No hope in Taiwan for future under President Ma Ying-jeou

With Taiwan's economy in doldrums for fifth year running, President Ma's approval rating is at a nadir and pessimism is running high

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 5:46am

Life was so miserable in Taiwan last year that many people have lost hope for the future, even though the island's government is forecasting economic growth of 3.8 per cent this year.

A fashion-magazine editor recently walked out of his job without even submitting his resignation, following yet another unreasonable demand from his budget-strapped boss.

"I can't do it any more, and I don't care what will happen to the magazine," the editor said. He had to do the jobs of four people every day, working until late at night without overtime pay in order to help keep the publishing company running, and had suffered two nervous breakdowns in the past week due to the stress.

The editor had originally been full of passion for his job, even though the meagre salary he received every month left him slightly more than NT$10,000 (HK$2,668) for living expenses, after deducting costs that should have been paid by the company but were not because of its limited budget.

"Blame it on the Ma Ying-jeou government, which has made our lives miserable," he said, echoing the feelings of many Taiwanese people whose lives have been wrecked by the economic woes that have struck the island in the past five years.

An opinion poll conducted by Taipei-based cable news network TVBS late last month found that 62 per cent of Taiwanese were pessimistic about the island's development this year - the second worst result since TVBS began conducting such polls in 2003. Eighty-two per cent expected price rises to be much higher this year, 75 per cent thought unemployment would become even more serious and 58 per cent expected a harder time this year than last year.

Ma's approval rating remained stuck at just 13 per cent for the fourth month in a row according to another TVBS poll late last month, with 70 per cent saying his performance was disappointing. Sixty-four per cent of those polled said they had lost confidence in the Ma administration for the remainder of its term, which will end in May of 2016.

Opinion polls conducted by other media outlets, including the pro-government China Times and United Daily in Taipei, have also shown that Taiwanese are pessimistic about the island's future and Ma's performance.

After enduring nearly five years of hard times, even staunch supporters of Ma or the Kuomintang have started to criticise him for not doing enough to ease their plight. One of the TVBS polls found that 48 per cent of respondents who identified with the KMT rated Ma a failure.

The Ma administration says Taiwan has been a victim of circumstances, blaming last year's European debt crisis for global economic woes. It also says it understands the public's misery and anxiety and will do all it can to improve conditions this year.

On December 27, citing a gradual recovery of the global economy, Taiwan's cabinet approved a Council for Economic Planning and Development forecast of 3.8 per cent growth in gross domestic product for this year, plus an unemployment rate below 4.1 per cent and a rise in the consumer price index of no more than 2 per cent. The forecasts were based on positive signs that have begun to emerge since September, including improvements in exports and industrial production.

But most other economic and research institutions on the island cut their GDP growth forecasts to below 3.5 per cent, saying that despite a gradual recovery, Europe and the United States will continue to implement austerity measures that will drag down global growth.

The Taipei-based Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute said private consumption was expected to be low in Taiwan this year due to declining disposable incomes.

Adding to people's anguish is what seems to be government insensitivity. With most people still stuck on the same salaries they were on 14 years ago and seeing little or nothing in the way of year-end bonuses, the Ma government just handed out NT$130 billion in year-end bonuses to its own employees.

And at a time when nearly 40 per cent of Taiwanese aged 65 and above are still working, mainly to support their families, people were aghast to see employees of government-controlled enterprises receive bonuses of four months' salary, even though some of those enterprises run at a loss.

That's all been fuel for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is calling for 100,000 people to express their fury in front of the Presidential Office on Sunday in an effort to force Ma to reshuffle his cabinet.

DPP spokesman Lin Chun-hsien said Ma boasted a lot about improvements in various statistics and rankings. But the average misery index, which includes the sum of unemployment and inflation rates, had stood at 6.16 during Ma's time in office since May 2008 - the worst in the history of Taiwan's presidents.

Ma must implement sensible reforms and regain public support if he wants to leave a legacy and avoid a return to power by the DPP - which ruled the island between 2000 and 2008 - when his term expires.

In his New Year's Day message, Ma pledged to reinvigorate the economy and rebuild confidence by taking steps to meet key economic challenges.

"Thank you for toughing it out," Ma said, adding that with the global economy beginning to show signs of a recovery, Taiwan had to speed up reforms.

He outlined four challenges facing Taiwan: transforming the island's industrial structure to increase competitiveness; joining a regional free-trade bloc; promoting the type of research and development that meets industry needs; and reforming the island's pension systems.

None of these challenges will be easy to meet and the government's ability to deal with them will be a litmus test of Ma's hopes of rebuilding his image and public confidence.