Thursday, September 10, 2009

Taiwan’s Katrina

Typhoon Morakot swept through Taiwan and dumped between 2,000 and 3,000 mm or 6-10 feet of rainfall in parts of Southern Taiwan over three days from Aug 7 to Aug 9, 2009. To give you some perspective, the wettest place in contiguous 48 states of U.S. is the northwest corner (of Washington State), off Pacific Ocean. Its average annual rainfall is around 2,500 mm with over 200 rainy days a year.

The resulting flood caused extensive damages and destruction in southern Taiwan from fisheries to infrastructure. Worse yet, mudslides buried some villages and numerous houses and properties. Over 700 residents lost their lives according to the latest official tally. The last major natural disaster like this on the island took place exactly 50 years ago: On Aug 7th, 1959, Typhoon Ellen brought over 1,000 mm of rainfall over three days and washed away farmlands and roadways in central and southern Taiwan, not to mention almost 2,000 lives were lost. One can’t stop wondering despite the exponential economic growth of the last 50 years, why isn't the island more prepared and why does the history get repeated?

As flood intensified and water level rose, many local and central government clearly weren’t paying much attention to the severity and required proactive actions. The lack of communications, command/control and coordination for speedy emergency response and decision makings for such a large scale disaster was evident. Once the reports of disasters started to dribble in and the TV news clips started to show up on screens, the initial reactions by some politicians were simply stupid and showed a lack of sensitivity. President’s Ma was quoted to question the Central Weather Bureau for its accuracy in forecast; Premier Liu was quoted to defend the government’s emergency response as “faster than the 921 Earthquake disaster 10 years ago”; while lower cabinet ministers, staffs, and local elected officials busily justifying their actions or therelackof. With the media, pundits and some politicians smelling blood and fanning controversies and misstatements, the initial scenes was ugly and exhausting as more and more people’s livelihood was found in peril.

A month has passed by since the political crisis was triggered by the typhoon. The latest casualty was reported on Sept 7th when Premier (or head of the Executive Yuan) Liu ZhaoXuan劉兆玄 announced the resignation of his and his cabinet, effective today. With so much negative coverage and political criticisms during last 30 days, I would not be surprised if most of them felt they had just experienced a political mudslide. The landscape on surface has simply changed overnight. The question remains is how to salvage what is left that is valuable and how to shape the future. Should one just move on business as usual and roll the dice, hoping the next humongous natural disaster will be another 50 years away? Or should one takes a good look at the fundamentals and charts a better course for the future?

The single most important comment (that unfortunately did not receive much attention) came from Shih MingDe施明德,a well-respected, spirited, independent opposition leader and activist for the last four decades in Taiwan. He pointed squarely at the unique semi-presidential government system as the biggest roadblock for democratization and appealed to President Ma to move toward to a Parliamentary system.

Taiwan’s president is granted significant power, evolved out of many decades of autocracy under Chiang’s and political calculations of KMT (Nationalist Party). Unlike the Presidential system in e.g., U.S., Taiwan’s President appoints and can remove pretty much at will the Premier, head of the executive branch who is responsible for government ministration and is responsible to the legislative branch. The "beauty" is that the President can focus more on getting elected while the Premier can become as a convenient political buffer and scapegoat.

Further, unlike the semi-presidential system of France’ fifth Republic, there is no possibility for cohabitation in Taiwan when President and legislative branch come from opposite ends of political spectrum. It was clearly demonstrated by eight years of gridlock of the government from 2000-2008 when Chen Shui-Bian 陳水扁 of DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) was elected twice as President while KMT led coalition controlled the Legislative branch. Legislative Yuan can pass as many bills as it wants and Executive Yuan can drag its feet in implementation. If necessary, President can appoint another Premier with similar ideology and the cycle continues.

Obviously I am not the first one who recognized this fundamental problem. Former Premier Zhang Jun-Xiong 張俊雄 under President Chen was quoted to have commented about the system: “A President who can nominate the Premier without consent of Parliament, is not required to be responsible for Parliament, yet has the right to dissolve Parliament, is creating a powerful President without responsibility and a powerless Premier with responsibility.” This is what just happened in Taiwan in the aftermath of the Morakot disaster.

I feel sorry for Premier Liu, a respected scientist, a former university professor and president. He is one of the few experienced and extremely capable leaders with high integrity and intellects. With a brain-dead semi-presidential system and a narcissistic president, Premier Liu did the last thing he could - resigning from his powerless Premier post with responsibility and dignity. His departure likely marks the end of the legacy of technocracy in Taiwan. If the broken Constitution and political system does not get fixed soon enough, "May God bless the people of Taiwan" - that is the last thing Premier Liu said on his press conference of resignation.

Talk to you soon!

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