Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mr. Ma and Typhoon Morakot: A Test of Leadership

Taiwan's Good-looking president Ma Ying Jeou (馬英九) has really taken a political beating from the recent damage Typhoon Morakot heaped on Taiwan. From both reading local and foreign press, the typhoon's winds and rain might have brought about a bigger wave of change in public opinion.

Taiwan-based blogger Michael Turton cites an article from the Hong Kong-based SCMP, a newspaper that has traditionally lauded Ma's performance during his presidency:

"To date, the big loser appears to be President Ma. The President, whose origins in the KMT security state and whose apparent indecision, short temper, self-centeredness, and indifference to the fate of his own people is never seen in foreign press depictions, took a beating this time so bad that even the South China Morning Post, usually a KMT cheerleader, was moved to write about it today:

"...A man, who won a promise from Mr Ma to help him locate his missing father, yesterday had to hire a bulldozer with his own money to try to see if his father had been buried by a mudslide in the eastern county of Taitung.

"Mr Lee and his mother broke through a police cordon to demand Mr Ma's help during his inspection tour of the hard-hit county on Monday....Television footage showed an embarrassed Mr Ma telling Mr Lee: 'Now you can see me', after Mr Lee said it taken a huge effort to get close to him.

"...The media also reported that Mr Ma went to a wedding when the typhoon was tipped to hit Taiwan. The media also said a local leader of Mr Ma's Kuomintang hosted a banquet in Kaohsiung on Monday evening to drum up support for the KMT election of central committee members on August 22 as Hsiaolin village was reported to have been buried by landslides.

Turton adds, "In the exchange between Ma and the local villager Ma was nastier than the SCMP indicates here. The man in question had implored Ma, saying that they had all voted for him...and that it was difficult to see him. Ma answered both sarcastically and testily: 'You're seeing me now, aren't you?'"

Ma's performance has also been likened to former vice president Lien Chan's (連戰) nonchalant attitude during the 921 earthquake in 1999 where he was chased out of the disaster area by locals disgusted with his performance. (Interestingly, many credited this incident with Lien's loss during the subsequent elections.) Unlike 921, however, Ma has been further criticized by the fact that he and his cabinet will not issue executive orders for a state of emergency. While Taiwan already has disaster preparedness planning and budget, an executive order from the president might increase foreign donations of aid. so far donations and international support have been minimal with contributions consisting of US$250,000 from the United States and about US$130,00 from Japan.

Ironically, China, who did evacuate thousands of people to safety in time while Morakot loomed, came out looking like the more concerned nation after pledging U$16 million to help Taiwan. In years past, the popularity of Wen Jiabao (溫家寶)skyrocketed, when 'Grandpa Wen' visited thousands devastated by earthquakes in Sichuan and other major disasters. Wen's caring and emotional countenance endeared him to most of the people he visited.

In the foriegn press, Reuters and AFP, news sources also traditionally sympathetic to the president, noted public dissent over Ma's performance during the typhoon. AFP noted "Tempers have flared as desperate relatives have gathered at rescue centers -- police and soldiers Wednesday had to push back people who tried to storm their way on to helicopters heading to the stricken zone" after people were convinced the government was not doing all it could. Many inside the government are accusing Ma of being "too proud" to ask for aid. The Reuter's article quoted a DPP spokesperson as saying Ma's government response has hindered Taiwan's people from recieving the benefit of Taiwan's own substantial search-and-rescue expertise.

Adding to the failure of Ma's government (in public image at least) during the typhoon, the Neihu MRT broke down again today, with allegations that reporters are now being banned from entering to report on it. The leaking and malfunctioning Neihu-Muzha MRT line is compounded with accusations against Ma over the Maokong Gondola, which had to be suspended due to safety concerns last year and smaller project disasters such as the Chiencheng Circle, whose redevelopment Ma commissioned as mayor. When the formerly thriving circle failed to attract the same numbers of customers, Ma then remarked "I can't help if people aren't interested in your products."

Perhaps the typhoon has scratched the coating of Taiwan's so-called Teflon president. Whatever the case, these winds of change have brought unprecendented opportunity for an up-close examination of Ma's performance under pressure.

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