Amid money woes, many will vote with their wallets

Pedestrians in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 13.
Pedestrians in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 13.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Mr Chen Yi-zhong holds down two jobs - he drives a cab and organises guided tours around Taichung between trips to make a few more dollars.

Not that he likes doing it. "I don't have a choice. I barely have enough to give my wife more money to buy groceries and take my kids out for a good dinner," said the 42-year-old, who earns about NT$45,000 (S$1,900) a month, with more than a quarter going on his mortgage.

Such financial woes plague many Taiwanese, young and old alike. As the economy slows and income gaps widen, many are grasping at straws.

Game graphics designer Lai Yen-shi is looking outside Taipei for a better-paying job. The 29-year-old used to earn only NT$26,000 a month at a local gaming company. A similar job in Shanghai pays three times as much and in Singapore seven times more.

"I know that the gaming industry is not doing well here, but why is that so when it is flourishing in other countries," said Ms Lai.

These people will vote with their wallets and will most likely punish the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) at the polls today. The election comes at a time when the economy faces anaemic growth. The Taiwan Institute of Economic Research estimates that Taiwan's GDP grew 0.83 per cent last year and projects that it will expand by 1.84 per cent this year. In comparison, the Singapore economy is expected to grow 2.2 per cent.

Monthly wages have inched up only 3 per cent since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.

Coupled with that, manufacturing companies are shipping out of Taiwan and exports have dropped, causing the economy to be "in a very bad shape right at this moment", said economist Norman Yin.

Professor Yin, who teaches finance and bank management at the National Chengchi University, said the KMT's poor economic performance and lack of vision in dealing with problems have put the party in a difficult situation for the election.

Once seen as the best person to boost the economy, President Ma has bumbled along instead, introducing the unpopular capital gains tax, hiking electricity prices and doing nothing to stabilise the national pension scheme. Even his hallmark policy of forging closer ties with China has been criticised because the economic gains are reaped by big corporations and have not trickled down to the man in the street.

Political parties are making the final pitch that they are best placed to revitalise the economy.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secretary-general Joseph Wu said the economy is "the most important issue".

Indeed, in a recent survey by Taiwan's political economic magazine CommonWealth, 41 per cent of respondents saw the weak economy as the biggest threat to them. Nearly half believed that strengthening the economy is the most urgent issue.

So in the likelihood that DPP chief Tsai Ing-wen is elected president, she will have her work cut out.

Her party wants to restructure the economy by upgrading and transforming the industrial sector, encouraging businesses to innovate and reviving the local defence industry to create jobs.

Noting that Ms Tsai has so far sketched out her policy direction and eschewed details, Prof Yin said that she is taking a cautious attitude on economic issues. "If she writes a blank cheque, she will face pressure to cash it," he said.

  • Additional reporting by Brenda Wu
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Amid money woes, many will vote with their wallets'. Print Edition | Subscribe