Not a candidate, but mayor hogs limelight

Mr Ko's antics have fuelled speculation that he may be gearing up for a presidential run in 2020.
Mr Ko's antics have fuelled speculation that he may be gearing up for a presidential run in 2020.

Amid the hurly-burly of Taiwan's elections last week, one man, who was not standing for election, managed to grab the limelight from the presidential and legislative candidates on the hustings.

He is Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, popularly known as "Ko P" (short for Professor Ko), who drew media attention away from the campaign trail and made headlines almost every day.

Everywhere he went, cameras followed. They captured the moments when the 57-year-old cycled 380km from Taipei to Kaoshiung in 21 hours, stumped for candidates, and sang off-tune at election rallies.

Even his parents were not spared the media barrage and were questioned about his upbringing, after the father of three told a Kuomintang (KMT) candidate to "go to hell".

Such antics fuelled speculation among political commentators that he might be gearing up for a presidential run in 2020.

During a chat with The Straits Times last Thursday, Mr Ko likened the gossip to a parable about how Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo saw a Buddhist monk as dung while the monk saw Su as Buddha - referring to how perceptions differ based on people's biases.

"Whatever I do, if people see me in a certain light, then they will always judge me in that light. Their impressions and perceptions will never change," he said."I do what I like to do. It's up to how people interpret (those actions)."

Up close, the bespectacled mayor with the signature rumpled look - high-waisted trousers and belt-loop pouch included - was less than captivating. During the candid chat, he would at times mutter something under his breath before trailing off.

His minder sat in on the interview, worried perhaps that he might speak out of turn, as he has been criticised for at times.

Not one to mince his words, Mr Ko has slammed the island's healthcare system, calling it inefficient and profit-driven, and said President Ma Ying-jeou suffered from "brain damage" for his "one China" stance.

But those "gaffes" have endeared the former surgeon to Taipei's residents, who voted him into office in 2014. Mr Ko, who ran as an independent but was backed by the Democratic Progressive Party, beat his younger Kuomintang opponent Sean Lien by pledging to work with the two main parties and share power with the people.

Since then, his approval rating has hovered between 70 and 80 per cent, dipping only slightly to 69.3 per cent in a poll earlier this month.

Resident Chen You-cheng, a taxi driver, said: "He is a breath of fresh air, unlike the other politicians who seem so fake but don't really care... When you speak to him, you feel that he will make a difference."

Mr Ko is keen to prove his critics wrong and restore the shine to Taipei, which has been paralysed by a sluggish economy and bureaucracy. He has unveiled plans to restructure the city government and rolled out his 2050 Taipei City plan.

In an interview with ST after he was elected in 2014, Mr Ko said Singapore was a good model that Taiwan can follow, in terms of the productivity and efficiency of its public servants. He later set a goal for the capital to overtake Singapore within eight years.

But that goal has now changed. "Singapore is no longer my target... We have become very different and the gap (between both cities) is too big," he said, adding that he wanted to emulate European cities.

But there are still things to learn from Singapore, he added, like how to build and manage public housing.

In fact, a team of city officials, led by Deputy Mayor Lin Chin-rong, is in Singapore on a four-day visit from today to visit organisations such as the Housing Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"We learn what we can learn... but we don't have to copy everything," said Mr Ko.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Not a candidate, but mayor hogs limelight'. Print Edition | Subscribe