Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ma's Apology Tour

Far Eastern Economic Review website, August 25, 2009

As satire, the YouTube video now circulating in Taiwan may be over the top. But for many here, the real-life spectacle of Taiwan's top government officials on an "apology tour" has been almost as ridiculous.

The YouTube video, which has logged more than 144,000 views, superimposes the heads of President Ma Ying-jeou, his vice president, premier and two Cabinet ministers onto Chippendales models, dancing to the South Korean boy band tune "Sorry, Sorry."

The video mocks Taiwan's government for their repeated, ritual apologies in recent days, for what critics across the political spectrum here say was a slow and disorganized response to Typhoon Morakot—the island's deadliest storm in at least 50 years.

As of Aug. 24, the death count from the storm stood at 292, with 385 more missing and presumed dead. Most were buried alive by mudslides or swept away by torrential rivers.

Critics say President Ma's government failed its people by waiting three days to fully mobilize the military, declining to declare a state of emergency, passing the buck in the first few days after the typhoon, and showing a cold attitude toward victims.

I got an earful of such sentiments while spending a few hours last week in Cishan, a small southern Taiwan town that's become a staging area for relief efforts.

"If the government's reaction had been more quick, not so many people would have been lost," said Li Hui-ming, 36, from Minzu Village, where about 25 people were killed in a mudslide.

Displaced villagers credit Taiwan's robust civil society for filling the gap left by the government's poor job mobilizing resources. Buddhist relief organizations took the lead by rapidly opening shelters, feeding, and tending to the displaced. Money and donations streamed in from private citizens all over Taiwan.

And thousands of volunteers—including many students on summer vacation—went to affected areas to help. I met a bar owner from Tainan city, for example, who donated his Jeep to drive supplies in and out of the disaster zone.

Chang Chiung-fang, who's studying for a Masters' in psychological counseling, came from Taipei to volunteer at a Taoist temple outside Cishan that's become a shelter for typhoon refugees. "Actually, the government hasn't done a lot for these people," said Mr. Chang, 29. "This temple and civic organizations have helped them."

Nearby, Dahu Balavi, 58, a representative of the Minzu villagers, was clear about who deserved gratitude. "This temple has given us shelter and food, we thank the temple a lot—but not the government."

Why the government's lackluster performance? The question has been hashed and re-hashed in recent days here.

Preventative measures fell short. A government project is mapping out landslide-prone areas, and the emergency center had the authority to force villagers to evacuate. That didn't happen. "The government should have done better, and I hope they take this as a hard lesson," said Sue Lin, a professor in the department of environment engineering at National Cheng Kung University.

Ms. Lin urged the government to focus on better educating citizens in vulnerable areas about flooding and landslide dangers, and holding regular evacuation drills.

Another problem was organization. The typhoon response was coordinated by an ad-hoc emergency center that's led by a rotating group of Cabinet members from various ministries. That meant fractured leadership at a time when Taiwan most needed unified command.

But many here say the fundamental problem was Mr. Ma's character. His cautious, lawyer-like demeanor may make him a good administrator. But it also makes him a weak, ineffectual leader in a crisis.

"People say he tends to do everything by the book, but doesn't know how to command," said George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Culture University who supports Mr. Ma's party. "They wanted to see a quick response, and for him to show his compassion."

Mr. Ma could have taken charge of the typhoon response by declaring a national emergency and fully flexing his authority as commander-in-chief. Instead, his school-marmish insistence that disaster laws should be followed to the letter left the Cabinet in charge.

But like Mr. Ma, his Cabinet is seen here as stocked with "goodie-goodie," Confucian-style scholars who are short on communication and leadership skills.

The president added insult to injury by appearing to blame some victims themselves for not heeding warnings to evacuate landslide-prone areas. "He said we didn't listen, but the problem was they didn't tell us anything—there wasn't any warning," said Minzu Village's Mr. Li.

For Mr. Li and others, President Ma's "apology tour" has been too little, too late—a transparent attempt at political damage control long after the real damage has already been done.

Many here can't help but wonder: Given his mismanagement of the typhoon response, how would Mr. Ma perform in an even more serious crisis—say, a showdown with China?

Original site

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