star looks and a clean cut gentlemanly image, he had long been the media's favourite until late 2005, when he became KMT chairman.

Last year was considered a political watershed for Ma whose popularity slipped from more than 80 per cent to a low of 40-odd per cent due to public questions about his capacity to manage crises.